Have you accepted copy docs as your personal lord and savior? Documentation for the disorganized content strategist

Sarah M. Smart
Mar 27, 2018 · 4 min read

Hi, my name is Sarah, and I’m addicted to copy docs. Not sure why I resisted becoming a believer until, like, a month ago, but better late than never.

What’s a copy doc? Let me just point you to Andrea Drugay’s life-changing article for Dropbox Design. That has all the info you need to get started, and it contains an endlessly flexible template that you can adapt to your process and your business as you get more comfortable. This article you’re reading right now is just gonna be me blabbing about how much I love delivering things in copy docs and how it has made me more organized and concretely useful to project teams.

What I used to do

What I used to do is have basically no organization system at all. Girl, you can’t even get me to use folders. I was delivering my shit via Slack (love you guys but your search functionality is trash), email, a slide deck, or directly in random Sketch files that would never again see the light of day.

The slide deck approach. What is going on here?

It took a lot of time to draw those arrows, my dude. Sometimes I’d even put boxes around individual pieces of content to make the thing more legible. And it necessarily resulted in a content-last approach because it depended on visuals. Versioning was kind of a pain, in that I had to recreate all of these decks with different names and no easy way to compare changes. Designers wishing to leave comments didn’t have an easy time of it, either, and I sense there was some resistance to copying and pasting from a deck into actual designs. And I rarely remembered what I already tried and why it didn’t work.

Anyway, copy docs are different.

What I do today

Every time I deliver a copy doc, I feel like a walking commercial for The Container Store.

My copy docs are in Dropbox Paper, but any ol’ word-processing document or perhaps even spreadsheet will work. I start with context, where I lay out what the project is and why it’s happening, the target users, the goals, and any tech limitations (important!).

Then I move on to the designs and the copy. When designs don’t exist yet, you can get straight to the tables with the copy in them, making this method work better for content-first approaches and making the output of theoretical thinking digestible and concrete. Sometimes I pair the wires with said tables, so people can see the 1:1 correlation. Other times it makes more sense to put all the wires in one place and the copy in another.

I know tables call to mind numbers! and math! boo! hiss! but once you fill them with words, that sense of foreboding tends to lessen. I make a new table for each use case, and then I put a column for the type of content (header, CTA, progress bar, etc.) followed by columns for explorations and for final strings. I frequently do my explorations in whatever note-taking thing happens to be open at the time (usually Outlook and I am not sorry) and copy them over later. N.B. I usually share the link to the document with stakeholders at this point so they can opine about their favorite explorations, but that may or may not be appropriate for you.

Comments are where the magic happens. For each exploration, I add a little note with my content rationale, any design considerations that might be required, queries to design and product, and so forth. When the team chooses the finals, I add a little note explaining why we went in that direction. We can converse in the comments and not lose that history. It’s so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes.

The comments of a copy doc can also contain notes on style and standards.

The rest of my doc usually has a list of team members and a little section noting who approved the final strings, but the content tables and the comments are most important to me. If you iterate a lot, you might have success separating sections by date, revision rounds, or something else. Tables are easier than slideshows to copy and make only the necessary changes to.

How it makes me feel

Gosh, there’s just something about a spreadsheet that makes me feel like I’m doing real work. It’s a quantifiable output of the thought processes content strategists go through, and it impresses people! Once you see your own thinking laid out before you, you can start to really crystallize your thinking, your methods, and your rationale. You’re likelier to spot something you messed up or something you’re missing with this format, improving the quality of your deliverables.

Designers love copy docs because they don’t have to ask what I was thinking with that bonkers exploration, and leaders love copy docs because they can quickly see how we ended up where we did and relay“ that info to inquiring minds (a response to the dreaded “Why did you say that?”). Other content strategists love it because, well, it works—and it makes a great baseline for some of that higher-level thinking we do, such as frameworks and modeling. Which we’ll talk about next time!

Do you love copy docs, too? Or do you prefer other delivery methods? I want to see how you work! Show me yours and I’ll show you (more of) mine!

Sarah M. Smart

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world's oldest millennial | content strategy at Adobe | all opinions and curse words my own