My tips for getting hired as a UX writer
With feedback from the Dropbox team
A little intro
Back in August 2017, I was a content designer at Intuit. I wasn’t unhappy, just a little restless.
I started looking for other UX writing jobs. I ended up interviewing with a handful of companies. And in the end, I happily accepted a UX Writer position at Dropbox in San Francisco.
Here are the tips I learned along the way, as well as some feedback from the team that hired me.
The basic process
Applying for a UX writing job usually involves these steps:
- Prepare your resume and portfolio
- Find a job
- Apply for the job
- Complete a writing exercise
- Present your portfolio
- Interview with a bunch of people
And my first tip for you is this:
Plan for this entire process to take a few months. Of course, different companies have different timelines, so your mileage may vary. But the point is, don’t apply for a job and then make plans for a little vacay a few weeks later. (Or at least get some trip insurance if you do.)
My entire end-to-end process, including Dropbox and a few other companies, took about three months.
The resume is a summary of your work experience. If you’re a UX writer, though, think of it as your frontline writing sample. Make that first impression count!
Emphasize relevant information. And by relevant, I mean UX writing experience — make sure it’s front and center. If you don’t have direct UX writing experience, then highlight what UX writing lead Chris Baty calls “adjacent experience” — work that demonstrates comparable writing skills in a different field, for example, as a blogger or marketing writer. Chris adds that resumes can get rejected if they don’t show the required amount of experience.
Try to keep it to one page. If you make it short and sweet, you’re showing a love of brevity, which is an important UX writing principle.
Make it scannable. Instead of long paragraphs, list your accomplishments using short phrases and bulleted lists so readers can quickly pick up the main points.
A nice layout sets you apart. This is just a personal preference, but I like a resume that shows a little design skill. After all, a UX writer often collaborates with designers, so a clean and modern resume will be noticed. For my own resume, I created a custom version of this free Sketch template.
And for the love of words, spellcheck the thing. The Dropbox team has seen an alarming number of resumes with typos. UX writer Andrea Drugay once saw a resume that misspelled the name of the city the applicant lived in. These mistakes are huge red flags on a UX writing application!
A portfolio is a collection of your writing samples, usually viewable online.
Before last year, I didn’t have a portfolio. I had to create one from the ground up. Why was this so painful? Because I hadn’t ever bothered to archive my work.
Which meant I had to go slogging through directories and folders and wikis and Slack channels and chat transcripts looking for proof that I, did indeed, know how to do UX writing.
So my biggest tip on putting together a portfolio?
Make a habit of archiving portfolio-ready work. Create a to-do item for yourself, maybe once a month, when you gather your screenshots, word explorations, content specs, feedback from PMs, user research, final content pieces, etc. in a format that you can easily pull into a portfolio later. UX writer John Saito agrees: “Keep a record of your work, even when you’re not looking for a job. Star the things you’re proud of.” It is so much easier to archive your work when it’s still fresh in your memory, rather than looking for a needle in a content haystack months later.
Focus on UX writing samples. UX writer Nik Nordlof advises: “the best samples are UX writing samples, so prioritize those. But any sample that shows your thought process across end-to-end experiences can be helpful, like help center articles, tooltips, and emails.” Andrea advises keeping your portfolio current: “if your most recent sample is 10 years old, that’s a red flag.”
Again, a little bit of good design can be delightful. Just like a resume, a portfolio is a reflection of you as a UX writer. Make sure it’s clean, easy to read, and a little design-y.
For my portfolio, I use WordPress.com. I chose the Sketch theme because it looked most like a designer’s portfolio, masonry grid and all. But instead of tiles with graphics, I created tiles with words, using Canva.
UX writer Angela Gorden says that portfolios should be scannable, adding that when she reviews portfolios, “I make up my mind kind of fast. If a portfolio is wordy or dense, it puts you off because you have to work harder to find the good stuff.”
Check out more tips in Andrea Drugay’s article How to create a UX writing portfolio.
Finding a job
UX writing is a relatively young discipline, so there really isn’t a standard job title for it. Not every company will post a job for a “UX writer,” even if that’s what they’re looking for.
So when you search online, look for UX writing jobs under other titles. Some of these titles include UI Writer, Content Writer, Content Designer, Content Strategist, User Experience Writer, and Product Writer.
Go beyond LinkedIn. You might start your search on LinkedIn, but also check out Indeed, The Muse, the Content + UX Slack channel (request an invite), the Content Strategists Facebook group, and connect with writers in person at local meetups and conferences. In San Francisco, for example, we have the UX Writers Meetup.
Applying for a job
Okay, so you’ve identified some UX writing jobs and it’s now time to submit your application. Here are a few tips.
Apply even if you don’t have an internal referral. I didn’t know anybody at Dropbox when I applied there, and I submitted my application through their standard LinkedIn page. With no internal referral, I half expected not to hear from them at all. So you can imagine my excitement when I received an email from them the very next day!
That being said, if you have an internal referral that can actually speak to your UX writing experience, go for it. John adds that applying via a referral can sometimes help you “get a faster response from the company.” UX designer Arthur Che says it’s a “huge bonus to be referred by someone I know.” As UX writing becomes a more valued and sought-after skill, a referral can carry considerable weight.
The UX writing exercise
Almost every company I interviewed with asked me to complete an at-home writing exercise.
The writing exercise can vary depending on the company. Some will ask for you to rewrite an existing UX flow (modals, error messages, informational screens, tooltips, etc.); others might ask you to create an entire content strategy for a new feature area.
This is a timed exercise, and companies will often give you the choice of when you’d like to receive it and return it. Time it so you have the weekend to work on the exercise. This gives you larger blocks of uninterrupted time to work on it.
Follow the instructions carefully. John says there is specific intent behind the instructions. If you’re asked to provide rationale behind your content choices, make sure to include it.
The onsite interview
The onsite interview can last more than 3 hours, and may include a portfolio presentation, several 1:1 meetings with writers and other staff, and sometimes an on-the-spot writing exercise.
If you’re an introvert, push yourself out of your comfort zone a little. You’re not there to sit quietly and observe, even if that’s your go-to style. This is, in a way, a performance. Get energized beforehand — do some cardio, eat an energy bar, meditate, whatever it takes to get amped. (Air guitar optional.)
Say “no, but.” You might be asked “have you ever been in situation xyz, and how did you handle it?” If your answer is no, say “no, I’ve never encountered that situation, but if I did, I might handle it this way…” Interviewers are just as interested in your thought process as they are in your actual answer.
Express an opinion when asked, but be gentle. UX writing lead Roxy Aliaga acknowledges this is a delicate balancing act. “It’s not good to not have an opinion,” Roxy says, “but read the room to gauge how far to push it.” You are, after all, interviewing with experts. Roxy suggests that “before you voice an opinion, ask a few clarifying questions.” That way, you’re not jumping in uninformed.
Lunch is never “just lunch.” It’s common to have lunch with team members on interview day. I have been told at several companies that lunch isn’t an official part of the interview. Not quite true. Angela says that “lunch is an opportunity to see if the candidate is a good fit for the team on an interpersonal level.”
The portfolio presentation
A portfolio presentation is a live presentation of your writing portfolio to the interview team.
Get a little personal. I laughed when Roxy remembered I introduced myself with a picture of my cat! Sharing a personal bit about yourself can be a charming way to start your presentation and break the ice.
Don’t cram too much content on each slide. Chances are you’ll be presenting a Powerpoint, Keynote, or Google Slides deck projected on a large screen. Make sure each slide is easy to read. White space is your friend.
Provide enough background info. Arthur suggests, “introduce each writing sample with some info about the company and product where it comes from, and maybe a little about the intended audience. Assume the interview team knows less about your projects, not more.”
Tell a story. For example, start each sample with a brief explanation of the product/feature, follow that with the problem you were trying to solve, present some explorations, explain your decisions on final content, and conclude with user feedback and metrics. Nik adds, “What we do isn’t magic. It’s the result of a lot of trial and error.” So it’s helpful to show that process.
Show actual writing. John says, “make it clear what you actually wrote, and show a flow, not static content; for example ‘after you click this, you’ll get a message that says this.’ Explain the rationale behind your content choices in a way that’s easy to understand, without jargon.”
Review some of the hiring company’s content. That’s right — I ended my portfolio presentation by giving Dropbox feedback on their own content! (Actually, I did this for all the companies I interviewed with.)
To be completely honest, this tip got a mixed reaction from the Dropbox team.
On one hand, John says, “wow, that’s bold and risky.” Andrea adds, “if we were undecided about somebody up to that point, and then they critiqued the company’s content, it would give us more to consider about their presentation.”
On the other hand, Chris says, “it shows engagement and interest, and it can be great if you do all the required stuff first.” Nik adds, “If they do a good job, it can be a positive. And it might be a good thing for people who don’t have a lot of samples to show.” Arthur agrees, adding that presenting company content is “a big plus, it shows that you’re thoughtful about the company you’re interviewing with.”
I personally think that as long as you’re respectful and empathetic (after all, someone in the room might have actually written the content you’re reviewing), it can be a powerful way to share your feedback style.
Learn grace under pressure. Angela shared an awesome story of when she gave her own portfolio presentation at Dropbox. She described a moment when a writer made a suggestion on one of the samples she was presenting. Inside, she was thinking, “he just suggested wording that’s better than what I came up with.” But instead of crumbling, she calmly asked him a few follow-up questions, and the whole conversation turned into an impromptu writing workshop! By learning grace under pressure, you can show your openness to receiving feedback and your strength as a collaborator.
And there you have it. A multi-step journey to the job finish line.
The point is, the whole experience of getting a UX writer job is a marathon, not a sprint.
If you’re mindful of all the details along the way and show you’re engaged throughout, you’re sure to make a great connection with the hiring company.
I hope this article inspires you to navigate your UX writing journey with confidence! 💪🏼
What’s your UX writing job story? Please share in the comments!
Thanks to Fanny Luor for the wonderful illustration, and to Andrea, Angela, Anya, Arthur, Chris, John, Nik, Roxy, and the rest of the interview team at Dropbox for hiring me 😄. The UX writing group here is small but mighty, and I’m thrilled to be a member!