Dan Brown’s Writing Tips*
* Not gonna lie: hope this title gets me a few clicks outside the UX community. (Or, as my wife says, “work it, baby.”)
I believe that for UX designers, writing is the most crucial skill. Fight me.
Graphic design, management, computer science, ethnography, library science, psychology, philosophy. From the early days of UX, we acknowledged that it is multidisciplinary. What’s more, we watch the pendulum of favor swing between specialists (you do one thing great) to generalists (you do lots of things pretty well).
That pendulum swings all over the place — the industry annually favoring different skills for Most Important to UX. This year it’s facilitation. Last year it was coding. Next year it’ll be something else again.
But I keep coming back to writing. If you can write well, you’re tackling a lot of the key issues facing UX designers: explaining, demonstrating, structuring, narrating, and even observing and recording.
UX designers write because:
- You need to explain complicated ideas (to get buy-in or simply to try to understand them better)
- You need to create design facilitation tools (like a user research script, a sketching scenario, a workshop outline, or a usability test)
- You need to insert content into design concepts
So, how do you get better? All I can tell you is what I do, and maybe these things will work for you.
Write every day
Actually, you do write every day: slack messages and email count as writing, even with all the emoji. The habit I’m talking about, however, is writing without an agenda. Unfortunately, this is a difficult habit to maintain, but sites like 750words.com can track your streaks (like Fitbit for words). So you don’t have to sweat the Writing (with a capital W), and instead just exercise getting words on the page.
Read great stuff
Hands-down the best writing I do happens when I’m also reading great stuff. If my New Yorker magazines are not merely accumulating in a “pile of shame,” they’re modeling great writing.
Show people your stuff. Ask them if it makes sense. Just like you’d do for a screen design or any other design artifact. I like getting input from my business partner, for example, on complicated or controversial email messages.
Approach writing as a design exercise
Think about your audience. Consider what actions you want them to take based on your writing. Imagine the experience of reading what you wrote. Imagine them wandering through your prose. Can they find what you want them to find? Do they get what they need to get?
Keep your thesaurus open
I use the macOS thesaurus all the time. Frequently. Regularly. Habitually. Oft (archaic). I don’t always use synonyms: sometimes good technical writing requires repeating an important technical term— I don’t sweat it too much. A thesaurus to writers is like a palette of complementary colors to visual designers. It’s a tool for helping me understand the range and reach of language.
Take the time to write
When I asked what people needed, few responded. Those who did said they needed “time”. I hate to sound like your dad, but time is something you take, not something you’re given. Better to spend an extra ten minutes crafting that email, then get called into the boss’s office to explain yourself for 30.
Subject your writing to one editorial algorithm at a time
Beyond getting the words on the page, getting them right is another matter. I believe this is called editing. For writing, I go over the words using different algorithms, little rules that help me focus on one refinement at a time. Start with this one: I’m going to see if the writing is better without any adverbs. Here are a few others:
- I’m going to refactor sentences to use as few words as possible
- I’m going to make sure all the tenses align
- I’m going to make sure this uses words that make sense to my reader
Find your writing kryptonite
One of the editors on my last book pointed out a few of my bad habits. Now I chase these down with a vigilance that would make Batman jealous. One of those habits is, surprise, irrelevant comparisons. My brain likes to set up ideas that are familiar as a contrast to new ideas. This is a helpful construction in some instances. Just not every instance. One habit I’ve noticed in colleagues is the use of “hedge words,” phrasings that diminish the confidence or authority of what’s being said.
Everyone writes because they have to. You have to create a report or explain what happened in that one meeting. You have to add some copy to this screen or write instructions for a design workshop. Those are writing assignments.
You can have reason for writing.
That same book editor helped me understand why I write, and it’s changed how I approach it, how I think about it.
Maybe you write because you like how stories are told, regardless of their size or topic. Maybe you write because you love explaining ideas. Maybe you write because that’s where you can use your real voice. These are motivations that transcend individual writing assignments.
You don’t have to tell me why you write. Figure it out, and write about it.
Dan works at EightShapes, a boutique UX design firm he co-founded with Nathan Curtis. Dan focuses on product definition, challenging information architecture, and discovery projects.