I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the spring of 1998 — my senior year in high school. I had stayed a few minutes late after my first period class, Advanced Placement English, to ask my English teacher a question about an assignment. As I was gathering my stuff and getting ready to hurry to my second period class, my teacher casually told me, “You know you’re a good writer, right?”
My English teacher was notoriously difficult. And the class was ridiculously demanding. It was the sort of class where we’d read two books at the same time (and write about both) — one we’d discuss for a few weeks in class and one we’d read on our own and discuss together for only one class (and we were expected to turn in our writing assignment for that book before that class discussion). I couldn’t tell you what class I had for second period or the structure of the rest of my senior year classes. But the stresses and demands of AP English are forever burned into my brain. To this day, that class remains to be one of the most difficult, demanding, and stressful endeavors of my life.
So when my tough as nails teacher complimented me on my writing, I was surprised. And while my teacher rarely complimented her students, her compliment was even more surprising to me given that English is my second language.
My family arrived in the US when I was 10 and knew very little English. While my 10 year old brain quickly picked up an American accent and rapidly learned how to speak English within a few months of being literally dropped in an American fifth grade classroom, my reading and writing took years (and a lot of hard work) to catch-up. The one advantage of having grown up in a small Mid-Western town without an ESL program (or an awareness of the needs of ESL kids) is that my teachers had the same expectations for me as they did for any other hard-working kid. I was expected to do the same work as everyone else and with the same caliber. And when my writing fell short, I got feedback for how to do better.
Today, I’m grateful for all the reading and writing (and feedback I received on my writing) I did in middle school, high school, college, and grad school. Because if there is one skill that I use everyday in my work, regardless if I’m conducting research or doing something else at work, it’s writing.
A few months ago, I wrote about what it takes to be a strong UX researcher. That post continues to be the most popular article I’ve written on Medium. In that post I briefly touch on the importance of communication skills. But I don’t know that I really emphasized how critical writing is to your UX research career. It’s funny because I hear UXRs at all levels talk about various skills and methods they want to learn or continue to develop in their careers. But I never hear anyone say they want to improve their writing. I wish they did because writing is so fundamental to being a good researcher and a lot of researchers are just not that good at it. I actually think it is the most overlooked UX research skill.
So much of UX research is writing — communicating what you learned, why you observed the behavior that you observed, and your thinking for how to make a product or service better. Don’t believe me? Here’s a short list of some of the work UX researchers are expected to do that has writing at its core:
- Research plans and protocols
- Diary studies
- Research reports and slides
At a lot of tech companies, your career growth will be tied to how you present yourself and your accomplishments in writing in the form of performance assessments and promotion packets. If you’re a manager, you’ll have write those same performance reviews and promotion packets not just for yourself but everyone else who reports to you. Even communicating with your colleagues (especially now that we’re all working remotely) involves a lot of writing in the form of emails and IMs.
While writing is critical to accomplishing the core tasks of your job as a UX researcher, being a good writer makes you a good storyteller. Yes, a lot of good writing involves the mechanics of piecing together a sentence in a coherent and grammatically correct way. But good writing is also about how to organize all of your thoughts into one narrative that flows and engages the reader. And that’s exactly what you’re trying to do when you’re summarizing what you learned in your research in the form of a research report or presentation.
Improving your writing isn’t easy. But if I can learn to write well in my second language, so can you. Like mastering any skill, it is going to take time, patience, and consistent effort. Here are some ways that have helped me develop my writing:
- Write! And do a lot of it. Whether it’s starting a journal for yourself or a blog online, you’ll only get better at writing if you write. It doesn’t matter what you write — you just want to get more of your thoughts down. The more practice you get communicating and organizing your thoughts outside your head, the better you’ll get at writing (and thinking).
- Take a writing class. I’m grateful for my high school AP English class and several writing classes I took in college. Writing classes are probably the most effective and efficient way to get better at writing. Not only are you doing a lot of writing in a structured environment, you’re also going to get feedback from your instructor who’s whole area of expertise is writing!
- Get feedback. I’ve written before about the importance of feedback. Have someone else (ideally someone who likes to read and/or write) read your work and give you feedback. Writing is about communicating your thoughts to other people so you really need other people to tell you if they’re following what you’re trying to say.
- Read a lot. You should read books but I find that good journalism is a bit closer to the writing we do in UX research. The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic are really good sources to find good writing. Note that I didn’t include Medium in that list. I find that a lot of the writing on Medium is pretty lousy. The nature of the platform means that most people writing on Medium are like me — amateur writers without editors making their work better. I come to Medium to get a pulse of what’s happening in the UX community.
- Use paper. I really love Medium’s interface for writing. Something about the combination of an editor that gets out of your way and really beautiful typography makes writing on Medium seem inviting to me. But I also really love paper (and in different formats) for taking notes and organizing my thoughts. Paper is flexible and can help you think about your overall plan and outline for what you want to write before you start getting into the details of your writing. Which brings me to …
- Have a plan. So much of bad writing lacks structure or a narrative. A rough outline helps you organize your thoughts, in turn making you a better writer.
- Proof read your work. Take a break from what you wrote. Go make a cup of coffee or tea and come back to your writing. Re-read it and I bet you’ll find a missing word, a misspelled word, or a grammatical error.
One last thing — there are a lot of books about writing and I’m pretty sure I’ve purchased some as part of my coursework in high school, college, and grad school. But I honestly can’t think of one that’s made a memorable impact on my writing or that I refer to today. That’s not to say that there isn’t value in these books. I just personally don’t have any to recommend.