Ask Scott: Can we let engineers and other non-experts write copy if we haven’t trained them?

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Question

Hey Scott,

We often have the issue that everyone thinks they can write, and our suggestions [as UX writers] are challenged to the end. We, on the other hand, would never challenge engineering decisions.

Our question is: If you haven’t yet managed to get all of your product teams and designers to know the value of good user interface copy … or if there’s a copy need in an area your UX writers don’t know at all … can you let those teams do the copy themselves? Or should the freedom to write interface copy only be given if the team has been trained, or if guidance for the topic area has already been firmly established? If you do let them write, don’t you then feel like an editor of the supposedly good ideas of others?

Answer

I think there are a few things happening here.

I always come back to the idea that SOMEONE has to do the writing. If content professionals can do all of the writing that needs doing, they should do it. But that’s not true in most organizations.

So is the question “Should we let them?” Or is it closer to: “What do we do about the fact that non-experts need to do some of the writing?”

What you do could involve, for instance, group critiques. Or having everything pass by your desk for an editing pass. Or requiring that people doing the writing use certain templates or briefs to help structure and shape their copy. Or requiring that everyone use a content quality checklist and you use that checklist to review copy with them. And so on.

It sounds like the missing ingredients in your organization might be content ownership and content governance. Just because someone wrote the bulk of some copy doesn’t necessarily mean they should get to make final decisions about that copy. But you have to plan out who gets to make those final decisions in advance.

You can define ownership by topic, as you’ve suggested, or by channel, or some other method. But ultimately, someone has to be empowered to make a final call, and who gets to make that call is something you figure out but having a robust content strategy and content governance framework in place.

I challenge product and engineering decisions ALL THE TIME, personally. It’s healthy to challenge those decisions. And it’s healthy that I’m not the one who gets to override their decisions – the engineering and product teams are still responsible for making the final call. Conversely, I love when designers and engineers challenge my interface copy suggestions.

So let the people write! Just figure out what support they need, let them know you’re still going to need some sort of final approval, and do your best to communicate as much of this process in advance as you possibly can.