Cuddle the Muddle: Paths into UX Content

A version of this essay originally appeared in Issue 039 of my UX Writing Events newsletter.

As you might imagine, the most common question that lands in my various inboxes is this: How do I get started in UX Writing? There’s a passable answer in my UX Content FAQ, but I have more to say, and I’ve started examining the question more closely for a video I’m working on. 

Part of the trick of answering this question well is understanding which flavor of the question the person asking it is really asking. I’ve sketched out a few of the most common flavors below along with the direction my answer tends to take.

How do I get my first official job as a UX writer, with UX writer on my business card?

Ultimately, only you can answer this. When or if you get there, please share your story. The more answers we have from more people, the easier it will be for everyone else to find an answer that will work for them.

Everyone’s path is different, and every organization is different. You may find health and happiness doing this kind of work with the job title of Information Architect or Business Analyst III or Technical Writing Specialist. The job titles really aren’t that important, or at least aren’t even half as important as people make them seem. The whole point of portfolios and interview processes is to learn who’s capable of doing the work. If someone is only looking at job titles on your resume, that’s their mistake, not yours. 

Don’t get hung up on the title. Focus on doing the kind of work you want to do. You might be able to do that work where you already are!

How do I put myself on the path toward working as a writer on a design team?

This is a much better way to frame the question. Good news: If you’re asking this question, you’re already on the path! 

The way to move along this path is the way you move along any path: start walking or rolling and keep walking or rolling. Along the way, you’ll have false starts, you’ll need to double back, you’ll get stuck in brambles. That’s all part of it. If you put all of your energy into planning the ultimate, most linear, best-optimized path to “become” a UX writer, you won’t have any energy left for walking that path. Stop looking for the secret and start walking. As any hiker knows, you don’t find shortcuts standing at the trailhead.

My own path? Weird and winding. It involved lots of things that didn’t have anything to do with technology or apps, let alone design or UX writing. And for me, being a writer on a design team has been only one scenic lookout on this long hike of life. I revisit it from time to time, but it’s not the goal. Reaching it opened other paths to other lookouts and vistas and trails. 

All of that said, one specific piece of advice I have is hidden in the second half of the question: ‘on a design team’. DESIGN team. Being a UX writer means being a writer that supports a design team – more than likely, a user-centered design team under a product or UX umbrella, maybe even working in a formal or informal agile software development environment. If you’re a brand-new UX baby, there is a LOT to learn about UX design in general, and any-and-all UX things that you can absorb will be useful to you. You’ll use all of it, eventually.

I’m a freelance copywriter, how can I start landing freelance UX writing projects?

Like a lot of other things about UX writing, doing freelance UX writing work is more akin to doing freelance UX design work, which is to say, it’s more about projects than one-off tasks. If there’s not already a UX designer leading the project that you’ll be working with, you, as the writer, are going to be leading a UX design project. Are you ready for that? This is a very different experience than getting a marketing brief and writing 500 words to suit.

So! You’ll have to look and think very carefully about your skillset, and the kinds of projects and engagements you want, and how you plan to collaborate with the client. You may need to do a lot of UX skill-building to truly add UX writing to your list of services.

Which six-week bootcamp or course should I take that will guarantee me a six-figure income?

I think courses and workshops and conferences and bootcamps can be a great way to learn. I’ve paid for many of them out of pocket, and happily volunteered my time for many others. But never, not once, did I go into any course or workshop thinking that upon completion I would be owed some sort of personal result in my life. It just doesn’t work that way. No one licenses designers or UX writers, and certifications carry as much weight as you and your potential employer think they do, which could be a lot or none at all. 

Honestly, I can’t help but feel a bit annoyed when someone pops into my mentions asking “How can I hack my way into doing what you do but without working so hard for it?” There’s a hack, alright, and I’m talking to him (it’s always a him). 

If you’re still struggling with your own version of these questions, I hope I can be a resource to you. Or at least reassure you that it’s okay to struggle. This is all a muddle. Cuddle the muddle! It’s not EASY to build a complex set of interrelated and esoteric skills in an ever-evolving landscape of people and technology and business. It would be weird if it were easy. So sometimes, oftentimes, it’s hard. And that’s okay.

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