Write early, iterate often.

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When do you start writing for a project? If you asked me a few years ago, my answer would’ve been “Whenever someone asks me to.” More often than not, the first time I heard about a project was when someone came to me with a 99% completed design and asked me to write something for it — “Oh, we need a paragraph about our features that fits in this space right here. Hit these bullet points. Thanks!”

This will probably be a familiar scenario for lots of copywriters — copy can be generated quickly and iterates extremely fast, so it tends to get pushed to the end of the process. Countless pieces of web copy begin life as lorem ipsums or vague blobby shapes labelled “Feature list goes here.”

In my opinion, this is the absolute worst way to create copy. Rather than use the speediness of copy as a reason to delay it, we should use it as an opportunity to get started early.

The consequences of late copy

It’s easy to imagine what happens when you leave design until the end. UX goes out the window; pages become aimless and repetitive; navigation elements get shuffled around; the site feels like a collection of random pages instead of a unified whole.

So what happens when you delay your content? The exact same stuff!

Copy can be made quite quickly, but the results are usually about as good as an initial wireframe — it might capture the general idea, but it’ll probably be unrefined, incomplete, and based on half-correct assumptions. And it will be that much harder to integrate into the finished product.

icepick

Sleek. Understated. The pinnacle of ice pick technology.

Let’s say you’re building a page for a hypothetical product: the IceMax Pro, a state-of-the-art ice pick designed for the specialist ice carver market.
You start by designing the page — an attractive picture up here, a paragraph of intro text below it, a list of features and key info below that, and an order form down the side of the page. Now you go and bring in the content.

Uh oh. While the IceMax Pro is a great product, it really only does one thing: pick ice. The features list isn’t an issue — after all, it has a rubidium-carbide tip, ergonomic grip, and other goodies — but that intro paragraph winds up being only two sentences long. It looks tiny and weird compared to the image, and the page is shorter than you expected. Now that form is incongruously huge.

So you make that intro paragraph longer, padding it out with some platitudes, or maybe repeating some info that you also cover in the feature list. Maybe you add some more flavorful copy for storytelling purposes.

Did you need that extra copy? Is it relevant to users? Not really, but the page would look off without it. So in it goes. Now you’ve diluted the page — the really important copy, the stuff you want people to read, is bracketed by fluff that nobody actually wanted to put there.

On to the feature list — one of the bullet points is significantly larger than the others. Maybe it makes sense to break it out into its own element, if it’s that important? Well, that messes with your form placement. Cut it down, make it fit — losing potentially important stuff in the process.

None of this is a big deal in and of itself. But spread out across the entirety of a site, it has an impact. When you make the next product page, all the same questions play out again with different results — keeping the pages feeling consistent becomes a herculean task.

Content and page elements get tragically cut, needlessly blown out, and shuffled around in a last-ditch effort to meet deadlines. What could’ve been tight, focused pages where design and content live in harmony turn into sprawling messes that only get worse as things get added down the line.

Write, iterate, react, repeat

smilesBringing content in early gives you more time to tailor content to the layout. Even more importantly, it helps guide the design in a direction that fits the content. Form follows function — and on the web, conveying content is a big part of that function.

I try to start each writing project by getting a feel for how much of the form is already known. Is it a sell sheet? Is it a one-off page? What’s it doing? Who’s it for? Do we have image resources? Will we need to expand the page two months from now? Are people coming to this page with no knowledge of the product, or is it going to be mainly for people coming from elsewhere in the site? What portion of the audience is on mobile or tablets?

Ideally, all this happens during the wireframe stage. I give the content an initial run-up based on this early form, then bounce it off some other people — is there anything that got left out? I compare it to existing content — is anything redundant? We plug this rough content into the early wireframe — does it look excessively verbose once it’s styled? Do we need to re-evaluate what info we’re including? Does the design adequately accommodate the content?

You can go back and forth like this dozens of times, bringing the content and the design closer together with each revision. When the site/page/whatever gets past the wireframe stage, the content should be nearly done — those shifts and bumps and juggles happen sooner rather than later, and they inform the design rather than disrupting it.

Only you can prevent content fires

Bringing content into the design and strategy process is a relatively young concept. Writers tend not to think of themselves as designers (or at least I don’t), so there’s been little drive for us to force ourselves into that particular arena. It’s also easy to slap a lorem ipsum down and worry about the actual work of content creation at a later date.

If you’re a copywriter, get your voice into the conversation. A few years back, Eric Karjuluoto of smashLAB made the case for designers writing, and I see no reason why the inverse shouldn’t also be true — if designers must write, then writers must design. You’ve got valuable insights to contribute to the design process, and designers have plenty to contribute to your writing process.

If you’re a designer, don’t overlook your content creators as a resource — they have a more granular view than the more conceptual stakeholders, who may be thinking in terms of talking points rather than word count. If you’re frustrated with getting feedback in the form of lofty creative adjectives, hit up your writers — they can help bring things back into the realm of specifics.

Hey, we’re all in this together — right?

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