How we write copy for humans

Published by:
Rich Marr
June 21, 2018
min read

Originally posted on Medium, 26 April, 2018

At Applied we believe applying for jobs is miserable enough and that language can help. Copy has been my responsibility so far, but as we grow our team it’s becoming very clear that I’m a huge bottleneck. This is my attempt to shirk… I mean… document my process so that other team members can get things done without having to wait for me. Chances are this checklist will probably do a better job than I ever did. Hopefully it’s useful for you too.

One of our core principles at Applied is that people who apply for jobs through our site are worthy of our respect and our time. Applying for jobs is mentally and emotionally exhausting, so we want to make it as painless and as engaging as possible. Language is one of the key ways we accomplish that.

My colleague Hew Ingram reads a lot of “books” and said we wanted to “help avert a bureaucratic Kafkaesque dystopia”. I told him to shut up.

I often end up being the one who writes app copy, which is great, I enjoy writing, but recently I’ve found myself being a bottleneck to getting changes live. I get busy, so people are waiting and things slow down.

For some reason my team seem to think of me as some kind of textual Liberace ready to fly over the app sprinkling it with magic verbal stardust.

This is not true; I am different to Liberace in almost several ways.

This is the outfit I like to wear while writing web copy.

In reality, I don’t think I have any innate talent for writing. All I’ve done is figured out which brick walls make my head sore… and which pot-holes would splash muddy water on my spangly jumpsuit.

I write the same crap as everyone else, I just edit.

Inspired by Mr Rogers’ wonderfully systematic approach to Freddish I’ve decided to think through and share my (formerly undocumented) process for writing in the Applied voice.

So here you go.

  1. Write the idea you wish to express. If this is on-site copy, put yourself in the shoes of the user at the relevant moment and think about what they need (or ask them). It’s okay to use grown-up words but don’t show off.
    Example: “All done. Once the whole team has finished scoring these applications they’ll go back to the hiring manager to decide who to bring in for interview.”
  2. Rephrase to make it shorter without losing clarity… maybe by as much as 50%, but it depends on context. The example then becomes: “All done. Once everyone has finished scoring the hiring manager will decide who to interview.”
  3. If appropriate, rephrase to avoid overstating certainty. If the evidence is tepid we shouldn’t present it as fact. This particular example doesn’t hit this filter, but broadly speaking as the evidence gets weaker we should transition down a scale from stating a fact to “evidence shows” to “some studies show”, or by using works like “may”.
  4. If appropriate, rephrase to clarify the value the user is adding by performing their current task. Example: “All done. You have just helped inform better decisions on hiring and created great feedback for people applying.”
  5. If appropriate, rephrase to consider whether the user needs thanking, or motivating, in relation to their current task. Example: “Thank you! You have just helped inform better decisions on hiring and created great feedback for people applying.”
  6. Rephrase whilst channeling Sue Perkins from Bake Off to be encouraging and informal, ideally adding a reference to baked goods… and use contractions to reduce length and formality. Example: “Thank you! You deserve a nice cup of tea, and maybe a biscuit. You’ve just helped inform better decisions on hiring and created great feedback for people applying.”

That’s kinda it.

The finished copy in situ

It doesn’t seem like much, and yes, it feels a bit ridiculous, but going through steps like these will have the following effects:

  • It’ll increase the proportion of your copy that people actually read, which is sort of the point of writing it.
  • People will be more inclined to like you if your writing doesn’t resemble the instruction manual for a washing machine.
  • Maybe, just maybe, you might sometimes make someone smile.

Happy writing.