How to work with a writer on your new website

May 12, 2016

Website jobs can be tricky. Understandably, clients have questions like: what’s the optimal word count? How many SEO terms are acceptable these days? And writers get obsessed with juggling keywords, desperate not to sound like an over-briefed Mili-borg.

But step back from the detail. Because a good writer can help not just with the words on each page, but with the messaging across your whole site. It just takes some cracking project management.

There are so many people involved in creating a website – some planning the content, others building wireframes, others writing draft web pages – and so there are lots of places where things can fall through the cracks. For example: a writer writes a web page, and then passes it onto the designer. Then the well-meaning designer trims a few words to tweak the word count – and all of a sudden, the copy loses its clarity and character. Lots of hard work, unintentionally undone at a keystroke.

Here’s how I think everyone can work together more successfully:

  1. NEVER skimp on the planning

Which comes first? Design or content? Ah, that old chestnut. The writer often wants to see some designs first, to understand how many words to play with and how to organise them. But the designer  wants to see some words first, so they can think about how to fit everything on the page. It’s tempting to ask your writer to start scribbling, just to get the ball rolling – but if a writer starts writing before the page design or site structure is fixed, you’ll end up with a lot more drafts. And a bigger invoice.

So, start by planning the content across your whole site. Do you want just one homepage, or different homepages for different audiences? Do you need separate pages about your products and services, or just one to cover everything? And crucially: ask your writer to help you map everything out. A writer can think about how your story will flow from one page to the next, and how that might affect things like the menu headings. They can help you decide what messages appear on each page, and where these should point to.

Then, if you can, get an information architect to check that your plan makes for a sensible user journey. They’ll spot the subtle things, like whether you should reduce clicks here or add a page there.

This should give you a proper site plan, showing which messages you need on each page. You’ll be able to see whether a particular page is going to be text-heavy and complex or simple and clean. Only then can you start to explore how many different types of page, or templates, you need your designer to build – and the designer can also start to see whether you’ll need specific design elements: buttons, icons and so on.

Bear in mind: the writer hasn’t drafted a word yet. But they’ve given invaluable input into the planning stage, looking at the overall structure and the story you’re telling your reader.

  1. Review along the way…

When your designer knows how many types of page they need to design, they can create some rough templates. Once you’re happy with the rough designs, the designer can move onto the wireframes. And when these are done, your writer can really start drafting the copy.

Best of all, your writer will already have your content plan as a starting point – they’ll know exactly which messages to put on the page, and they’ll know where to signpost other content.

Once your writer has got some first drafts, your designer might like to review some of the design elements. For instance, now that the first draft copy is in place, they’ll be able to see: do we really need so many different icons? Do we need to create a new design element, perhaps to highlight certain things like bulleted lists or quotes?

I’d suggest that, at this point, you finalise the design elements, and afterwards give feedback to the writer. The writer can then use the updated designs AND your feedback to create second drafts. Of course, after this point you can do as many drafts as you like – but, by following this process, you can avoid any huge design change throwing the design out of whack, or vice versa.

  1. …And review again at the end

Once your site is up, do give your writer a bit of time to check everything and see that it flows properly. It’s one thing writing a site page by page, but it’s very different seeing it all working together – and having your writer walk around the site, making sure everything feels right as you click from one page to the next. This is a time for last tweaks and little touches that will make the user journey more comfortable.

And then you’re done. You can now launch your shiny new website, to much applause and acclaim.

I suppose I should add one final point: be realistic. The points I’ve outlined show how a project can work in an ideal world. But we all know how extra pressures like time and budget can get in the way. The main thing is that each person on the project needs to see the bigger picture – to look up from their designs and drafts, see how they fit into the wider process, and work collaboratively. It saves time, it saves money. And it makes the job a hell of a lot easier.

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