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Lessons on UX Writing From an MFA

I just completed my first semester for a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.

A friend asked me if I was enrolled because I thought it would help me in my job as a UX Writer, and my honest answer was no. I enrolled because I love writing and wanted to be in a peer setting where accountability and practice would keep me active.

So far, it's been super helpful and enriching for my private writing. To my surprise, a few key takeaways can also be applied to UX writing.

The Rule of First Drafts

First drafts suck. Not sometimes, not with new writers: always.

The screensaver on my work laptop says You can't edit a blank page. It's a freeing concept. I was a garbage UX writer when I first started out, and one of the reasons was because I wanted to get it perfect right away (spoiler: I didn't get it perfect, ever). But if you don't write out the first ideas that pop into your head, you'll never clear enough space to get to the good stuff.

When I write UX copy in front of designers and PMs, I always add a caveat: "Let me just take out the garbage first." I have to get the basic information down. I can polish it later if that's all I need. Or, if I see that it doesn't fit with the rest of the flow, I can write out a list of what we actual need to communicate and try again.

Doesn't matter if we're talking about a novel manuscript or copy for a button. You probably won't get it right the first time. Be okay with that so you can get it right later.

The Rule of Second Eyes

My MFA requires me to share a new piece of writing every week for peer review. In some pieces, I was proud to share; I felt like I'd crafted something worth reading. Other times, I dreaded reading comments left by my professors and peers.

Feedback makes you a better writer. Criticism isn't always easy to take, but it's easier when it's given in a constructive way.

It's also easier when there's mutual vulnerability. I can't expect designers to be open to feedback when I'm not open to their own.

The Rule of Simplicity

Another reason I was a horrible UX writer when I started out: I wanted my writing to get attention. I wanted my users and PM and editors to read what I wrote and go, "Oh, beautiful."

I've since learned that UX writing doesn't work like that. Interface copy should guide the user and call attention to the information and actions they need; if readers are noticing your copy, you're doing it wrong.

But creative writing actually shares more of this rule than expected. Yes, a poem or short story should have cadence and flow; the words can be lyrical. But if the first goal isn't meaning, it's fluff. No one wants to read something that sounds beautiful but means nothing.

The Rule of Consumption

You can't be a good writer if you're not a good reader.

I already read everything I can get my hands on, but my MFA is teaching me how to read with an eye for learning. Why do I love certain books? Why do these authors speak to me? What works and what doesn't, and how can I apply that to my own writing?

Same for UX writing. Once you get into UX, it's hard to open an app or website without judging their flow. And it's easy to say what you like or don't.

But beware the pitfall of open acceptance: just because something works for one author or website doesn't mean it will work for you. People love to say "Facebook uses this CTA, so we should too" or "Spotify always uses this term."Or, in books, "This author doesn't use punctuation and it gives the voice a real flow." Okay, great. But is the context the same? Does what you're trying to accomplish match up with their decisions?

Be critical. This doesn't mean judgemental; it just means questioning your own visceral reactions, and picking out what can be applied to your own cases.

There's nothing new under the sun. And that's okay. Inspiration can come from all places, it just shouldn't be applied without careful consideration.

A Final Note

Do you need a BA or MFA in writing to be a UX Writer? Absolutely not.

I know writers who studied psychology, tech, and international relations. Some have certifications in UX or editing. That's all great, and I'm grateful that my degree is already adding value to my work life. But one path isn't the right one for everyone; UX Writers don't all go through the same career path, especially since there's never been a kid in history who's dreamed of becoming a UX Writer when they grow up. And that's okay. Just keep learning, and fill the gaps where you can grow.


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