Before the interview, ask to see the brand guidelines and assets then work through them. Check to see if live copy and content meets with the brand and tone of voice guidelines laid out in the documents. They won’t- if they do you can go home because you’re out of a job before it starts.
Try to get a sense of how the guidelines are used by the business beyond marketing. Are the guidelines used as a bible, a weapon or just as a coffee table book collecting dust? When you ask, don’t be a dick about it.
Make notes- how great is the disparity between guidelines and live copy? Are there multiple tones across different channels? Does the tone ever flex or is it sometimes dropped completely? Compare a live site error message with a social media post or an advert. Can you tell they’re from the same company? Remember tone is contextual – even the most upbeat and fun brands shouldn’t deliver a zany quip when sending an email about a potential fraud transaction.
Try a few writing exercises: take copy from a competitor and rewrite it in the brand’s tone of voice. Share your examples and ask if you’ve understood the brand.
Do say: consistency makes the brand stronger
Don’t say: that’s not on brand (at least not without sharing why)
Find out where ownership and governance sit. In most scaled businesses (especially those without bricks and mortar) you’ll find there is limited practical governance of the site content. Sometimes there are exceptions to this (businesses that adhere to FCA regulations for instance) but broadly speaking you’ll often find stakeholders from different parts of the business wanting to commission or even write copy for the site.
The best boss I’ve ever had taught me to stop seeing our website (and the wider business) in terms of ownership and start seeing it in terms of influence. If your role is to develop copy to briefs designed by UX, product or marketing, ask in the interview if you can have a seat at the table when those decision are being made- influence the output and be open to others influencing your work.
Once you’ve got the job, get close to brand, or whoever owns the tone of voice and house style guides, and start looking to iteratively improve copy on the site so it fits with tone and house style, as well as obvious issues like spelling and grammar. Remember these are evolving documents, not rigid laws to be printed off and kept in a drawer.
It can feel a chore to clean the stables but it will improve the site; a consistent tone and quality writing builds user trust and strengthens a brand- it can also contribute toward a lift in conversion.
When you find errors, accept that mistakes are going to happen and don’t be a dick about it when you spot one. Make maintaining quality a collective responsibility; suggest offering a small incentive for finding and fixing typos on the site.
Do say: There’s always more to be done to make the site better
Don’t say: I found a typo; heads will roll
Find out if the team are designing content first; if they’re not ask to be part of a project to trial the method. Don’t get fobbed off with jokes about bacon ipsum or pirate speak. Design and plan content with your team, from proto-content to call-to-action buttons, before you open up a Word doc. The days of X words in this box please should be dead.
You’ll hear a lot about mobile first, responsive design and COPE. Have a viewpoint, get context, ask what percentage of site traffic comes from mobile devices, how this has developed year-on-year, predictions and plans for the future. Read articles, read books, fall mildly in love with this woman and bring all these things to the table during interview.
Accept that writing for a functional site is different from editorial. When users first visit a site, they are scanning, not reading, trying to get to their goal as quickly as possible. This is why the (holy) inverted pyramid, chunking and clear headings are so important.
The further you pull a user through a journey, the more invested they’ll be and the more they’ll read your copy, but you have to get them there. If you want to write pithy one-liners, or long persuasive prose there are other forms of copywriting. If you want to move the needle, test your work and have a bank of proven results, this is the place for you.
Do say: Let’s test both ways and see what we learn
Don’t say: Can’t you hack the HTML so I can control line breaks on tablet?
There are people with the word copywriter in their job title who can’t spell or use punctuation correctly. Don’t be one of them. For the most part they produce terrible work for mediocre companies. You’re better than that, I swear.
Most bad habits can be ironed out with a few hours of study. Do just that- sit down with a basic book on grammar and punctuation and work through it. Don’t do it in Starbucks or with Mad Men on in the background; give it your undivided attention.
An editor or business leader should not be able to pick apart grammatical errors in your writing as an argument against the content. Bad work can cost you the job, but the chances are you’ll never get to the interview stage because your CV will be lining the insides of the recycle bin.
Consider receiving a letter from your lawyer or doctor with poor punctuation or a typo; even if someone else wrote it, it damages your trust in the contents and the sender. Following the guidelines in a book like this will stop that happening to your work. The downside is that you’ll see terrible writing everywhere and it’ll drive you nuts.
For sub-editors and proofreaders
To hold these titles, you really need to be faultless. You’re the last line of defense and your role is significant; a consistent tone and quality writing builds user trust and strengthens a brand.
If you’re given a test, consider context, tone and style guidelines before submitting your edits. Confirm that the interviewer can follow proofreaders’ marks. Finally, be gracious when pointing out errors; no one likes a dick.