Hey Fellow Developers, Content is Our Problem Too

Writing content is hard, having the courage to stare down and conquer a blank Word document has always escaped me  -  at least until recently. But I’ve always had great admiration for anyone who does this sort of writing on regular basis. I’ve had many flirtations with writing, creative or otherwise, in the past myself but very few in which I’ve seen any tangible or fruitful results. I’ve long given up on artfully crafting that screenplay I started nearly two decades ago at this point (watch out Matt Damon and Ben Affleck).

In my day-to-day work as a front-end developer, I’m sometimes confronted with the struggles entailed in either gathering or writing content. More often than not, it’s a struggle of waiting — waiting for finished content once I’ve already started or nearly completed work on a website. Usually when I’m confronted with this, my mind always wanders back to this tweet by web standards advocate and pioneer, Jeffrey Zeldman:

“Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.”

Sometimes I feel like I’ve become more of an expert at decorating rather than the actual work or thought of design. One would think that there’s nothing more integral to the web than the written word (I guess the typed word in this case). No design system, not even the latest greatest JavaScript framework or agile strategy, can save you if there’s no substantive content or even a roadmap to create that content from the start.

But who am I kidding? I’ll freely admit that I could be part of the problem too. I’m usually more than willing to skip ahead to the “fun” part of decoration or of learning and applying new development skills, rather than doing my part in the thoughtful work of defining and crafting messaging. From the largest paragraph to the smallest caption, to even the text on a button, these are all probably more important decisions than that of CSS animations or JS trickery.

Maybe a little strategy could help? I’ve felt like I’ve been hearing about content strategy for nearly a decade but never actually seen it practiced in real life. It always seemed like something to aspire to, but in reality it’s harder to pull off because of the constraints of time and resources. As Kristina Halvorson put it in her seminal December 2008 A List Apart article, “The Discipline of Content Strategy”:

“Stop pretending content is somebody else’s problem. Take up the torch for content strategy. Learn it. Practice it. Promote it. It’s time to make content matter.”

This is all a roundabout way to say that I can sympathize with the difficulty that anyone has when trying to generating content for a website. The struggle is real, but creating content is all of our problems, all the way from front-end to back-end. It’s high time we help to make these things easier not only for other but ourselves as well. Because the words that we all too often copy and paste between opening and closing tags matter too.

So where do we start? You might be starting from scratch or refining an existing set of content and the task seems big, because it is — no pressure though. It might be especially difficult when you’re dealing with a realm of content that is out of your of expertise or something that has to be overly technical. There’s the addition work of learning, then understanding, and applying those concepts that may seem like a foreign language to you.

Oh, then there’s the part where you have to make that writing not only appropriate for the subject matter but also engaging. If that old adage, “Nobody reads the web,” is true, well then, we better make it something worth reading. Or at the very least we should make it worth skimming, which is probably what most of us are doing, let’s be honest. My Instapaper account has becoming a graveyard full of all of those important long-form think pieces that I thought I was going to get around to reading but still haven’t. Fingers crossed, this one is among the tombstones in your Instapaper. I’m guessing not, oh well.

So where do we start? If another old adage is true then, “Write what you know,” and go from there. It’s important that your content is relevant and meaningful, but most importantly is your tone of voice, not at all jargon-y and if it needs to be technical at least make it conversational. This could be your only small window of opportunity to connect to someone looking for some more information or, God forbid, potential customers.

One of my goals this coming year is to heed my own advice and start doing some of the heavy lifting of content strategy and creation myself. Even if you are not a natural writer or even just feel uncomfortable with the thought of writing, that shouldn’t stop you from trying. Any contribution you make, no matter how small, will improve the final product whatever that might be.

Okay pep talk over; I feel better now, how about you?