Content designer/strategist Relly Annett-Baker talks about RWD challenges, getting the better of writer’s block – and the terrible lives of playwrights
Who are you and what do you do?
RAB: I’m Relly, 32, married to Paul, with two boys: Toby (7) and Casper (4). They’ll be super happy to see their names in a magazine! I am a consultant content strategist, working for the Ministry of Justice. Previously I’ve done work with CERN, Government Digital Service, Headscape, Mark Boulton Design and Clearleft. Oh, and I have blue hair, which is a pretty good identifier.
When did you discover your love for words?
RAB: I learned to read aged 2.5 and pretty much never stopped. I spent my formative years being a sponge for words, nuances, tone and voice. I would write lists of words and rank them. My senior school library had a printed copy of the condensed OED and I used to sneak in at break time to read it. I was a word nerd.
At about 14, I realised I could put words together in a pretty good order too. My mother must have cottoned on because she started talking to me about how the life of a playwright was terrible, akin to Withnail and I, and wouldn’t I like a lovely job as a journalist or a teacher?
What’s the mark of good web writing?
RAB: For me, there are irrefutable measurements. Does it meet the user need, stylistic demands and business goal for that content? Imagine a gift site selling bunny ears and the accompanying product description: the user need is to access important information about the product alongside the ability to buy quickly. With a business goal to maximise value for money, it needs a message pushing sales and possible multi-language translation for expansion into Europe. There’s a stylistic need for humour and quirky references.
That’s never going to be as simple as ‘write a short punchy description’. I can identify three conflicting issues; that’s before I’ve sat down with the client and asked to see their workflow or CMS.
Writer’s block. Is it real, do you suffer from it and – if you do – what’s the best cure?
RAB: Yes, usually caused by staring at a blank page. I try to make sure I’m never doing that. I grab a 99p reporter’s pad, and my trusty Muji 0.5 fineliner and I’ll outline. I work out a piece’s structures and requirements. I look at the personas and customer journeys, and create scenarios in which they would access the content. I define the message, method and call to action until a spark of inspiration hits. Then I write the first sentence, try to keep going and ignore the fact that I’ve clearly lost the ability to write. I take comfort in the words of the great David Ogilvy: “I am a lousy copywriter, but I am a good editor”.
How, as a content strategist, does the word ‘content’ make you feel?
RAB: Content. The great amorphous blob that looms over our web projects. When we talk about ‘content’ in the singular, we do our clients a disservice: we suggest it’s something that needs to be birthed as a discrete entity, all at once. There’s no such thing as content once past the ‘broad strokes’ planning stage. There is only ‘contents’: with sections, headings, startpoints and endpoints. This can be broken down into granular chunks and rebuilt in different ways for reuse. It can be written contents, audio contents, video contents, data contents, and many more blends. Content shouldn’t be a finishing layer put on with a trowel, allowed to seep and fill the site’s empty boxes.
What challenges does RWD pose for writers?
RAB: We have to design content for multi-platform, multi-use, which means building structure into our creations. For example, writing the same description in a few different lengths so they can be pulled from the database to display on a device.
It’s much easier to do that work at the time of creation rather than retrofitting contents. A lot of CMSes are not set up for this either, so writers need to accept that work has to happen outside of the WYSIWYG environment. We need our own writing environment that works for collaborative content creation for the web. Let CMSes be for managing contents assets. It’s what they do best. We now accept tablets and phones are part of our web landscape, but the next hot things are a one-inch smartwatch and a 50-inch smart TV. Serving up the desktop site and expecting people to pinch-zoom their way about just isn’t going to cut it. Assuming we know what devices will stick around is an impossible task too; just Google the phrase ‘the iPhone will fail’.