Copy tips designers love

Antique-penOr, how a good writer can save time for the design team

A good copywriter is the lyricist to the designer’s visual “music,” but things can quickly get out of tune when writers commit common mistakes—most of which are easily avoided. This is a secret of the writer’s art that most designers understand better than many writers.

Things were less of an issue before computers came along. So long as the writer had legible handwriting or was competent with a typewriter, the opportunities to create mayhem for the design team were fairly limited. As progress marched on, however, both arts became dominated by software, where what’s below the surface can easily interfere with what you ultimately want to see on the printed page or the screen.

The difference between a writer who plays well with designers and one who does not largely depends on how well the former understands the latter’s workflow. So here, in no particular order, is a quick list of stuff any wordsmith can do to save his design counterparts a great deal of time and frustration:

  • Talk to the design team as early as possible. This is especially important if you’re working on a tight deadline, which is much of the time. It’s critical if the timing is so short that the design team is building the visual pieces at the same time the writer is creating the copy. If the writer is doing footnotes and sidebars for a page that’s intended to be viewed on smartphones, you’ll probably have some editing to do. Will the designers want text that will appear in pull quotes? Frequent headlines? Images or infographics with captions? Share as much information as possible up front.
  • Who’s on first? Does the copy need to fit an existing design or template, or will the design be shaped by the copy? How much wiggle room does the workflow permit if someone has an out-of-the-box idea? Your mileage may vary, but I find that the most effective process is for the design team to start with a wireframe, grayscreen prototype, or other mockup which gives the writer guidance on how the copy will be experienced visually. This allows the writer to craft copy that fits the concept before the design team does their heavy lifting, which in turn can be shaped by the style and tone of the copy. Sometimes the design team looks to the writer to suggest a direction in the initial draft or two, which is also fine as long as you don’t have a specific outcome in mind right away.
  • Use style sheets. Designers love writers who understand style sheets and loathe those who do not. Whether the end product will appear in print, on the web, or both, using style sheets correctly will give the design team the freedom to try out options and make changes very quickly. Your copy doesn’t need to be in the same typefaces that the designers will use—in fact it doesn’t have to look anything like the finished product. As long as you use them consistently, your designers can map your styles to theirs. Better yet, if you learn how your team likes to use styles and create copy files that follow the same practices, you’ll unleash them to focus on the more creative side of their work. Design teams who know how to play well with writers often provide Microsoft Word or other word-processor templates with the styles they want writers to use pre-created. It may take a little effort to build the template and train your writers, but it pays everyone back very quickly.
  • Agree on as much other formatting as possible before writing starts. Does the writer need to use Chicago style, AP style, Grammar Girl style, or the CEO’s style? Will typesetter’s quotes be converted automatically or should the writer make sure they appear in the source file? Which side of the great comma-series debate do you fall on? (It’s a brutal battle that rages on, even today.) Are there certain words that must never, ever, EVER, be used to describe the product? If you’ll be doing a lot of work together, consider creating a style guide.
  • Don’t create stuff the designer will have to un-create. The two most classic examples of this behavior are typing a zillion periods to create dotted lines for a table of contents, or a zillion spaces to create manual columns. Both are guaranteed to make designers roll their eyes at best, and incite them to violence at worst. There are many more sins like this, too numerous to name here, but any time you think you’re making your document “press ready” by doing a bunch of keyboard gymnastics, check with the design team first to find out if they’d prefer it done differently. Just trust me on this one.
  • One space after sentences. Once upon a time, there was a marvelous new invention called a typewriter. Everyone who worked on a typewriter learned to put two spaces between sentences. That’s because typewriters used characters that were all the same width, and the extra space made it easier to read typewritten text. Technology has moved on. Now designers use software that not only allows letterforms of different widths, but automatically calculates the correct amount of kerning (designer-speak for the optimum space between any given character pair) and sentence spacing, adjusting it to the nth degree. When you type the old-fashioned way, you throw a wrench into all this high-tech assistance, making the copy look strange in a way that disturbs readers, even though they may not know why. Designers will curse your name as they hunt down all these extra spaces with the Find-and-Replace command, which can be especially vexing if they do so before they notice all those columns you shouldn’t have created with manual spaces.
  • Extra returns between paragraphs? Paragraph breaks are often easier on the eyes if there’s some space in between blocks of text, but don’t assume that the design team wants you to create that space by hitting the Return key twice after every paragraph. A single return gives the designer more control over the exact amount of space, which may need to be less than a full line break. Ask ahead of time which format your designer prefers.
  • Know your team’s policy on soft returns too. “Soft” returns are forced line breaks created with the key combination Shift + Return. Web designers also call them “breaks.” Typically, they force the copy to start on a new line after the soft return, but without kicking in any options that occur at the end of a paragraph. Designers often use them to control undesirable copy breaks, but it’s hazardous for writers to do so because they can create hidden land mines for the layout artist. Depending on the type of project you’re working on, the designers may want soft returns in certain places—to keep long URLs on a single line or to prevent a product name from being hyphenated, for example. A good best practice for writers, however, is to treat these like prescription medication: “use only as directed.”
  • Edit as much as possible before you submit to the design team. No matter how good you are at prepping files for designers, there may be parts of your copy they have to do some work with to get the look the client wants. Once the layout process is underway in earnest, it can be a big hassle to receive a new manuscript file with the instructions to “just replace all the old copy with the new file.” Get it as polished as you can before they go to work. That way your changes are more likely to be minor, which leads us to…
  • Learn the PDF commenting tools. Once a file is in layout form, you’ll probably see the proof in PDF format. Knowing how to mark up a PDF with any editing changes you need will make the designer’s life much easier in several ways. First, it keeps the changes in a digital format that’s easy to send electronically and protect with passwords. Second, the designer can cut and paste changes directly from many types of comments, and can track all of the changes with a checklist view. Both of these tools reduce the chances of mistakes or missed corrections.

Designers: Don’t see your favorite copy peeve here? Tell your writer.

Of course, if you’d like me to be your writer, feel free to tell me all about it.

Cheers,

Tom

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