Copy to coding: a new writer’s world and look inside Pinterest’s writing team

The new role of editorial at technology companies big and small might just be defined by this statement: “I guess I’ll just go into Github now.”

In the last few years, many companies have not only recognized the value of good writing in product, educational content, and across all marketing channels, but have also started hiring professionals with writing backgrounds to handle the creation of this content. An industry has evolved, and individuals who in their former lives worked in newsrooms, at ad agencies, and PR firms, slowly started to become core team members at product-driven companies where their colleagues had never previously interacted with a writer on a professional level.

From newsroom to modal

Some of these writers came from technical writing backgrounds and others, from a much more traditional newsroom. The future of journalism continues to be questioned, but the skills of a good writer are invaluable, and the smartest companies are snatching up content creators, strategists, and copy editors with a range of backgrounds.

Some writers are doing what has now become universally branded as ‘content marketing’ while others are given the freedom to pursue almost-journalistic writing. Many are becoming skilled at writing copy, working with user experience experts to enhance product interactions, and handling some basic coding, too.

The resulting world order has writers and technologists working together, using shared tools and lingo that includes words words like “flash,” “html,” “API,” “sentence-case,” and “front-end.”

We spoke with the head of Pinterest’s writing team to get some perspective on what this looks like, in practice.

Writing as a function at Pinterest

At Pinterest, a writing team informs all product writing, in addition to marketing and brand voice development. A team of six, led by a former Facebook content strategist, Tiffani Jones Brown, works cross-functionality with three teams at any given time. Engineers, product designers, data scientists, brand and campaign designers, policy and legal all rely on the team to efficiently turn every message — from error strings and titles to policy guidelines — into something that ‘sounds’ like Pinterest.

“Our voice has always been warm, honest, direct,” says Jones Brown, “and the writing team has evolved it to include additional elements that would guide our writing across channels and platforms.”

Good writing, according to Jones Brown, often goes unnoticed. But that’s not a bad thing, necessarily. The lack of feedback from users around a piece of good writing is often representative of an understanding of the content presented to them. That makes it incredibly important in product writing, where clarity and consistency is key.

Tiffani Jones Brown’s advice to writers in tech:

  1. Get to know the tools your colleagues use, and figure out how you can fit into their workflow. It will ensure you’ll always be involved, and great copy gets pushed into every release.
  2. Familiarize yourself with basic html. Some engineers will copy and paste from a Google Doc, but not all. (The back and forth may also result in typos.) Remove the friction between the words and the platform.
  3. Remember that the basic principles of writing — simplicity, brevity, conversational tone — apply, regardless of the medium. When it comes to choosing words, trust your writing instincts.
  4. Don’t use two words when one can do.
  5. Think like a designer: How will these words look in a modal? On a smartphone? On the Web?
  6. A style guide is essential for establishing voice across the company. Once you’ve codified it, expand it to cover all areas of content (including in-product).
  7. Always remember your audience.

Action beyond consumption

While the basic principles of writing apply regardless of the medium, the culture of writing in a tech startup is quite different from that of a newsroom. Stories are often told through the lens of a product. Writers and engineers tend to work most closely inside the product, where the message must be presented at the right time, in the proper sequence, and with a user end-goal in mind. Words must become vehicles for action, not just consumption.

Writers, by the nature of their work, require few tools: a pen and paper, or a basic word processing tool suffices. But when it comes to transferring words to new mediums, adapting them to the Web, aligning them with design principles, and pushing them out to a live audience, a new system must be forged. That system is a combination of tools that includes cross-functional apps like Asana, as well as developer-oriented programs like Github.

Notably, writers aren’t just working with engineers, designers, and user experience experts, they’re often thinking like them, too. Working through user experiences on mobile apps and writing for the purpose of simplifying the translation process are just a few of the topics that are top of mind.

Understanding how the written word fits the medium (or modal) is of utmost importance.

What does the future look like?

To be a writer at a tech company involves a much wider skill set than previously associated with the field. To work cross-functionally, Jones Brown notes, writers must be comfortable sitting down with an engineer and saying, “how should we do this [work on this problem together]?” They must understand basic design principles, and be moderately familiar with html.

This dynamic isn’t suited to all writers, but it’s a particularly exciting time for many who, often, interact with virtually every function of an organization to connect the dots between products and the people who use them, and love them.

This article was inspired by a conversation with Tiffani Jones Brown, who leads Pinterest’s writing team.

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