Copywriting vs. UX Writing vs. Technical Writing
Navigating through writing disciplines in the tech industry is not easy — especially when you’re not a writer.
I notice that many people confuse the different subdisciplines of writing, be it clients who ask for a UX Writing service when what they actually want is Technical Writing, or headhunters officially looking for a Copywriter, when what they actually seem to need is a UX Writer.
Therefore, I decided to share a little overview of what these disciplines are and how you can distinguish them, so get ready for some theoretical work here (promise to try to not make it sound too boring though).
The disciplines that always get mixed up and why they get mixed up
Throughout the last decades, writing has gained new meaning in tech: More and more companies realize that writing has the potential to create value far beyond their classic fields of application like marketing and PR.
Especially in UX/UI Design and in Software Development, new subdisciplines of writing have emerged, and only as we need to talk about them more and more, e.g. in job descriptions or blog articles, we realize that sometimes, it’s hard to draw a clear line between those subdisciplines.
I noticed, it’s especially the disciplines of UX Writing, Technical Writing, and Copywriting — the three writing disciplines that are responsible for the main text elements in digital interfaces — that give outsiders (and even insiders!) a hard time.
And that’s pretty relatable, because the problem with them is exactly that: they all appear in digital interfaces.
Why it’s it important to get things right
However, that is about everything that these disciplines have in common. Apart from that, each of them has their own rules and quality criteria, and hence, writers need different skills to perform tasks in these fields.
So if you need a UX Writer but call for a Technical Writer, you might end up getting the wrong expertise. But there are other reasons: For example, the UX Writing Salary Survey Report from March 2021 revealed that there are huge differences between the salary of a UX Writer and a Copywriter, with the latter earning a lot less.
This may be due to the fact that Copywriting is a discipline that is much more established and much more common than UX Writing, hence, you’ll find far more Copywriters than UX Writers out there.
To be more precise: While the median salary of a Copywriter in the US is about 65,000$, the median salary for a UX Writer is about 110,000$. So, you might really want to check whether you need a Copywriter or a UX Writer, so that everyone involved has the right expectations.
What makes these disciplines unique?
Let’s cut to the chase. There are four aspects in which the three disciplines differ — their goal, their target audience, their style and their context. Let’s check these aspects out for each of the three disciplines.
In her Hubspot blog article, Meghan Keaney Anderson gives a great definition of Copywriting:
“Copywriting is one of the most critical elements of any and all forms of marketing and advertising. Copywriting consists of the words, either written or spoken, marketers use to try to get people to take an action after reading or hearing them.”
Copywriting is mainly to be found in promotional material like ads, newsletters, but also in the parts of websites that try to sell something. It pursues the goal of grabbing the attention, engaging and convincing the reader to keep going, keep reading, keep interacting with a brand.
The discipline of Copywriting aims to excite, intrigue, surprise, move the reader. It addressed potential customers that need to be convinced to try a product, sign up for a newsletter, test a service, make a call and so on and so forth.
That means that its style can be provocative, amusing, humorous, and bold. It can also leave room for interpretation and make the reader stop, stare, and wonder.
Sign up calls, e.g. for newsletters, are very common spaces in which Copywriting can show what it’s got. In both of the following examples, the copy emphasizes the benefits of getting on a mailing list or creating an account in a concise, convincing, and charming way.
Now, let’s head over to UX Writing. In one of my classes, I developed the definition “UX Writing is the user-facing and user-guiding text that appears within the design of digital products”, which is based on a definition by the UX Writers Collective.
UX Writing can be found in digital products like apps, websites, the software on your smartwatch or your high tech coffee machine. It appears when users have to make decisions in their user journey, when they have to enter their password, when an error occurs, or other situations in which users could benefit from verbal guidance.
The main goal of UX Writing is helping users to reach their goal when using a digital product. Instead of trying to convince users of something that benefits their own business, UX Writers want to support users in completing their user journey as smoothly as possible.
Therefore, UX Writing should be concise, clear, and unambiguous, and it should leave no room for interpretation, even though you can add a dash of humour here and there, but you should never trade accessibility for a punchline.
UX Writing should be both clear and empathetic, making users feel understood, seen and heard, while at the same time offering them clear instructions and easy explanations. The following examples illustrate the range of style UX Writing can take.
Last but not least: Let’s talk Technical Writing. According to the Society for Technical Communication, Technical Writing can be defined as a form of writing that “communicates about technical or specialized topics, communicates by using technology, and provides instructions about how to do something”.
That means that Technical Writing is here to explain what something is or how something works.
It appears in wikis, all forms of technical documentation, style guides, and user manuals, and addresses mostly users, team members and other stakeholders who are interested in learning more about the functioning of a certain system or process, either because they want to use it or because they want to build or modify it.
Hence, the style of Technical Writing is mostly neutral, clear, and easy-to-understand. Other than Copywriting and UX Writing, Technical Writing can also contain technical or scientific terminology, depending on who it is written for.
The instructions that Technical Writing provides should be easy to understand for the specific target audience of the given document. The first example from Atlassian addresses designers and writers, using professional terminology such as “voice and tone”. The second example from Slack addresses users and involves only very clear language that is easy to understand for a non-trained audience.
Watch out for cross terms!
I often see self-made and hand-crafted terms like “UX Copywriter” or “Technical Copywriter”.
Well, technically, these terms are not wrong, because “copy” in its broader meaning is just another, more formal and professional term for “specific text element”, and, indeed, in UX Writing you write “Microcopy”.
However, in its more narrow meaning, the meaning in which it is used among writers today, it is probably more how Natalia from Storylign puts it: “Copy is text written with the intention of directly selling a product, service or idea. Traditionally, this was any text written for advertising purposes”, so using the word “copy” as a synonym for “text” will only get you into more trouble.
Here, I’d recommend sticking to the terms UX Writing, Technical Writing and Copywriting — and then see which category best fits your writing needs.
There’s a time and place for every discipline — and you should make room for all of them
All of these writing disciplines are important in their own way: Copywriting is here to get customers on board, UX Writing guides them once they are on board, and Technical Writing ensures the quality of the product itself and the quality of product usage.
The best way to make sure that all three functions are covered is hiring writers of all three disciplines — instead of hiring one writer and asking them to cover all three fields. The latter might be a common strategy, but makes it hard for your one-for-all writer to keep up with the latest tools, methods, and trends in all three disciplines.
Similar to other emerging disciplines, there’s one simple truth to tell here: The writing happening in your business will unfold its potential exactly as much as you give it space to do so. And that means, dare to invest — and your ROI will follow.
Dr. Katharina Grimm is a multidisciplinary writer and writing educator from Munich, Germany. When not writing or educating, she’s out for a long hike or a snack. If you want to join Katharina in one of her writing classes, check out her courses on Skillshare.