5 Lifesaving Tips for Writers Who Work with Designers

For the past decade, I’ve given words (or “copy” if you want to get all fancy) to designers who make them look beautiful. As of today, not one designer has killed me and only two have threatened my life. I know! I’m great!

Anyway, because I’m a wonderful person, I feel compelled to pay it forward. These are my tips for working with designers in a way that will make them not kill you and maybe even enjoy working with you.

Disclaimer: If you prefer to be loathed, please disregard this list.

1. Give designers your copy ahead of schedule.

This won’t always be possible because of multiple projects, tight deadlines, and of course, that alluring temptress known as Procrastination. But when you can, send your copy their way sometime before the last possible moment.

Some experienced designers are cool with using lorem ipsum for their initial design work, but it’s less than ideal. The polishing and fine-tuning can’t be done until they have actual English to work with.

However, most designers can’t do any of their work until they have your copy in their hands. On top of that, most designers like to go home on time. Giving them the words they need at 4:45 the day before a project is due is a selfish, bush league move. Don’t do that.

Once you start delivering copy ahead of schedule, the designer may want to dial 911 because they fear your drastic change in behavior signals a dire emergency. Do not let them dial 911. You’re fine. You’ve simply decided to step up your teamwork skills and give them the documents they need with plenty of time to spare.

Oh, and speaking of documents…

2. Stop giving designers Word docs.

Designers work with and adore Macs. Roughly 85% of them have never even seen a PC. Isn’t that wild? There’s a fun fact that’s sure to impress at your next party.

Early in my career, I attached Word docs in my emails to designers. Then one day, I happened to hover as a designer tried to open said Word doc. It took (no exaggeration) 45 minutes for the document to open.

Designers’ Macs hate Microsoft Word. I cannot emphasize this enough. So in lieu of Word docs, send RTFs. Or Google Docs. Or carrier pigeons, if those are still a thing. Anything but Word.

Something to keep in mind is that most clients use PCs and prefer Microsoft Office. So keep giving your clients Word docs, but stop giving designers Word docs.

3. Hover and collaborate, but only if they’re cool with it.

There are downsides to commuting to an ad agency, but one of the greatest perks is the natural collaboration that results. One of my favorite things about being an agency copywriter is hanging out immediately after the designer has laid out my copy. The words look completely different than they did in my text doc, and I can kill widows (I promise this is not as morbid as it sounds), clean up the legibility, and make gobs of other changes on the fly. It’s great fun.

That said, some designers don’t want you to hover. They prefer to pass the work back and forth, which also works well. After your first handful of visits, you’ll be able to determine if they’re comfortable with it. Or, and I know this is crazy, but you could consider being open and honest with them. Say something like, “Hey, this is the way I like to work. You cool with trying that out to see how it goes? If not, just say the word and we’ll fire emails back and forth.”

4. Don’t make designers read your copy during client presentations.

Fun fact: Designers are good at making clients swoon. All they have to do is say things like “white space” and “responsive” and “literally any adjective that describes a typeface.” Clients eat it up and it makes me jealous.

But eventually, they’ll stop talking about design. And because they’re a bit nervous, they’ll keep talking. Guess what the next subject is going to be? DING DING DING. Your words.

Don’t just stand there. You wrote the copy and you know how it flows. So read it aloud and defend it as passionately as the they’ve defended the design.

Before the presentation, take a few minutes to go over the game plan. Decide when you’ll be talking. Then talk. The designer will breathe a sigh of relief and value your contribution to the work way more than they would have otherwise.

5. Encourage their copy feedback and recognize their moments of copywriting greatness.

Hoo boy, this one hits like a punch to the gut. There will be some projects where you’re just not feeling it. You’re banging your head against the wall and pooping out multiple copy options that smell bad and make people sad.

Then the designer will casually say something brilliant during a creative review and you’ll be like “OH NO that’s actually really good.”

Now, there are two paths that emerge here. The first one? You stiff arm their suggestion. You’re the copywriter. They’re not. Do they see you opening Photoshop and Illustrator and InDesign and any other totally lame Adobe programs? No. They need to stay in their lane.

But the second path? You let them know that their idea is inspired and you’re going to use it. You thank them for speaking up and perhaps fist bump them. You may be the butt of a few playful jokes, but take them in stride. You showed humility and helped foster creativity and collaboration in a major way. That’s a big deal.

Bonus tip: Be grateful for them and tell them how much they’re appreciated.

They make your words look compelling, clickable, and beautiful. They do work you could never do and don’t particularly want to do. Say thanks. Let them know you love working with them and creating memorable things out of thin air.

Thanks, designers. Love you more than Snickers.

But not more than Twix.