Content design part-time, while writing a book: how it worked for me

Our guest blogger is Scroll content designer, journalist and author, Olivia Gordon. She talks about combining her work for Scroll with writing her book, The First Breath: How Modern Medicine Saves The Most Fragile Lives.

Writing a book and discovering content design

When I started writing a book proposal, in the autumn of 2016, I had never heard of content design. I had worked for more than a decade as a freelance journalist for the national press, as well as being a freelance copy/content writer.

The idea for my book, The First Breath, grew out of my experience as a mother of a child with a genetic condition who was born critically ill and premature, spent his first 5 months in neonatal care, was tube-fed until the age of 2, and had had 5 operations by his fifth birthday. Once my son’s health was stable, I returned to journalism, and started writing features about foetal and neonatal care and genetic screening for newspapers like the Times, Telegraph and Guardian, as well as writing a column about being a ‘SEN mother’ for a parenting website.

I always felt the subject of foetal and neonatal medicine deserved a book, though, and after much emotional bolstering from a writer friend, I worked up the courage to contact a literary agent. Next I found myself writing a detailed proposal, and by the following spring, I had a book deal from Pan Macmillan. There was a minute of joy and then it hit me: now I have to write a book. I had 16 months, which meant I’d have to write just over a chapter per month.

My husband Philip Clark, a music writer, coincidentally got a book deal for his forthcoming biography of Dave Brubeck around the same time as my book deal came. Our advances were very good, but would be paid in segments over a period of years, with part on signing, part on delivery and the last part on publication. I needed to continue earning, then, and would only have 2 or 3 days per week for writing the book.

Yet as soon as I began writing The First Breath, I stopped enjoying writing features and copy – my heart was in the book now.

Transferring my skills to content design

When I heard a former journalist colleague (now a Scrollie) mention on Facebook that she had moved into content design for the government, and was very happy and earning well, I was interested.

She told me about Scroll, I sent in my CV, I did the interview and written test, and a week later I was offered a part-time contract at the Department for Education (DfE) in Westminster.

Although the title ‘content designer’ was new to me, I had actually been practising content design throughout my career as a journalist, just using different terms for the same skills and techniques.

For example, the principle of creating content according to user needs, which is central to content design, is second nature to any journalist. The same goes for the content designer’s duty to publish content that is accurate, and also clear and accessible. As a journalist, there is the same responsibility to get facts right, plus you always focus on what the audience wants to know, and make content engaging for them.

In fact, the emphasis on user needs in content design surprised me at first because to me as a journalist, it was just so obvious. You wouldn’t last a day writing or editing for a national newspaper if you didn’t look at everything you wrote from the reader’s point of view. It’s about what readers want to know about your interviewee, not what the PR wants to communicate. In content design for GOV.UK we also focus as much as possible on what our users need to know, as opposed to what (for example) the government wants to tell them.

Another element of content design is working diplomatically with others: for example, being able to redraft waffle or impenetrable bureaucratic terminology while maintaining a productive, positive relationship with the author. Again, any seasoned copywriter or editor already has this ability.

So my journalistic and content/copywriting skills translated well.

Getting the balance right

Content design has also proved the ideal complement to writing a book.

I worked 2 days a week at the DfE and had the other 3 for writing The First Breath, which turned out to be a good balance. The content design work stimulated a different, more business-like part of my brain from the writer part, so I could keep my ‘creative’ energy for my writing days.

On top of all this, because of my son’s extra needs, I spent around half a day every week (out of my ‘book’ time) taking him to check-ups and doing admin relating to supporting his health and education.

Thankfully, the DfE is a friendly, forward-thinking place to work. It was never a problem if I needed to swap my days around, or when I needed to take a week off to focus on meeting my final deadline. And after the first few weeks, I was able to work largely from home, so I didn’t have to do the 2- plus-hour each way commute from my home in Oxford too often.

Being part of a big team of content designers meant I always had someone to help me with anything I wasn’t sure about – at last, freedom from the constant stress and sole responsibility that often accompanied pitching as a freelance journalist. As a contractor in the content design team, I never had to ‘take work home’ mentally or physically at the end of the day. And the tasks – and income – were reliable and stable, while I negotiated a rollercoaster of twists and turns as my book took shape.

Even after I had finished the actual writing of the book, my ‘writing’ days were filled with the various edits and, more recently, the marketing and publicity.

My contract kept being renewed, and I’m still at the DfE 20 months later, as The First Breath is published.

I would recommend working for Scroll as a part-time contract content designer to any author or artist. It certainly seems a popular path: several of my fellow contractors at DfE are also writers and journalists, dividing their time much as I do.

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Photo credit: Nina Hollington