Tiffani Jones Brown – Writing for the Web

Tiffani Jones, web writer

by Rasmus Rasmussen on April 6, 2010

Tiffani talks like she writes, with sharpness and wit. She is a web writer, which was not what she had originally thought she would be spending her time on, back when she was in college. It wasn’t until she landed a job with Seattle based web design company Blue Flavor, that she truly discovered the art of writing for the internet. Today, she has her own web-writing business, Second and Park, and runs a second business with her husband, thingsthatarebrown.

I met with Tiffani at Victrola, a coffee roaster and café in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district. She contacted me earlier that day, to push our meeting an hour, and when we parted ways, she was settling down to do some work at the coffee shop. Such is the life of the self-employed.

AP: Your educational background is in psychology, religious studies, philosophy and ethics. This seems like a far cry from web writing. What happened to get you into not just professional writing but working in the web industry?

TJB: Until I got into master’s program, I was dead set on becoming a religious studies professor. I wanted to study megachurches, evangelicals and how religion was changing in America, but I had a hard time finding my angle on the subject and got frustrated that the discipline wasn’t as current as I’d hoped it’d be.

Meanwhile, Matt was running thingsthatarebrown and seemed to have freedom to shape his career. When I realized I could be a writer and thinker and stay on top of major forces shaping society, I figured I’d give the internet biz a try.

AP: Web writing seems like a stricter form of copywriting, having to take things like search engines and readers with a three second attention span into consideration. What is it about this particular discipline that is so appealing to you?

TJB: Erin Anderson of Brain Traffic once mentioned that “web writing is the embodiment of Good Writing in general.” I completely agree.
Web writing forces you to be economical, clear, completely focused on the reader and concerned with action and outcomes. You can’t bullshit your way through it, and I love that.

I think good writing is simple, direct, clear and provocative. George Saunders, Raymond Carver, and Grace Paley are all good writers & storytellers.  Web writing is simple, clear, direct and provocative too but the way you “tell the story” is different than in fiction. Good web writing works with design, helps people do stuff, and is free of all uselessness. It’s also (obviously) interactive.

I am a pretty visual person, so I can almost “see” when my writing’s working.  I look at it on the page or in the context of the site, and I see how it fits: do I want to read it?  Does it lead me logically to the next step?  Have I kept word count to a bare minimum? If the writing looks or feels awkward or is confusing after I read it a couple times, I scrap it.

AP: Different clients demand different approaches, tone and amount of fluff vs. fact. How do you keep your work varied and fresh, accommodating the client without losing your personal touch or style?

TJB: This is one of the hardest parts of my job, because clients often come to me looking for the same thing: fresh, hip, simple web writing. But the definition of “fresh, hip, simple” means something different for everybody.

To figure out what people really want, I spend a lot of time getting to know them, interviewing stakeholders, and researching their business up front. If I suspect I won’t be able to figure out what a potential client wants, I try not to take on the project.

I also always ask myself the question, “What’s true about this service / product / business” while I’m writing. This keeps me focused on what really matters and helps me avoid marketing fluff.

AP: Could you go into a little more detail about the interview process? How and when do you know whether you’ll be able to understand/meet your client’s needs or not?

TJB: I find that my writing improves drastically after I hear people explain their business in their own words—people tend to speak more freely and descriptively than they write, so I end up with a much better material to work with if I do interviews. It’s always difficult, though, to know in advance whether I’ll be able to use what I’ve gathered. Knowing what research will be most helpful comes later on down the line, after I’ve finished discovery and have a really solid sense of what the business goals are.

As for knowing if I can meet a particular client’s needs, that’s tricky. Usually, though, I get a good sense of who I can’t help or don’t want to work with very quickly. I pay a lot of attention to how people write and talk about themselves; if they come to me for services I don’t offer, want something done tomorrow, sound like spam or are too demanding, I know right away I won’t be able to help them.

AP: You also run a small design agency (thingsthatarebrown) with your husband Matt. How do you balance your time and focus between your own and your shared business?

TJB: Very carefully. I expected Second and Park to be more of a side business, but it ended up growing quickly, which has meant I spend about 3/4 time at thingsthatarebrown and another 1/2 at Second and Park. It’s a bit much.

Since I prefer to do web writing and content strategy in conjunction with design, though, we’re re-tooling thingsthatarebrown’s offerings so that writing is involved in every design project.

This will let us collaborate more, but it will mean less time for me at Second and Park. I’m cool with that.

AP: Being in business with your husband, are you ever able to really take time off and just be a couple? How do you separate work from family time?

TJB: (I think) we had realistic expectations when we started working together. We didn’t expect to have a full work/life separation. Talking about “the direction of the business” at 11pm is the nature of the beast.

We’ve managed to find plenty of time for fun, though. We make a lot of time for our friends, and give each other space. We also try not to take ourselves too seriously and remind each other that there’s life outside of thingsthatarebrown and Second and Park.

For us the endless challenge is to figure out what’s important to be serious about (doing good work and being profitable while having a happy life) and put most our energy on that. We try to put other less important things, like the perfectionistic details or what everybody says or implies we should/could be doing, on the back burner (Matt’s better at that than me).

We also aren’t workaholics. We work a lot, but we’re not going to burn out in three months by sleeping poorly and killing ourselves for… what? Success? That game gets old quick, and then you start hating yourself. We try not to hate ourselves, even though we’re both naturally self-critical.

Bottom line: running your own business is hard, but like most things in life, it’s only as dire and painful as you make it. You can treat yourself good or bad and take yourself too seriously or be irresponsible. We’re in search of a balance.

Find Tiffani Jones Brown on Second and Park and thingsthatarebrown – and check out her twitter profile.

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