Training and CPD for content professionals

On 2 June 2020 I was privileged to host the #ContentClubUK Twitter chat which takes place every Tuesday at 11am. [See below for more about ContentClubUK.]

This blog post (1) summarises what I picked up as the key theme of the chat, and (2) provides links to some of the many resources that came up in response to my three questions.

Apologies to #ContentClubUK attendees whose suggestions or resources do not appear in this post due to space constraints: there were a lot, and I couldn’t be exhaustive. Still I’ve tried to cover as many as possible.

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What is #ContentClubUK?

It’s a wide ranging group of copywriters, designers, marketers, virtual assistants, technologists and other creatives; all concerned one way or another with professional content creation.

The format is a half hour open house under the above hashtag, with a rotating host asking three questions on a specified topic. Biscuits, this being copywriter and designer territory, are de rigueur. Creative GIFs are plentiful.

The host can help select the topic, and for my turn I thought Training and Continuing Professional Development (CPD) in content land was an apt choice. It hadn’t been covered before (or for a while). And it struck me that people in copy, content and design roles don’t always have a structured training path or linear route into the industry.

I thought it would be interesting to get ideas on how people got themselves into this kind of career, how they trained up, and the kinds of ongoing CPD they’ve done or plan to do.

My three questions

Q1: When you started out in content what training – if any – did you do to help you launch your career? [E.g. professional qualifications, long courses, short courses, web-based, on-the-job, any kind of training]


Q2: What is the best piece of content CPD you’ve ever done? [Define CPD however you like – e.g. a conference session, book, event, webinar – or a traditional training course]

Q3: What additional training or CPD, if any, are you doing currently or targeting over the next year? [And how, if at all, has the virus/lockdown environment influenced your plans?]

On-the-job vs formal training

This was, I thought, the main interesting theme that emerged from the chat, and it’s not just generational.

It’s striking how many people entered the copy and content industries without much (any) formal training. Either as experienced professionals from other fields or straight from school or college.

On-the-job training, trial and error, and learning from experience account for a big portion of career development in our content world. This was particularly true a few years ago, when training just wasn’t a thing. As Fi Shailes (Digital Drum) put it:

‘Content’ wasn’t really given the same reverence back then. In the early marketing roles I was working in, I just learned as I went (unwittingly).

Fi Shailes, Digital Drum, #ContentClubUK, 2 June 2020

Yet there are ‘seasoned’ people (‘wizened’ in my case) who ARE now training like hell to help them break into the creative field as a second or third career. Conversely, there are younger souls still finding their way in with a good break and not much formal training.

It goes both ways. Perhaps more in the first category than the second. Training nowadays is certainly more available, and has more premium value, than when I was growing up.

Entry platforms

Creative writing and journalism are still common entry platforms for a copy or content career; either via a formal qualification (more on that later) or on-the-job training. Peter Springett highlighted his coaching in journalism by two formidable ex-Fleet Streeters, which included sub-editing, editing, research and notetaking.

But how else do (or did) people break into this kind of role?

Robyn Santa Maria‘s experience, from a role as an in-house comms adviser and manager, is instructive:

I basically ‘fell’ into the role of in-house copywriter and editor as all my colleagues would ask me to check their writing. Everyone else wanted to do the ‘sexy’ strategy stuff. I was basically the team nerd…

Robyn Santa Maria, #ContentClubUK, 2 June 2020

A common route into copywriting a few years ago was to go straight into an advertising agency and start at the bottom. Mary Whitehouse and Jonathan Wilcock both cited this route, as well as reminiscing with this author about the bad old days of routine boozy lunches in the City and the advertising sector.

Other entry platforms cited on the chat included theatre, virtual assistant (VA) work, teaching and technical (CMS) roles. Fi Phillips, with years of experience as a playwright, initially took on a VA role and then used that as a platform for becoming a content creator.

Greg Henley shares this theatrical background, and in fact is still drawing attention to the similarities between how actors and copywriters approach their work: check out his blog on applying the Stanislavskian acting ‘system’ to the copywriting world.

Claire (CopyContentWriter) meanwhile noted the transferables that come from teaching writing as a primary school teacher. Not to mention the sharp listening and empathy skills acquired in that particular discipline; invaluable for copywriting.

Approaches to self-development

A few people on the chat had wise insights on general approaches to self-development whatever form of ‘CPD’ you were doing. Dee_WkdCreative advocated pushing yourself out of your comfort zone as the best way of learning and developing yourself. Tim Goodfellow felt there was no better CPD than trying to find ways of improving with each new job.

Stephen Marsh suggested that borrowing ideas from experts – something which this author confessed to doing (specifically from Laura Parker‘s UX writing session at #CopyCon19) – was a vital development tool. To my eye, Stephen added another great insight, which is to actively invite more criticism of your work, as an explicit training goal: “It’s one thing to want to be viewed as an expert, but even more valuable when someone tells you your work is crap!”

Resources

Despite all this, training and CPD resources – courses, conferences, online training events, books, podcasts and the like – also seriously matter in copy and content world.

The rest of this post simply collates some of the resources identified by people on the #ContentClubUK chat. With links, where available, to help you navigate around if you’re considering taking up any of these training or CPD routes.

Courses

Creative writing and journalism

Traditional writing training routes received lots of mentions: I won’t reference them individually. They included the humble English degree (I have one of them!), the Creative Writing MA (lots of different versions out there), various OU platforms, and the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ).

Dom Kent summed up by noting that he started out with a freelance journalism course, so he:

…could learn how to write properly, instead of everything irrelevant I learned about writing at school; since then, it’s mostly been writing and getting feedback and seeing what brings results.

Dom Kent, #ContentClubUK, 2 June 2020

Sara Donaldson observed that creative writing courses can really help you stretch your powers, helping you find new ways to look at things and write about them. CW courses also subject you to ongoing editorial critique, which is invaluable in honing your content writing skills.

Copy, content and marketing

There were a couple of very strong recommendations for the Content Design London 2-3 day course in content design, which Fi Shailes said was without a doubt the most impressive and valuable content-related course she’d ever taken: “such an eye-opener and really had an impact on my thinking about users.” Helen Hill expressed similar admiration.

Distance learning hub The Blackford Centre has a wide range of courses, which especially target people who want to set up their own business. Their options include courses in copywriting (mentioned by Matt Dryzmala) and digital marketing, among many, many others: check out their list.

Elsewhere, Eloise Leeson highlighted the online training provided by women’s collective All Bright Digital. Eloise described AllBright as “a gold mine of practical, applicable information drawn from a phenomenal female collective. 15/10 would recommend.”

Claire Hawes, meanwhile, mentioned Heather Lloyd-Martin’s SEO copywriting course, which describes itself as the only industry-endorsed online training that certifies copywriters in SEO copywriting best practices. Also on SEO, Dom Kent noted the SEMRush academy, especially for SEO newbies; and Moz SEO received a couple of appreciative mentions.

More broadly, Helen Tarver plugged Ian Sanders‘ Do Freelance day which really helped her transition from corporate to freelance life. [Ian tells us there should be an online version available soon.] Sally Fox reported on her course at Udemy, the global learning and instruction marketplace; while in similar vein, John Lew mentioned the user-centred content design course he’s doing on FutureLearn.com.

And Dee Edwards spotlighted the copywriting diploma she’s doing at the College of Media and Publishing. Katie Thompson, meanwhile, is following up her NCTJ training with a marketing diploma at the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) Academy. Diligent!

Oh and don’t forget Andy Maslen, whose Breakthrough Copywriting is currently cheap and highly recommended by several contentclubbers.

Editorial

Also under this heading there were plugs from editorial types (yours truly and Sara Donaldson) for the CIEP editorial training provided by the CIEP, another viable route into content disciplines.

Conferences and events

Everyone loves CopyCon; and it was mentioned a few times under the ‘Best CPD’ heading. Believe it or not, some people even love the social aspect: meeting fellow word nerds and letting hair down (if you have hair). Many who attended #CopyCon19 referred to Laura Parker’s session. I mentioned this earlier: it left a big impression on everyone who saw it: slides repeated here for reference. Glenn Fisher‘s session also got great reviews. Fingers crossed for #CopyCon20, though we’re not holding our breath…

Speaking of #CopyCon19, another popular session was Kelvin Newman’s on SEO, and Brighton SEO garnered a couple of recommendations (from Claire Hawes and Katie Thompson) as a really good form of ongoing CPD.

The recent @upwriteonline 5-day ‘Be Your Own Boss’ challenge and @digitalcityfest also received honourable mentions in the events category.

Books

Just as we all love CopyCon, creative folk simply love books. People swear by their favourites, and the leading candidates are no surprise. I can do no more than reproduce them here, in no particular order:

Sally Fox came up with an incredible reading list which I can only gape at in awe, and reproduce here without comment (but with Amazon links for those interested):

In similar vein was Dom Kent’s ‘re-reading’ list – note the ‘re’ which, again, prompts me to only look on in awe and wonder. [Dom also included Art of the Click but no repeats here.]

For completeness – given how much we love books – also mentioned was our very own Alice Hollis who has put together some much-appreciated little books on copywriting, including the Little Book of B2B Blogging. Natalie Trice’s book received a vote, as did Ryan Wallman’s Delusions of Brandeur; and (usefully for this verbose writer) Sarah Richards’ Content Design, which at least two contentclubbers recommended. Teaching you to write something in 50 words where you’d previously have taken 500.

Blogs and podcasts

Lots of people mentioned blogs and podcasts but with not too many compelling recommendations on specific ones to follow, apart from @verygoodcopy‘s excellent blog, found here; and our old favourite All Good Copy, one of the best podcasts around. [Glenn knows I do love him really, despite my unseemly remark on Twitter on the morning of #CopyCon19… .] The HotCopyPodcast is also very popular with copywriters.

I’m now going to use authorial licence to take the opportunity to plug two individual blog posts I spotted on the chat which are well worth following up: Dom Kent’s riveting account of his content marketing journey published on Digital Drum, which is almost like a mini training course in itself; and Masooma (inkandcopy)‘s post on becoming a better writer by ditching essay writing – hot off the press as she published it during this chat.

Not a blog, or a book, or a course, but a toolkit, deserving a mention on the grounds of Helen Hill’s enthusiasm alone: @meghscase‘s Content Strategy toolkit. “Bloody amazing” in Helen’s words.

And finally…

I couldn’t end this blog without mentioning this separate blog post by Sara Donaldson, published a few days before the #ContentClubUK session.

Sara has packed her post with great guidance on how to prioritise and organise your various CPD efforts, as well as lots of specific suggestions.

And finally finally… a plug for #ContentClubUK which, somebody observed on the chat, is itself one of the best sources of CPD out there for content professionals. Join us on Twitter: every Tuesday 11 am.

Don’t hesitate to contact Prism-Clarity for further information or advice.