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Jun 08

Product descriptions guide our online shopping. Who writes them?

There are 562 million items available for purchase on Amazon. Each of them is equipped with a breezy, bullet-point description of its dimensions, colors, amenities, and overarching purpose in the world. That is a sizable number — you could make the argument that Amazon alone is the largest digital publisher in the world — but when you add in the 2.1 million sellers on Etsy, the 279 million active buyers on Alibaba, and the thousands of movies and TV episodes available on Netflix, you’re looking at literally billions of product descriptions littering the internet.

It’s the sort of writing that e-commerce giants would’ve outsourced to AI years ago if the technology was available. But in 2019, you still need the human brain to compose the quiet prose that a product description requires. Becca Luna was one of the women behind the curtain, banging out the paragraphs to aide your consumption. Yes, it’s as tedious as it sounds.

Today, Luna is 30 years old, and a freelance copywriter, graphic designer, and marketing manager for a variety of leisure brands. But at the beginning of the decade, when she was fresh out of college and in need of a job, she spent four years writing product descriptions full time for a luxury reseller. The job was presented to her as a fast-paced operation where she’d get hands-on time with gaudy handbags outside her pay grade. Technically, it was that, but she was also expected to file up to 50 to 60 descriptions of those handbags a day into a fastidious Excel spreadsheet that she would soon learn to dread. All of this for $35,000 a year. The way Luna describes it, a product description gig is a mix of copywriting and data entry. It can make you fall out of love with writing if you do it for too long.

Product descriptions are arguably the grimmest and most ambient of all writing jobs, and it can be difficult to remember that there are real people filing the blurb for that red twill button-down you’re eyeing in J. Crew clearance. It’s especially bleak for people like Luna, who was forced to come up with new ways to characterize the same genre of merchandise over and over again. (There are only so many adjectives that can be assigned to a Gucci clutch.) On a phone call last week, Luna and I talked about the small ways she made product description writing more fun for her, the depression that sets in when you’re staring down yet another quota, and that time she was reprimanded for writing about too many shoes.

How did you land a product description copywriting job?

I had just graduated college and it was the recession. E-commerce was still being figured out, and I had started a fashion blog. I applied for this [copywriting] role in Seattle, and the description was kinda vague. It’s a startup. They make it sound really fancy; it sounded really exciting. I worked that role full time for about four and a half years, and at the most I was writing about 50 to 60 product descriptions a day. I primarily worked with handbags and fine jewelry. The thing about luxury goods is usually the people buying them are collectors and are very particular about what season they came from, or what color, or what kind of leather.

Starting that role, I had no idea … I knew Louis Vuitton, but I knew nothing about their product. I was expected to dive in and know. I think my quota when I started was 20 a day, which required research for each product, alongside the boring stuff like measurements: How big is it? How many pockets does it have? How big is the strap? Going in without any real knowledge was very difficult. Now I’m an expert in luxury designer handbags. It’s not something I ever expected.

How much information would the company give you? Did they give you those particulars, or did you figure out it all on your own?

Sometimes we’d get a little bit of information from the client that was selling the product. Or sometimes my coworkers and I would work together to find the information. But it was pretty much expected that I was to figure it out on my own.

I’d have to cap myself at a certain amount of time for research, because you can’t spend an hour researching a purse.

Yeah, especially if you’re writing 50 to 60 a day.

Exactly. But if I couldn’t find the information about the item, it meant that nobody else was going to find it when people were searching for those products. Product descriptions at their core are for SEO purposes. The customers have to find the items to begin with.

How long did it take for the glamour to wear off? Like after that initial job interview where you were like, “Oh, so this is what you guys expect me to do.”

Pretty quickly. Especially when I had a quota to meet. There was only a couple weeks before I realized it wasn’t all super glamorous, and I wasn’t going to spend all this time drooling over these items. It was a job. The thing about product descriptions is they tiptoe the line between data entry and copywriting. I wanted to be a copywriter. Inputting information into a spreadsheet is not copywriting.

Did you get to handle the items?

Yeah, in that particular business, every item was handled. I’d get the product on my desk with very little information. But later on, I did some freelance with a jeweler, and all I would receive were JPEGs and a name. It was diamonds, so I’d also get the carat weight. That’d be it.

Were you still able to have fun writing those descriptions? Or did it wear down into drudge work?

Personally, yes, because of the flexibility I had within the company. I was able to select the items that I felt more inspired by, which I always felt was such a privilege. That said, it was still tedious. Up to my last day writing product descriptions, it was tedious. It was only a paragraph-long description, so I was able to have fun writing sometimes. But they were always focused on how many items per day you could get done. So if I spent half an hour writing a product description, they would say, “What are you doing with your time? You need to speed this up a little.” I came up with a system on my own where, for the products that would come in all the time, I’d have a line sheet with all the info for them filled in. I could do those products in five minutes.

Is there a specific time you got scolded at that job that stands out in any funny or ridiculous way?

One time, I wanted to fulfill my quota with all shoes. I was told that I needed to have a variety of products done. I was a little confused. It was my first couple weeks there. I was like, “Wait … but I met my quota!”

Four years of writing product descriptions sounds like such a grind. Did it ever weigh on your mental health at all? Did the tedium get you down?

It definitely did. It was boring, and with boredom comes burnout. I would have days where I’d just dread going in. Even though I loved what I was doing, I love handbags, I would dread staring at an Excel spreadsheet. I’m a creative person, and the thought of staring at a spreadsheet every day made me hate what I was doing. Luckily, I had some other skills, and I was able to create a marketing role in the business. But because they were a small business, they were unable to pay me for that role in addition. So I was doing my quota of product descriptions every day, and to fulfill my personal well-being, I started writing content on my own for the site. I tried to figure out any way I could to not write product descriptions.

What do you think it is about that style of writing that can get you down?

I think because, like I said, it’s data entry. The people who are hired to write product descriptions are writers. They’re not data entry people.

A lot of times because of quotas, the product description itself ends up the same for many products. Especially when you’re writing things about the same Louis Vuitton tote bag. You can’t write anything different because it’s the same damn tote bag every day.

Were you ever able to get weird in those product descriptions? Was that an outlet? Or was there a watchful eye over you for anything you put down?

It depended on the item. So like with a limited-edition Louis Vuitton runway bag, I’d get a little weird sometimes because I knew the buyer for that item is a little weird. If the person who would buy the bag would appreciate it, maybe.

Also, I don’t know about you, but I rarely read product descriptions when I shop online. I look at the measurements and I look at the photos. I always reminded myself of that when I was writing descriptions. “Who are the people that are actually spending the time to read this?” So I would get a little silly sometimes. If I was writing a description for a weird clutch bag, I’d be like, “Imagine yourself at the Met Gala with this ridiculous crystal-encrusted bag.” I’d create these funny scenarios to get myself feeling a bit better about what I was doing.

Did you ever make a significant mistake writing those descriptions?

My team manually wrote all names and descriptions, and unfortunately, sometimes accidents happened. Usually it was customer service or a customer that found a mistake in a product description. The error could have been as small as an incorrect color listed, light red versus pink, or the wrong item name entirely. Because [they were] high-dollar items, customers occasionally demanded discounts for catching incorrect product descriptions.

I wrote a lot of clickbait-y lists and slideshows in college, and I always got the sense that the people above me never read through my copy. They just wanted to get it up on the site as fast as possible. Did you get that sense too?

It definitely felt like that, especially with lower price point items. I never felt like anyone was reading those descriptions, neither customers or internally. Very quickly, I established that I was correct in that assumption. That said, I always made sure that my spelling and grammar was correct, and made sure that there weren’t any factual errors, because those are the things that cause returns.

Did you ever fall out of love with writing during those four years? Did you feel the need to remind yourself why you loved writing?

Definitely. Maybe two years in, I had gotten so frustrated, I was like, “I want to write about literally anything besides a paragraph of words. I want to write more.” That’s why I created the role for myself in marketing to write content on my own. I felt like I had to. Otherwise, I probably would’ve never wanted to write again.

So let’s say a company reached out to and asked you to write product descriptions again, with a financial rate that would make sense with your means. Would you consider it? Or are you never going down that path again?

Oh, man, that’s a hard question. [laughs] Oof. I think, one, it would depend on the product. If someone was like, “I’ll pay you $60 a product to write about refrigerators.” I would probably say no. At this point in my life, I’m not going to do boring, tedious product descriptions for things I have no interest in. I know in my desperate times I’ve looked on Fiverr for writing descriptions for fashion products. Unfortunately, people don’t pay a lot for product descriptions, because they’re product descriptions. So I suppose long story short: maybe.

Do you feel like you’ve paid your dues?

Yeah, I think I have. I think especially within a given niche. If you’ve written so many product descriptions that you’ve become an expert in that product, where you could answer any question about it, I think you’ve paid your dues. If a writer becomes an expert in something they have no interest in … I mean, I don’t have retail experience, but I could walk into any Louis Vuitton store and sell you any bag on their shelf.

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