Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

On Being an Introvert and Flexing Your Socialization Muscles

Extroversion is a muscle you can strengthen over time. Image credit: Victoria Garcia, Flickr

Image credit: Victoria Garcia, Flickr

Introversion is currently having a bit of a moment on the internet. Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts unleashed the floodgates, and now it’s nearly impossible to spend a day or a week online without seeing some sort of Buzzfeed article or numbered list about what it’s like to be an introvert, things extroverts don’t understand about introverts, and so on.

If this moment had happened a few years ago, I would have been full of justification and pride. I was right all along, I would have said. Being an introvert is super hard, and no one has understood how I’ve felt until now! In fact, traces of this attitude are visible in the review I wrote of Susan Cain’s book in 2012.

However, because of the effort I’ve put into into running my freelance business this year, all of these articles talking about how introverts are sensitive little snowflakes that the world just doesn’t understand have started to rub me the wrong way.

What I mean is that over the past year, I’ve realized something important: extroversion is a muscle you can strengthen; you just need to flex it enough.

What made me change

I remember years ago that whenever I attended WCDR events, I would come home happy but exhausted. All the people! All the conversations! But as I volunteered with the organization more and even began to be responsible for checking people off the registration list when they came in, I noticed that it became increasingly easier to be giggly — effervescent, even — and make small talk. It wasn’t so easy that I didn’t need time to recuperate afterwards, but I became comfortable in the role, slipping into it like a warm bath.

Fast-forward to this year, when I finally committed to taking self-employment seriously. All of a sudden, the events where I was interacting with people and presenting a shiny exterior increased in number from once a month to twice a week. (I still go to networking events twice a week, in fact. Sometimes even thrice, depending on the way things are scheduled.)

I get the sense that deliberately putting myself out there like that would exhaust a lot of people, especially those who wave the introvert flag with pride. It would have exhausted me a few years ago. But it doesn’t, now, because I’ve trained myself enough that these events are a new kind of normal.

How do you strengthen your socialization skills?

Let me make one thing clear: I still consider myself an introvert. I still need time to recharge after a long day filled with new people. But in case the “muscle” metaphor doesn’t work for you, I also liken my increased skill at socialization to flipping a switch — I can deliberately change my mindset for a few hours (or even a whole day) so that the intimidation and weariness I would normally associate with large events doesn’t affect me.

I’m sure there are lots of other people out there who are frustrated by the current special-snowflake paradigm when it comes to introversion. So what can you do if you’re one of those people, but don’t know how to break out of that mindset? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Start small, and do it consistently

One of the best things I did was join the WCDR. Eventually, I joined the Board of Directors; as a result, I volunteered on a regular basis and checked people off the registration list at every monthly meeting. This was beneficial in several ways:

  • I got to see the same people repeatedly and build a rapport because it was a monthly event.
  • I got a lot of time in between to cool off because it was only once a month.
  • I enjoyed talking to the people who attended because we shared a key interest.
2. Find a purpose behind what you’re doing

I’m attending so many networking events now because of my business coach. When we started about six months ago, that was one of her first pieces of advice. I admit that it helped to have someone to “blame” my new activity on, but my coach made it clear to me that doing this, even though it would be painful at first, was essential to making my business succeed.

I don’t know about you, but I like to eat. And if going out day after day to meet people will let me keep on eating, I’m all for it.

So if you want to be more at ease around new people, ask yourself “why” first. If it’s just because you want to conform to societal expectations, your plan won’t work. You have to have a deeper meaning in play.

3. Accept that it’s slow going

Like I said above, I still get tired. There have been times when I’ve bailed and not left the house. But thankfully, those are few and far between. Remember that bit about the WCDR volunteering? I checked people in for at least a year before I started attending to other types of events. Building that socialization muscle takes time, and that’s natural.

I wasn’t planning on making this an advice post, but here you go. I’m trying to change, and maybe you can too.

Need a Crash Course on Web Copy? Try “Nicely Said”

Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and PurposeTitle: Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose
Authors: Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee
Publisher: New Riders Publishing
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: Print

Writing can be a daunting prospect for many people, and the way that the internet has changed both how we write and how we read can make it even more so. But the realities of the modern marketing world demand writing that’s user-friendly and easy to understand. What’s a verbophobe to do?

Well, a good place to start is by reading Nicely Said: Writing for the Web with Style and Purpose by Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee. I’ve been writing for years in the context of websites and content management, and this is one of the most concise, thorough, and welcoming guides to online writing and editing that I’ve come across.

What really makes this book special is that it follows its own advice. All throughout, one of the most constant pieces of advice in it is to write in a friendly way that’s similar to how you would talk – and this book does that! A lot of writing and style guides take on a more authoritative tone, and sound intimidating as a result. This one doesn’t.

Nicely Said also imagines building a website from the ground up. It even uses an imaginary small business as a recurring example throughout the book of how to write and organize a website: Shortstack Books, an independent bookstore.

As the book discusses the process of doing research, writing mission statements, creating a wire frame, implementing consistent vocabulary, and even writing error messages and terms of service pages, it uses the example of Shortstack Books as its frame of reference. Although it’s a familiar technique, it works — it grounds the advice and keeps the topic from getting too abstract.

The book also includes case studies from several online companies like Etsy and Google, and provides several examples of good and bad web copy so you know what to do and what to avoid. What makes my particular editorial heart sing is that there are multiple chapters devoted to the topic of revision and workflow — processes that ordinarily strike non-communication-types with dread.

The only problem I have with Nicely Said is that it takes for granted the way the web works in 2013 and 2014. This book risks sounding dated very quickly.

However, that’s a small caveat. This is an extremely useful resource for people in a variety of contexts, like web developers and designers, not just writers and editors.

How Crutch Words Weaken Your Writing

Just say "no" to crutch words.

Just say “no” to crutch words.

Whoa! The “4 Myths About Editors” post has really taken off in the past few days. Thanks so much for all the positive feedback!

What I want to talk about today is related to one of the myths I discussed in that post: the idea that an editor will change your voice so much that it won’t sound like “you” anymore.

This concern is based on the idea that an editor will dilute what you have to say. However, good editing achieves the opposite — it strengthens and concentrates your voice, instead of weakening it. One way that editors do so is by removing crutch words.

What are crutch words?

Crutch words are the filler words people use that don’t add any value or information, and are often used to buy time when deciding what to say. Adverbs like “really” and “very” are a common culprit here — while they can add emphasis when used judiciously, overusing them makes for flabby writing. Here’s an example of what I mean, courtesy of Camilla Blakely, my copy editing teacher at Ryerson. Look at this sentence:

I was really quite scared.

Then compare that one to this:

I was terrified.

Which sentence sounds more vivid? I think you can guess — it’s the second one. In fact, the first sentence has the curious effect of making the speaker sound less scared than in the second sentence despite the use of multiple intensifiers. Technically, both sentences mean the same thing, but they convey completely opposed images.

However, the true insidiousness of crutch words lies in how goddamned often they pop up in writing, sapping the willpower of your readers as they roll your eyes over your limited vocabulary.

Want an example?

The “Apparently Kid”

You probably remember this kid from when a video featuring him went viral earlier this summer. Here it is:

If you want to skip the video, here’s a transcript, an excerpt of which is below:

Kid: It was great. And apparently I’ve never been on live television before. But, apparently sometimes I don’t watch the – I don’t watch the news. Because I’m a kid. And apparently every time – apparently grandpa gives me the remote after we watch the powerball.

Reporter: Tell me about the ride, what did you think about the ride?

Kid: Well it was great.

Reporter: Why?

Kid: Because, you are spinning around. Apparently every time you get dizzy.

The video became popular because this kid peppered his speech with the word “apparently” so much that it was obvious he had no idea what “apparently” meant. It’s cute when a little kid uses words incorrectly — it’s a sign of their brains developing, and though we don’t want to admit it, much of our laughter was paternalistic.

But you know what’s super annoying? When a person old enough to know better does the same thing. Even worse is that in certain contexts, using a crutch word can undermine your credibility, as this article from Workopolis shows. An excerpt is below:

Him: “I was basically responsible for the content strategy. The senior editor had me running the day to day updates and maintaining the websites. I always kept the sites fresh by having the newest stories featured front and centre.”

Me: “So you weren’t actually in charge of the editorial websites, you just basically updated them with the newest stories as they came in.”

Him: “Basically, yes.”

I suppose it isn’t necessary to say that I didn’t hire this editor for the role. His resume got his foot in the door for the interview, but he proceeded to undercut all of his alleged accomplishments by saying that he had “basically” done them.

I’ve actually not done justice in this piece to how often he said the word. It was so frequent that I suspect it may even have been a nervous tic. If so, I hope he’s overcome it by now.

The best compliment I’ve ever received

Let me tell you a story.

A few years ago, I was at a networking event and chatting with an older gentleman sitting next to me. I spoke at length to him about a book I had read recently and why I found it so interesting. After I was done, here’s what he said:

Him: You know what I like about you?

Me: No. What?

Him: You didn’t use the word “like” at all [as a filler] when you spoke to me just now.

People notice when you use crutch words. I consider this compliment — from a man whose name I don’t even remember! — as one of the best I’ve ever received in my life.

I want you to try something: the next time you’re listening to a friend talk or reading someone’s long-winded status update, pay attention to what words they overuse. Then imagine a big noisy “beep” sound over that word, like it’s being censored on a trashy talk show. Imagine that “beep” popping up every time those words appear. The more you hear that sound, the more it aggravates you, right? Now imagine how your audience feels when you do the same thing in your own writing or speaking — your pauses and tics distract from the core of your message.

Do you really want to sound like a five-year-old, beeping and grasping at that handy yet important-sounding word because you can’t think of others that will do the job?

What’s worse is that it’s hard for us to recognize our own crutch words because they’re an important component of supporting our thought process. They’re the scaffolding we use when structuring what we want to say. What an editor does is take a look at that scaffolding and apply all the material needed to finish the job and make that support structure unnecessary — then the building behind the scaffolding can stand strong and tall as its shining walls catch the sun.

Common crutch words to avoid

You could write books about what to cut out of your writing (and many have), but here’s a list of some common crutch words and phrases that appear in both written and spoken English:

  • really
  • very
  • quite
  • basically
  • truly
  • apparently (I couldn’t resist!)
  • honestly
  • actually
  • focus on (e.g., “I focus on helping people write well” vs “I help people write well” — this is one of my personal crutch words)
  • like
  • you know
  • um/uh
  • so
  • anyway
  • well
  • literally

When you find these words in your text, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Is this word providing any additional meaning or emphasis to what I want to say?
  • Will my meaning be altered if I cut this word?
  • Can I think of a way to make this shorter?
  • How does it sound when I read this out loud?

Applying these questions to your own writing and cutting the words that don’t pass muster — that is, by doing what your editor would do — will make your writing stronger and more memorable.

4 Myths About Editors

An example of text with editorial markup.What editors do is often kept hidden. In fact, a good editor is supposed to remain invisible by giving the text enough care and polish that it shines brightly and speaks for itself.

The thing is, when your goal is to be invisible, people get a distorted image of what you actually do. Myths about editors exist, and they’re pernicious. So what is editing, and what myths about editors are there? Here are four examples.

Myth #1: Editors are just glorified spell-checkers

When most people think of editing, they think of fixing typos and grammatical errors, or what editors call “copy editing.” (This is what others often call “proofreading” — proofreading and copy editing are actually two different things.)

However, even in a typical copy edit, there’s far more going on than just spell-checking. For instance, copy editors are frequently on the lookout for:

  • continuity errors
  • incorrect information or anachronisms
  • inconsistent formatting of elements like tables, graphs, and captions

Let’s say you’re writing a novel set in 1981 and you mention that a character is wearing a pastel shirt like the ones on Miami Vice. MS Word won’t double-check when the show started airing, but an editor will – and they’ll flag it, since the show started in 1984, three years after your story takes place.

Another example: you say your character’s eyes are blue in chapter one, but brown in chapter six. Would a spell-checker catch that?

I doubt it.

Of course, that’s assuming you’re working with a copy editor. A lot of editors don’t copy edit. Instead, they look at the text from a 50,000-foot view, examining the terrain and figuring out the deeper-level issues in your text that need fixing.

These people are known as structural or substantive editors. When reading your text, they ask themselves things like:

  • Are you keeping your audience in mind, or are you using too much technical jargon?
  • Should your conclusion really be the text’s introduction or first chapter?
  • Do your readers need to know about Topic X when the rest of the chapter discusses Topic Y?

That’s more than just being a glorified spell-checker. Editing like that involves being a bloodhound on the trail for gaps, unclear thinking, and logical fallacies. I bet Clippy can’t do all that.

Myth #2: Editors are just waiting to pounce on every mistake you make

People often think of editors as know-it-alls wielding red pens, waiting to call you out on your misuse of a comma. Granted, there are people out there like that, and there is a certain amount of satisfaction in pointing out the spelling and grammar mistakes of others.

But honestly? Getting into a tizzy over every single error is pedantic. More than that, it’s exhausting. People make mistakes. The whole reason editors exist is to keep those mistakes to a minimum and make you look better.

More importantly, ridiculing you for every mistake is counterproductive to an editor’s aim, which is a positive working relationship. As an editor, it’s in my best interest to keep you as happy as possible about the small things, like fixing spelling mistakes, so I can create enough trust to bring up more serious problems, like bad transitions and inconsistent referencing.

Myth #3: Editors will change your writing so much it won’t sound like “you” anymore

Bad editors may do this. Overzealous editors who feel like they have something to prove may do this. I know there are horror stories out there.

But unless your writing is so bad that such heavy rewriting is necessary — and if it is, that’s something that a managing editor or project manager should discuss with you in detail — editors like that are the exception, not the rule.

It all goes back to fostering a good working relationship, like I mentioned in the second point above. Trust is both important and scarce, and the wholesale rewriting of text without consultation burns through a lot of trust quickly with no obvious benefit. Why would we shoot ourselves in the foot like that?

Fellow editor Antonia Morton has a clever saying:

George Orwell wrote: “Good prose is like a window pane.”

Editor Antonia Morton says: “Good editing is like a squirt of Windex.”

Wholesale rewriting is not good editing — that’s just shattering the window entirely.

Update: I delve into this myth more in my follow-up post “How Crutch Words Weaken Your Writing

Myth #4: Editors don’t make mistakes

Remember that bit above about people making mistakes? It applies to editors too.

Embarrassing confession time: there are a lot of errors I haven’t caught when editing something. Usually they occur when the turnaround time for a project is very short. (A lesson to the wise: don’t underestimate the amount of time that good editing takes.)

Hell, I’ll admit to something even worse: I’ve committed the cardinal sin of introducing errors. This is a huge no-no. One time earlier this year, I was doing a rush job (remember what I just said about needing enough time to do good work?) for a client whose company included a bed and breakfast facility. During the process, I wrote the phrase “bread and breakfast” rather than “bed and breakfast”. This happened not once but twice. Once the client informed me of this, I made sure to fix the error as soon as possible and — after doing a quick scan in MS Word to make sure this error didn’t appear anywhere else in the document — sent back a cleaned-up copy.

The point is that no one is perfect. In fact, academics have studied error rates in various contexts. Fellow editor Adrienne Montgomerie discussed last year both on Copyediting.com and subsequently on her own site that no editor catches every single mistake. At best, estimates about error detection rates range from 95% to 99% among professional editors.

So what are editors like?

They’re like anyone else, really. They’re fallible, but they care about doing a good job. The difference here is that this job is an intensely personal one because many people see their writing as an extension of themselves — and if your writing is bad, what does that say about you as a person?

You are not a bad person. Your thoughts are worthy of expression.

All editors do is make that worthiness more apparent to the wider world.

The Value of Plain Language

One of the hardest lessons I ever had to learn as a writer was that using complex words was not a sign of good writing.

It’s a natural assumption to make. “Good” writing means writing that sounds “smart” — and what’s smarter than using vague or polysyllabic words that you really have to think about to understand?

How about using language that’s simple, clear, and gets its point across? In other words, how about plain language?

Understanding the value of plain language is something that a lot of individuals and businesses have trouble with. Hell, even the government of Canada hasn’t implemented plain language rules across all of its departments, as a recent news story about Revenue Canada has made clear.

Quick summary: an American firm reviewed thousands of letters sent to Canadian citizens by Revenue Canada (Canada’s version of the IRS) and found that they were “poorly organized, confusing, unprofessional, unduly severe, bureaucratic, one-sided and just plain dense”.

Ouch.

The cost of not using plain language

It gets worse, though. Turns out that having letters full of bureaucratic, complex language — AKA, what many people think sounds “smart” — has a huge cost:

All that gibberish comes with a human cost: confused taxpayers swamp the agency’s call centres with needless telephone inquiries, or they send thousands of letters to tax offices asking for clarification.

[…]

“Often the main purpose of the documents was not readily apparent, and other important information was scattered throughout the document or embedded in dense paragraphs,” Siegelvision said in its $25,000 review for the government.

The evaluation included an online survey of taxpayers by another firm, which asked respondents to examine a typical CRA notice that required the recipient to send the tax agency money. About half of those surveyed could not figure out they were supposed to write a cheque to the government because the document was so poorly written. [Emphasis added.]

Think about all of the waste in both time and money those poorly-written letters cause. Think about all of the money the government isn’t getting because people can’t understand that they need to submit a cheque.

Would you let “smart” sounding writing get in the way of actually getting the money you need to keep on going, whether you’re a business or individual?

I didn’t think so.

So what is plain language?

Put simply, plain language involves using common words and simple phrasing to make sure as many people as possible understand what you’re trying to say.

That doesn’t mean you have to sound like you’re writing for a five-year-old. But it does mean that you need to write clearly, avoiding heavily technical or  insider-friendly terms. You have to assume that the people you’re talking to don’t know as much about your topic as you do.

Let’s face it, no one knows everything — but people do want to learn, and plain language is all about not getting in your reader’s way. Who knows how much money (literal and figurative) you’re leaving on the table otherwise?

What Taco Bell Can Teach You About Bad Business Copy

taco_bell_bad_business_copyDo you know what your business copy says about you? Not what you think it says, but what it actually says?

What if you want to look professional and competent but your business copy is secretly undermining you? Would you be able to see what you’re doing wrong?

Many don’t. But some do, and they know how to use language to appeal to different demographics. That’s why I found this recent article about the copy that Taco Bell uses on its menus so fascinating.

Quick recap: Dan Jurafsky, the author of The Language of Food, sat down with a writer for Mother Jones and compared two menus side-by-side. One menu was from Taco Bell, and the other was from U.S. Taco Co., Taco Bell’s new upscale spinoff . Not surprisingly, the two menus have radically different copy based on what markets they’re targeting.

The upshot? Many of the things that Taco Bell does are things that you shouldn’t apply to your own business copy. Let’s look at a few.

Too many descriptive words

One of the first things that Jurafsky noticed was that Taco Bell’s menu uses a lot of descriptors like “fresh” and “fluffy” in its copy:

“So there’s all of those adjectives and participles,” he says. “‘Fluffy. ‘Seasoned.'” That’s one thing that’s common on cheaper restaurant menus — as if the restaurant feels the need to try and convince its diners of the quality of the food. A fancier restaurant, he explains, would take it as a given that the diner expects the eggs to be fluffy and the pico de gallo to be freshly prepared.

“Notice the word ‘flavorful,'” Jurafsky says. “The cheapest restaurants use these vague, positive adjectives. ‘Delicious.’ ‘Tasty.’ ‘Scrumptious.’ Wonderful. Again, more expensive restaurants take all that as a given.”

In contrast, the menu for U.S. Taco Co. is more spartan:

“What the really upscale restaurants these days are doing is just listing their ingredients. They don’t say “and” or “with.” It’s just a list.”

You’ve probably read more than your fair share of fluffy, meaningless writing yourself: adjective- and adverb-stuffed text talking about how “amazing” or “innovative” some product or service is, rather than what it actually does and letting the thing in question speak for itself.

Too many options

Another big thing that Jurafsky noticed was that Taco Bell’s menu had far more items on it than U.S. Taco Co.’s did:

There are dozens, if not hundreds of items. “The very, very fancy restaurants, many of them have no menu at all,” Jurafsky says. “The waiter tells you what you’re going to eat, kind of. If you want, they’ll email you a menu if you really want it.”

One of the first things I learned when starting out as a freelancer was to focus on a few things and do them well. How many times have you met someone at an event and heard about the dizzying variety of services they offer, some of them completely unrelated to each other?

Focusing on complementary services or sectors is fine — but do any more than two or three, and you’re beginning to look unfocused at best, and desperate at worst. In fact, that’s why this year I narrowed my focus even further to just writing and editing, letting the WordPress side of my business go.

The little things count

A third thing that Jurafsky noticed in both menus was their differing attitude towards Spanish. Here’s Taco Bell:

…. the word “jalapeño” is missing its tilde — the little squiggle over the “n” that signifies a “nye” pronunciation in Spanish words. Jurafsky isn’t sure whether the missing “ñ” is linguistically meaningful, but keep it in mind, because it will become important when we look at U.S. Taco Co.’s menu.

In contrast, here’s U.S. Taco Co.:

“There are more unusual Spanish words on this menu,” he [Jurafsky] says. Taco Bell has “burrito” and “taco.” Everyone knows those. But “here we have ‘molcajete’ and’cotija.’ Every item has at least one Spanish word. And there’s the “ñ” in jalapeño!

A single letter may be trivial, but it means a lot — in this context, it shows one restaurant trying to be more authentic (a loaded word, I know) than the other. On top of that, the more upscale menu is using more obscure words — it’s trying to be a bit more culturally diverse. (Though honestly, considering Taco Bell is the parent company, I’m trying not to read too much into this.)

What does this mean for you or your business?

These lessons can be boiled down easily because they follow well-known rules of good business copy:

  • Don’t fluff up your copy. Stick to concrete details — nouns and verbs, what your product contains and what it actually does — and cut the meaningless puffery.
  • Know what you’re doing and do it well. Don’t try to be everything to everyone.
  • Get the little details right because people will notice.

More importantly, what does not following these rules mean?

It means you look cheap. There’s no other way to put it.

Think about the content mills that charge writers only one or two cents a word. Those writers have to keep their heads above water, which means that they can’t afford to spend time writing copy that’s concrete and well-informed if they have to meet a certain word count — it’s much faster for them to slip in filler words “really” and “quite” to put them over the top.

If you don’t value your business enough to invest in clear, concrete writing, then you’ll probably attract customers with a similarly cavalier approach to value and price. When it comes to your business, is that really the impression you want to give?

Resources for Editors

resources_for_editorsIn September I wrote a blog post about my experience with Ryerson’s publishing program. At the end of the post, I said I would provide more info for people who want to learn more about editing or who want to be editors. So here’s a huge list of resources for editors!

These links aren’t organized in any particular order. Some links may be repeated as they apply to multiple sections.

Please note that these links focus on freelance editing. If you’re an in-house editor, or if you’re a designer, bookseller, or marketer, I would love to hear about your recommended resources in the comments.

What does it take to be an editor?

Many people think that editing involves primly marking up errors in red pen. However, it requires more than that. You have to be curious, thoughtful, and aware of your own biases. Here are some excellent pages about what it means to be a good editor.

Professional associations for editors

Joining a professional association will allow you to connect with other editors, and that is extremely important. Depending on the organization, you can also benefit from mediation services, group insurance plans, group discounts, and more. Some organizations also offer discounted membership if you’re still a student.

Mailing lists for editors

Individual editors who tell it like it is

Sometimes you need to hear that other editors are going through the same thing as you. These people offer great info and advice.

Business resources for editors

Tools and technology

Learning about and loving the language

Editing involves more than knowing grammar. You also have to understand the ways that language changes. These people provide varying perspectives on this process.

All-in-one resources for editors

Short on time? These sites provide a concentrated dose of helpful info.

Are there any websites that you think I should add? Let me know in the comments.

3 Lessons From The Art of Entrepreneurship

The Art of EntrepreneurshipOn Tuesday I attended The Art of Entrepreneurship, a day-long event with info and resources for business owners and entrepreneurs. However, even though the speakers were famous, much of the advice about running a successful business was old-hat.

You know the stuff. Build a positive work culture. Find your passion. Be bold. Et cetera.

That advice works; you can’t be successful in business without following it. But there’s more to entrepreneurship than that.

Despite this, I did learn some other lessons. Here are three of them.

1. Entrepreneurship is like basketball: it’s all about pivots and rebounds

The best anecdote that I heard was from Alexis Ohanian, who talked about starting reddit. Reddit is one of the darlings of Paul Graham’s Y Combinator program, but initially Ohanian and his co-founder Steve Huffman were rejected when they applied. Their plan to create a mobile-based restaurant ordering service didn’t pass the sniff test — the infrastructure for this sort of thing just wasn’t there in 2005.

However, they got a sudden reprieve: the next day, Graham called them back, offering them a second chance if they worked on a different idea instead.

Y Combinator wasn’t yet the legend it is now. But both founders knew a good thing when they saw it. With the right guidance, they got reddit off the ground and made it so successful that it was bought out by Conde Nast the following year.

Could they have stuck with their initial bad idea? Yes. Could they have improved on that bad idea? Probably. But they recognized that changing direction would be better in the long term. They pivoted and rebounded from near failure.

2. Give your presentation balance

There were five speakers at the event:

  • Eric Ryan, from the eco-friendly cleaning product company method;
  • Chris Guillebeau, best-selling author and “travel hacker”;
  • Debbie Travis, design expert and founder of a multi-media empire;
  • Alexis Ohanian (mentioned above); and
  • Gary Vaynerchuk, founder of the Wine Library and VaynerMedia.

These are all notable people — big names draw in big crowds.

However, I suspect they scheduled the speakers in the above order on purpose: the opening and closing speakers, Ryan and Vaynerchuk, had the most energy. Ryan was fun and goofy. Vaynerchuk was confrontational and swore a lot. (This had the benefit of waking up an audience that was crashing at the end of the day.) In contrast, the other three speakers were more muted.

The point is that what applies to high-school essays can also be applied to people: start and finish with your strongest stuff, and leave the weaker parts in the middle.

This isn’t to say that the other three speakers were “weak” — just that different people have different levels of charisma, and that you need to take advantage of that. Personally, I found Chris Guillebeau’s talk the most appealing, but he was far more subdued than Eric Ryan was.

3. It’s not just about the art; it’s also about the people

The true value of these events lies in meeting interesting people, so let me tell you about some awesome people I met. Maybe they can help you. Maybe you can help them. Whatever happens, they’re still doing cool stuff.

Viviana Machado of Foodies Inked — Viviana’s day job involves managing social media for a major hardware store chain, but during the evenings and weekends she reviews restaurants across Toronto on her blog, Foodies Inked. In addition to her reviews, she travels, runs contests, and posts recipes online.

Belinda Monpremier of 99founders — 99founders is an online benefits club for Canadian entrepreneurs and business owners. It offers special deals and discounts on travel, hotels, web apps, and other aspects of running a business. Note: The site is currently invite-only.

Lindsay Knowlton of Iron Lady Golf — Lindsay started playing golf as a hobby with her dad. Eventually, people asked her to teach them how to play golf so they could take part in corporate events. She soon realized that knowledge of golf was a useful asset for women who wanted to “break into” primarily male parts of the business world, and founded Iron Lady Golf as a result. Lindsay has made some fabulous connections with golf courses across the GTA. Now she’s learning how to play golf left-handed to learn all over again what it’s like to be a newcomer to the sport.

Were you there too?

There were hundreds of people at The Art of Entrepreneurship; were you one of them? How did you feel about the speakers? What did you learn? Let me know in the comments.

Ryerson Publishing: What Other Students Thought

I last wrote about the Ryerson publishing program when I answered some FAQs from prospective students. But what do other publishing students have to say about their experience?

I found out — and I hope you get as much out of their comments as I did.

Note: all quotes below have been lightly edited for grammar or clarity.

J’s thoughts on the Ryerson publishing program

J is finishing up the Ryerson program this fall, and currently works as an in-house editor with a publisher:

The program and the EAC have both been vital in me furthering my editing career. But I’m not sure how much of that was just the timing of when I entered the industry. I think it will be much harder for current students.

J elaborated on this in another email:

The Ryerson courses, as well as the EAC [Editors’ Association of Canada] courses, improved my editing skills immensely. Not to mention the networking opportunities from both.

However, when I started there were many more in-house opportunities than there are now. Many of those in-house positions have been outsourced off-shore. So there is more competition for the freelance, and in-house, jobs available.

I did do an internship and would recommend it to anyone who wants to be an editor, or be in publishing. Just don’t fall into the trap of moving from one internship to another in the hopes of gaining full-time work: it rarely, if ever, happens.

Lea Kaplan, graphic designer

Lea Kaplan is a writer and graphic designer who now lives in Toronto. After completing the publishing program, she studied graphic design in New York. Here’s what she had to say:

I did graduate from the program, though I know plenty of people who did not.  I’m not actually working in publishing right now (though I do still hope to end up in the industry). I went back to school and got another degree, and am now job hunting once again.

Her thoughts on whether the program offers transferable skills:

To be honest… I don’t know if there really were any transferrable skills. At least, not in regards to the direction I’ve gone.

The degree I received was in graphic design, and I am hoping to end up back in the publishing industry as a designer. I suppose that some of the skills learned in the book design course I took were transferable, but otherwise…

I suppose some of the tricks and tips learned in the marketing and/or publicity classes could be transferable, because being able to sell things is an important skill set regardless of what you’re selling. And I’m of the firm belief that everyone should have the skills to be able to copy edit text.

What I loved about the program was that it was specific. It was targeted to books, it gave the student a remarkable overview of all aspects of the publishing industry, and allowed us to connect to professionals who actively worked in that world. For someone trying to break into the publishing industry, that was invaluable. The things learned in the classroom were only half of the strength of the program.

An anonymous editor

This editor and I took classes together at Ryerson, and we reconnected after seeing each other at the 2014 EAC conference. Here’s what she had to say:

I fell into publishing in my third year of my undergraduate degree while fulfilling a voluntary placement. At the time, I was studying to be a teacher and was very unhappy. As a publishing intern, I realized that I could use my best skills – research, editing, and writing – and that teaching wasn’t my only option as a literature student.

I studied publishing at Ryerson in 2009 and then at the graduate level in 2012. I interned in editorial, marketing, and for a literary agency. I currently read for an agency, intern for a magazine publisher, and take on freelance editing projects wherever I can.

I believe that studying publishing is useful for an overview of the industry and to have access to internships and jobs you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get, but I would advise any aspiring publisher to work in the industry rather than studying it. Work in a bookstore, help with a literary festival, assist with digital platforms, freelance, and attend as many conferences and events as possible. If I could go back and tell my younger self anything, it would be to start working in publishing immediately upon finishing my undergraduate degree rather than going on to do graduate work. If I had known then what I know now, things would be very different.

Last spring, I interned for a wonderful company and was under the direction of a woman whose career trajectory I wish I could emulate. She started as a freelancer, worked as an assistant across different publishing sectors, and now – at the age of twenty five – is an assistant editor for a well-respected literary imprint. I would give anything to have what she has and do what she did, but I’m not her and she’s not me (and I didn’t know then what I know now).

I would also advise any aspiring publisher to work across as many sectors as possible. Don’t be picky and don’t limit yourself. You might find something you love that you never thought you would, and you will learn things you never dreamed you could if you step out of your comfort zone and you are open to new possibilities. Also: learn InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, and as many other publishing-related systems as you can. Strong administrative skills, attention to detail, efficiency, and a willingness to handle and apply criticism are essential.

A second anonymous editor

This is another person who studied at Ryerson at the same time that I did. She says some pretty strong stuff here — I can’t resist quoting someone who’s stirring the pot. Here are her thoughts:

When anyone asks me about working in publishing, I tell them “don’t do it!” I’ve had at least six friends this year alone lose their job at Random House. And several at other publishers too — or friends in magazines have their company go under. It’s a depressing time. Most internships are keeping things afloat these days. So I’m kinda negative about the whole thing. Ryerson accepts unlimited amounts of people to train for jobs that just don’t exist. The newer courses, such as the one on rights and the eBook production course, are the good ones, though I haven’t taken the digital production one yet, so I can’t really comment on it. I didn’t finish the diploma, mainly because I had a job in publishing and I didn’t think it was really worth it. So maybe I’m not the best person to talk to!

These days, the bigger publishers are more concerned than ever about their bottom lines. This affects the people working in publishing through cutbacks, but it also affects the types or quality of books they’re looking to publish. But maybe this will be a more exciting time for the mid-size or smaller Canadian publishers; they will get those authors usually snapped up by the larger corporations. Still, the point is that people getting into publishing because of a love of books need to choose their passion wisely because the industry has changed a lot.

You start classes and the first thing you hear is that there is NO MONEY in publishing. Well, that’s okay, you think, because I love books! But what you don’t hear (or maybe you do now) is the climate at these larger publishers: what drives them is a need to see return on their investments, not “good books.”

This makes sense, since business is business. But those doing it for a love of books are both out of pocket and lost in the bureaucracy of a larger publisher. And that’s where so many end up because of internships. A job at a smaller/mid-size publisher is really what you want, but those are few and far between.

What are your thoughts?

These are the thoughts of only a few people, and I recognize that far more comprehensive surveys could be made given the right resources. However, I feel it’s a start.

What are your thoughts? Are you a Ryerson publishing graduate who wants to weigh in? Are you a current or prospective student looking for more info? Submit a comment or send me an email.

3 Lessons From InboundCon 2014

InboundCon - Canada's Premier Inbound Marketing ConferenceA week ago I attended InboundCon 2014, a one-day conference on inbound marketing. It was intense. There were some breaks for networking and meals, but otherwise it was a non-stop stream of information about topics like SEO, PPC advertising, UX design, content marketing, social media, and lead conversion.

I was overloaded by the end. It’s taken me a while to sift through things since then. However, I’ve thought a lot about what I’ve learned. Here are my top 3 lessons from InboundCon 2014:

1. Content may be king, but don’t forget about the rest of the castle

The pithiest quote of the day came from Ira Haberman of Atomic Reach, who said, “If content is king, then audience is queen…and we know who runs the house.”

Given the wide variety of topics under discussion, though, the conversation needs to extend beyond these two concepts. Content is important. Good content is more important. But kings can’t get nearly enough done without a castle full of advisors, courtiers, and scullery maids, not to mention all the tax collectors in the countryside: good content is effective only when there’s proper infrastructure in place to support it.

Whether this infrastructure involves responsive design, A/B testing, or lead conversion tools, it and content are all connected. A/B testing helps determine the best way to present your information, which leads to greater engagement, which leads to more sales, and so on.

2. Sometimes the most useful information is the most concise

I took a lot of notes at InboundCon, but at day-long events like these, attention inevitably starts to flag. There was one session that stuck out to me, though, called “30 Amazing Marketing Tools in 15 Minutes.” It was by the COO of Powered by Search, the organization running the conference.

It promised a lot of useful information with no filler, and it delivered. The fact that the information was given so quickly and precisely, and that it focused on stuff you could use right away made it stand out from all the slides and panels and lingering conversations.

3. No one knows everything, but everyone knows something

The pace of change in the online marketing industry is ridiculously fast — new algorithms, new insights, and new tools always appear. It’s difficult to keep up, but all of the presenters make it their job to do so. However, no two presenters spoke about the same thing, and although their advice was similar in many ways, it’s safe to say that they learned as much from each other as the audience did.

This means that no matter how knowledgeable an expert is, there’s no point at which this knowledge is complete. Expertise is a constant state of progression. Even though I’m the tortoise, I can catch up whenever the hare pauses to take a breath.

And you know what? I find that comforting. I’ve got my running shoes on. I’m confident that with the right amount of focus, I can find my footing in this race — and contribute knowledge of my own when the time comes.