Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

How I Run My Site: WordPress Plugins

Black and white macro of power plug.Last night in one of the Facebook groups I’m part of, someone said she was about to update her freelance website and asked to see websites from other freelancers in the group. The result was a long thread full of links, and the discussion eventually moved towards talking about WordPress plugins and making sites mobile-friendly.

Because of this, I thought it would be a good idea to discuss what plugins I use. So here’s a list of some of the WordPress plugins I rely on (in no particular order), and why I think that other freelancers should consider installing them. This isn’t a list of every plugin I use, but it includes some of my favourites.

Security and Site Maintenance

Akismet – Essential for blocking spam comments. However, you need an API key to use it, which you need to pay for. I have a free API key because I set up an account on WordPress.com years ago, but I don’t think they do that anymore. To learn more, visit akismet.com.

BackupBuddy – One of the most popular backup plugins – it backs up both site files (eg: images, themes, etc) and databases. I have a multi-site license for it, which means I can back up the sites of some clients I do WordPress work for. To learn more, visit ithemes.com.

BulletProof Security – This security plugin is a bit touchy, but it does the job. However, it’s not very user-friendly. To learn more, visit wordpress.org.

Maintenance Mode – A fairly simple plugin that lets you toggle a splash page on/off warning visitors that your site is undergoing some maintenance. If you’re logged into your own blog as an admin, you’ll see the site, as-is without the splash page. To learn more, visit wordpress.org.

Login Lockdown – One of my favourites. Just set it up and you’ve got another layer of protection against brute-force attempts to log into your admin account. To learn more, visit wordpress.org.

Site Optimization and SEO

WordPress SEO by Yoast – This was the plugin that spurred me to write this post. It makes crafting title tag, keyword, and metadata info for each page and post you create much easier. I use this to make my post snippets display well on various social networks. To learn more, visit yoast.com.

Google Analytics and Google Analytics Dashboard by Yoast – Google Analytics allows you to drill down into your traffic data and discover a trove of information about who visits your site. These two programs integrate WordPress and Google Analytics. To learn more, visit yoast.com.

W3  Total Cache – This one changes your site files slightly so that your site will load faster. Considering that site loading times are important to both search results and visitor interest, it’s a worthwhile tool to have. To learn more, visit w3-edge.com

Social Media and Sharing

Jetpack – This is an extremely popular plugin – no wonder, since it’s developed by the same people behind WordPress. It allows self-hosted WordPress sites to access several of the features that blogs hosted on WordPress.com use. I  don’t use all its features, but I do use its sharing icons, site stats, and shortlinks. To learn more visit jetpack.me.

FeedBlitz Feedsmart – I use this service for my RSS feed. Most feed pages (usually found by going to www.website.com/feed) look like a mess of code if you don’t use a service to format them. Even though FeedBlitz isn’t free (I pay just under $2/month since I don’t use it for email subscriptions), I prefer it over FeedBurner, since FeedBurner’s been dead in the water for years. To learn more, visit feedblitz.com.

Yet Another Related Posts Plugin – Does what it says on the tin. This plugin inserts a list of posts on related topics at the bottom of each blog post. To learn more, visit yarpp.com.

Looking Like a Professional

Contact Form 7  and Really Simple CAPTCHA – Contact Form 7 is both user-friendly and extremely flexible, so you can create forms with several elements like radio buttons and checkboxes. I’ve kept my contact form on the simple side though. I use the Really Simple CAPTCHA plugin to prevent spam. To learn more, visit contactform7.com.

Easy Google Fonts – Most WordPress themes come with some way to customize the fonts you use on your site. However, this plugin allows you a lot more flexibility – with this, you can customize almost any textual element on your site using the free Google Web Font library. Highly recommended. To learn more, visit wordpress.org.

Easy MailChimp Forms – I manage my mailing list using MailChimp, and this plugin integrates my MailChimp account with my site so people can join my list (see the signup form near the top?) without leaving my site. To learn more, visit yikesinc.com.

Huge IT Portfolio Gallery – I use this plugin for my portfolio page. The free version is limited, so I purchased the premium version. There are other gallery/portfolio plugins out there, but I preferred this one’s interface and its ability to enter in outbound links. However, I did ask the developers to make some customizations for my site — happily, they obliged. To learn more, visit huge-it.com.

WordPress Editorial Calendar – This plugin uses a drag-and-drop feature  over a calendar overlay so you can schedule posts ahead of time. My posting schedule has slowed down somewhat, but this was a lifesaver when I was writing 2-3 book reviews a week. To learn more, visit stresslimitdesign.com.

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.

Goals for 2013

The frenzy of reading and reviewing 40 books in 2012 has passed, but I’m still a little shell-shocked a few days later. 2013 will be a bit different, but in degree rather than in kind. Of course, this can mean only one thing: I’ve upped the ante.

In this case, I’ve decided to read 50 books this year instead of 40.

However, I don’t want to deal with the insanity of writing 50 book reviews. I think this year, I’ll just review a book whenever the mood strikes me, though I do plan to do a minimum of 1 per month.

I’m also going to try to inject more variety into my reading, and broaden my scope away from just speculative fiction. For example…

  • More public domain books/books that form part of the Western canon
  • More books by authors of colour, and/or with protagonists of colour
  • More anthologies written by multiple authors

On top of that, I’m going to keep on doing my slush reading for Electric Velocipede, attend Ad Astra in April, and get back on the horse with my own writing. I might even have the courage to submit something to a magazine or anthology – you never know.

So what are your goals for the brand new year?

Book Review: You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, by John Scalzi

You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, by John ScalziTitle: You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 4 out of 5

I read a lot of books about writing in 2012. Take a look for yourselves in the archives. Although the authors I read occupy different niches within the industry, they wrote mainly about the same thing: craft. They wrote about language, narrative, and the writing life. In Anne Lamott’s case, she even waxed rhapsodic about how to Being A Writer  is a Noble Calling.

Screw that. John Scalzi just wants to get paid.

Well, there’s more to him than that, but he definitely doesn’t want to be a Starving Artist.

In a display of how ever-pragmatic Scalzi isYou’re Not Fooling Anyone consists solely of his blog posts about writing, repackaged into book form. What’s refreshing about his posts, and what distinguishes them from the other books about writing that I’ve read this year, is that he doesn’t shy away from talking about money. In fact, he devotes multiple posts to talking about finances, and one post in particular to a breakdown of where his writing income comes from – even going so far as to state outright his average yearly incone.

This leads to another refreshing thing about Scalzi – he’s doesn’t hide the fact that he makes the majority of his money from corporate writing gigs. This is something that’s probably true of most fiction writers/novelists, but rarely have I seen one state so openly that the money they make from the publishing industry is the cherry on the sundae, rather than the sundae itself.

It’s also nice to hear some snark about author advances, and to hear him take a publisher, Night Shade Books, to task about its perspective on those advances. Interestingly, a few years ago Night Shade Books was placed on probation by SFWA a few years back for not meeting its financial obligations to its authors, although it’s now off probation. It’s hard not to wonder how this publisher’s contemptuous attitude towards authors in Scalzi’s post is related to its later financial troubles.

Unfortunately, since these are blog posts, they’re also quite topical, which means that they date themselves quickly. The publishing wisdom that held true six or seven years ago when Scalzi first wrote these posts doesn’t necessarily hold true now. I bet a new edition of this book with more current posts would have a lot more to say about ebooks and Amazon, for example. But this is a problem inherent to blog posts in general; it does nothing to diminish Scalzi’s skill as a writer.

So, in short: if you like snark, you’ll like this book. If you like up-front discussions of the financial aspect of being a freelance writer, you’ll like this book. But if you do like this book, you owe it to yourself to check out Whatever to see the new stuff that Scalzi has brewed up.

Up next: The High Road by Terry Fallis

Saying Yes to Full-time Freelancing

I’ve been managing this website through its various incarnations since late 2009. Since then, there have been a lot of changes – new web addresses, new business names, and new clients. However, a few weeks ago, an even bigger change happened: I stopped being a full-time, in-house employee.

Apart from the occasional mention of commutes and coworkers, this is not something I’ve mentioned a lot. When I started doing freelance work (and thus started this site), I also worked full-time in a position not related to writing or editing. In the summer of 2010, I found a new job formatting and proofreading web content. It was a wonderful place to work, and I learned a lot there over the following 2 years. However, I found out a month ago that my contract was not being renewed, and my final day at work was two weeks after that.

Although this was unpleasant news, it also helped me decide to make my freelance business my main focus. I am now making the leap from employee to independent professional for hire.

Is this change going to be easy? Not at first. However, I’m ready to hustle. I’ve contacted other editors and writers I know. I’ve contacted companies I’m interested in working with. Most of all, I’ve got the professional training and the family support that made this decision possible in the first place.

Since I’ve made the leap, I’ve gotten many encouraging signs. In particular, I discovered this blog post by John Scalzi about what it was like to become an independent writer, where the following paragraph really stood out:

And this is one of the reasons why I tell people that being laid off from AOL was one of the best things that ever happened to me — because as much as it knocked me for a loop, it made me ask myself who I wanted to be in control of my life — and it made me make a choice about how my life would be. It was the right crisis at the right time; it was something I think was necessary for me. In a very real way, it’s the moment I can point to and say “this is when I knew I was a grown up.” It’s maybe a silly way to put it, but it was important all the same. So: Thanks, AOL, for laying me off. I appreciate it. It’s done more for me than you know.

Speaking of encouraging signs, as I was writing out this very post, a company of editors I follow on Twitter asked me if I wanted to write a guest blog post for them. I said yes – because who in their right mind wouldn’t?

In essence, that’s a lot of what becoming a freelancer means: Saying yes. Yes to change. Yes to trepidation. But also yes to new projects, yes to new skills, and yes to new and interesting people.

So here I am: I’ve said yes. And I’m hoping that when it comes down to it, I’ll be hearing the word “yes” too.

Attending the Editors’ Association of Canada conference in Ottawa

It appears that when I watch a movie three times in the theatre, it causes me to drop off the face of the earth for nearly a month. But don’t worry – I have been productive during my absence.

A week ago I attended the annual conference for the Editors’ Association of Canada. The last time I went was two years ago in 2010, when it was hosted in Montreal. This year, it was in Ottawa.

My reaction to it this year was similar to when I was in Montreal: the conference was exciting and informative, but also overwhelming. There were so many sessions to attend, people to talk to, and things to write down that I’m surprised my hand didn’t cramp up from all the note-taking and live-tweeting I did. These were the sessions I attended this year, in order:

Day 1 – June 2nd, 2012

Adult Literacy: Why it Should Mattter to You (presented by Mary Wiggin)
This seminar focused on what we mean when we talk about literacy, and the challenges that adults with literacy problems face. Much of the advice in the final portion of the seminar about editing text to address literacy problems – using short sentences, removing jargon, using the active voice, and so forth – was already familiar to me. More interesting was the discussion of the various types of literacy that exist, the various definitions of literacy, and the statistics regarding functional literacy in Canada.

Editing eBooks (presented by Greg Ioannou)
This seminar focused on the basics of eBooks – their history, the different types of formats they come in, and so forth – and how a publisher produces an eBook. I hoped it would guide us step-by-step through the process of creating an eBook. Instead, there were some general tips about how to properly format things like punctuation (open em-dashes!) and columns (don’t even try!). This was still useful, but I was really looking forward to a hands-on demonstration.

Creating a Professional Development Revenue Stream (presented by Emily Dockrill Jones)
This seminar attracted a very large audience. However, the title didn’t match up completely with the subject matter. I thought that it would talk about how to build a business through providing professional development services to others. Instead, it focused on how to be a good, engaging presenter when running a PD program. Despite the mismatch between title and content, the information within was useful and applicable to many fields.

Day 2 – June 3rd, 2012

The Great Text-Talk Debate (with Ian Capstick and James Harbeck)
Ian Capstick argued in favour of text-talk, and James Harbeck argued against it. Unsurprisingly, most of the audience took the “anti-text” side at the start of the debate, but Ian’s points were so persuasive that by the end, the room had almost completely flipped its stance on the topic.

What convinced me was Ian’s argument that text-talk is just the latest solution to limitations built into our methods of communication. For example, when printed books were introduced in Europe, the binding technology was so poor that most books had spines so thin that the only way to accommodate the text was to use an extremely small font. This made me think of all the time I spent in WoW raiding Kara with my guild, speed-running noobs through Zul-Farrak, and rezzing priests with my Goblin Jumper Cables.

In other words, I remembered the years I spent playing a game with slang (text-talk) designed to convey a lot of information (communication) quickly (limitation). Ian Capstick won me over because 3.5 years later, I still can’t stop thinking about World of Warcrack.

Technical Writing and Editing for Usability (presented by Kerry Surman)
“Usability” is a topic I’ve researched at my day job. Much of the information in this seminar was already familiar to me, like the importance of using white space, bullet lists, and bolding to make text easy to skim. However, the discussion of how perception affects usability was interesting. Also, this seminar introduced me to the term “Web 3.0” – I remember “Web 2.0” being bandied around a lot a few years ago and thought that the term had become outdated. It’s interesting to know that instead it’s evolved to mean web customization and personalization. A really good example of the applications – and pitfalls – of trying to personalize the Web and commerce can be found here.

How SEO and Editing Can Wreck Each Other (presented by Greg Ioannou)
SEO is something that I’ve been learning about a lot both inside and outside of work. Imagine my chagrin when Greg went into the “do’s” and “don’ts” of editing web copy to improve web traffic, and I found that I had been guilty of committing some SEO sins on this website! Once I returned from the conference I followed his advice and edited my landing pages to reduce the number of times certain keywords were repeated. In the seminar, Greg used humour to great effect in the case studies he showed the audience.

Freelance Editing: The Top 10 Things I Wish I’d Known (presented by Elizabeth D’Anjou)
Elizabeth D’Anjou runs a very popular workshop about “taking the plunge” and becoming a freelance editor. This seminar was on a similar topic. I won’t go into all 10 lessons here, but I did find Number 9 – “A good read is not the same as a good editing project” – surprising. I’ve been trying to reposition my own editing services and work with fiction writers because they’re the kind of writers I find myself coming into contact with the most often; it was weird to see her advice so directly conflict with my own choices.

Montreal is GO

I’m happy to announce that most, if not all, of the groundwork has been laid for my trip to Montreal:

Booked a spot at the conference? Check.

Found accommodations at a hostel? Check.

Booked my VIA rail ticket? Check.

Made sure to request the time off from work well in advance of the dates involved? Check and check!

There are still a lot of other, smaller things that need to be done, like printing off new business cards and getting my confidence levels up before I go (not to mention finishing working on websites for two clients of mine), but I really do feel in control of this thing. Now I’m just waiting to find out of the EAC will issue an official package to attendants before it starts. Lord knows I’ve been looking forward to going since Christmas. Let’s just hope that I don’t incur any catastrophic, trip-cancelling injuries in the interim.

Feeling Professional and Learning About XML

The past week has seen a flurry of really positive activity:

  • A web design company I’m helping sent me a payment
  • I sent out two contracts to new clients
  • I attended another Board meeting for the Writer’s Circle of Durham Region
  • I finally gave in and joined Twitter (look for @cvasilevski)
  • I reconnected with a former non-profit employer of mine and am in talks with them to do some volunteer work on their newsletter

After deciding to freelance about four months ago, I’ve realized that being successful requires baby steps. When I first purchased things I considered necessary, like an external hard drive or some software, I quailed inside about the money I was spending; now that there’s some money coming in (though I’d like a lot more!), I feel a little bit better about my choices. It’s funny, but ever since I decided to start doing this, I’ve found satisfaction in the most unlikely tasks: entering in transactions to a general ledger? Yes! Keeping a copy of my receipts? Yes! Tinkering with WordPress behind the scenes? Yes and yes!

I enjoy doing the busy work, and that’s tremendously encouraging. Networking is a more pressing concern, but I’m doing what I can, what with Sprouter and Twitter and attending events. Cold-calling is something I need to do more of, but again, baby steps.

In other news, my Production class at Ryerson is drawing to a close, and my final assignment involves working with XML. I’ve never done so directly, but the tutorial from class wasn’t too difficult. Luckily, I used to do a lot of work with HTML in high school, designing my own website, and the basic mechanics (open tags, insert information, close tags, keep it symmetrical) are the same. My last assignment garnered a seven out of ten – less than I was hoping for, but that just means I have to learn more about working with InDesign and Photoshop to really get what I want.

So, today will involve a lot of writing, and thinking, and errands. It’s a lovely list of things to do on a Saturday.

Thoughts for the New Year

While I certainly plan on posting here again before January starts, I realize that with the hustle and bustle of the holidays, I may not have the time. To keep myself on track for the future, here are my freelancing goals for the new year:

  • To continue with my courses at Ryerson so that I will be on track to finish the Publishing Certificate by the spring of 2011.
  • To attend the EAC’s annual conference in May. I have a fair idea of how much it will cost to attend, but variables such as accommodations, transit, and food are still to be determined. Please give me your recommendations for restaurants and hostels in Montreal, if you can!
  • To purchase the following things necessary for freelancing work: an external hard drive for backups, a PO box for correspondence, and (possibly) new software for accounting and design/proofreading.
  • To provide editing services to agencies that are involved in social justice or the environment

That feels comprehensive enough, but still feasible within one year. And oh yes, I do plan on making updates at least once or twice a week describing my progress or interesting grammar issues.