Advice for Hosting a Digital-Industry-Focused Book Club
For the past year, I’ve been running a book club at Scotiabank about digital product and design. It’s been a lot of fun, and here’s what’s worked the most.
Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.
For the past year, I’ve been running a book club at Scotiabank about digital product and design. It’s been a lot of fun, and here’s what’s worked the most.
Sometimes, your initial UX writing drafts fall short. It’s ok to rewrite things and suggest design changes. Here’s a quick example of that.
A few months ago, I was interviewed by Kevin Sonney for his podcast, Productivity Alchemy. And it’s live today!
In it, I talk about how I stay organized and productive both in my role as a content designer and in my home life.
I will be speaking at Perspectives 2022, a virtual conference about content design, about my experience of being a content designer with ADHD.
I’ve always seen myself as a word person. From ordering dictionaries from Scholastic during my school days to taking courses in book publishing to writing about editing , working with words has always been at the core of my identity.
So it’s with a mix of pride and surprise that I’m announcing my a new job as…. a designer? Really?
If customers ask certain questions so often that your company requires a dedicated Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page, the answers should be so obvious that they write themselves, right?
Creating a user-friendly FAQ page can take a lot of work—and, frankly, I think it’s kind of fun. In fact, for a while I was known as the de facto “FAQ person” on our content team because I like revising them so much. They allow me to get my hands dirty; with FAQs, I get to rearrange sentences and phrases wholesale, cut deadwood, and put myself into the place of the reader to ask questions. Then, when the stakeholders provide feedback on my changes, I get to go to town and create something useful, organized, and correct.
In short, working on an FAQ list can be an editor’s dream. Plus, since the content in question is so customer focused (and since most organizations that create FAQS have the good sense to realize that customer satisfaction leads to more money), FAQ documents involve a lot less ego than other forms of content. You can put all the bloated corporate jargon you want into a Mission Statement page, but a truly useful set of FAQs will keep the bloat to a minimum.
However, you may need to edit a few sets before you get the hang of it. In this article, I’ll discuss the lessons I’ve learned from editing several FAQ documents for a large Canadian telecom company, and the ways in which FAQs compare to other types of copy.
First off, don’t get too frightened of the whole concept of an FAQ. Good FAQs should follow plain language guidelines, including:
Structural editing principles also apply to editing FAQs, just as with other documents.
I’ve also found that the workflow for FAQs is similar to the workflows for other types of documents that I’ve worked on in the same environment: after going through a few rounds of revision with stakeholders, I then send the file to our legal department for a quick once-over, after which it goes to the translation department.
When substantively editing copy, you have probably learned that you shouldn’t cram multiple ideas or concepts into a single paragraph—or have probably given the same recommendation to the authors you’re working with. This advice holds true for FAQs. However, instead of restricting ideas to separate paragraphs, restrict them to separate questions.
For example, the FAQs that I edit often involve informing customers about changes in the company’s TV and telephone services, or telling them how to take advantage of a new product or service. In such instances, it’s more reader friendly to have questions that address each of the following topics individually:
This advice sounds straightforward, but there’s an important corollary to remember, which is…
A few years ago, I edited an FAQ document about reserving a new smartphone in advance of its official launch date. The original draft of the FAQ asked the following two questions in sequence:
There were two big problems here. The first is that Question #1 was asking the wrong thing—the FAQ document was meant to discuss the process of reserving a device, and product pricing is technically independent of the reservation process.
The second problem is that Question #1 didn’t mention a reservation fee at all, even though it should have—the reservation fee, and its associated amount, were first mentioned only in Question #2, and mentioned in such a way that it assumed the reader already knew about the fee!
When I realized this, I created an entirely new question from scratch to address this issue, and made a comment about my decision for all of the stakeholders involved to review. The final version of the FAQ ended up having this sequence of questions instead:
Even though I created a new question from scratch, this was still a benefit to the FAQ document as a whole; because of my revisions, the revised document with the new question was still shorter than the ambiguous, obfuscatory original.
Sometimes FAQ documents can be several pages long. One of the risks of this is that the longer the document, the higher the likelihood of repeating your answers from one question to another. Your Subject Matter Expert may state in the answer to Question #8 that customers can call the help line to find out if their account has been suspended, and not remember that this information was also mentioned in Question #3.
In such cases, most project managers or SMEs I’ve worked with are happy to merge the two answers together or delete the repetitive answer entirely. Like most types of web content, brevity counts, and your colleagues will probably welcome any way to reduce the word count without sacrificing clarity.
The company that I work for has two major brand identities. One brand is geared towards mainstream users. The other is geared to a younger, Millennial demographic. As a result, I often have to look at two FAQ pages at once that contain the same information but are written in very different styles for very different audiences.
This means that when I edit these FAQs, I have to make sure that the content I revise is not only factually correct, but also tonally correct. We might refer to “customer care representatives” in one document, while in another document, we might call the same types of workers “customer service rockstars” instead.
Basically, what this means is that your FAQs should not be the philosophical equivalent of cardboard — functional but completely boring and non-descript. Instead, think of your FAQs as a lush meadow — inviting and comfortable to visitors.
If writing and editing web content in general is something that you’re still nervous about, it helps to remember that many of the philosophical concerns behind good editing are the same no matter what the medium. However, if this article has given you a hankering to learn more about web content and content strategy in general, I highly recommend the following two books:
This article is an updated version of one I wrote that was previously published by Corrigo in 2016.
When I wrote my last blog post about how I managed this site, I certainly wasn’t planning to let this whole thing lie fallow for the next few years.
So, what on earth have I been up to since 2015?
Well, in early 2015, I got a contract through an agency working on digital copywriting for Rogers, one of Canada’s big 3 telecommunications companies. I was so busy there that I let maintaining my presence here slide.
Then, about a year after I got the contract, a posting for an in-house job showed up for exactly the role I was already doing there. So I went for it — and I got it! I officially started as a Rogers employee 3 years ago today.
The past 3 years have been busy, but I’ve got a lot more tools in my copywriting toolkit now. Over the course of working at Rogers, I’ve learned about:
On top of that, in 2017 I did something that was on my professional development checklist for a long time: I took one of Editors Canada’s very difficult, very involved editing certification tests.
The wait to get my test results back was nerve-wracking, but I found out last May that I passed the copy editing test — so now I’m a Certified Copy Editor to boot!
I want to ease back into blogging because being a professional copywriter and not posting on here for four years is laughable. So for the next little bit, I’ll republish some tweet threads that I rescued from Storify. See you soon!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Sometimes, being in a hotel full of people who radiate enthusiasm and happiness really makes you consider what you’re doing and the choices you make.
I just spent the past weekend at Ad Astra, Toronto’s annual sci-fi and fantasy convention. I’ve gone to Ad Astra twice before, and really enjoyed it both times. This year was fun, but I felt somewhat disconnected from it. I was much more involved in the sci-fi and fantasy community over the previous two years (reading slush for magazines and anthologies, listening extensively to fiction podcasts, and subscribing to multiple magazines) than I am now.
This has been a conscious choice on my part — as a result of devoting my personal resources to business blogging and other corporate projects, I’ve left off posting about a lot of the things that I consider my hobbies: reviewing books and trying new varieties of tea. I’m even taking time off from my writing critique group (which I joined last year and still love) to focus on the freelancing. In short: I’ve realized I need to stop juggling too many things.
However, being around so many familiar faces who mean a lot to me has made me realize just how much I’ve missed having the time and energy to focus on reviewing books and tea, and to talk about more personal life events.
As a result, I’m seriously considering the idea of setting up a separate website just for those hobbies. The site you’re reading is where I want to connect with other freelancers and entrepreneurs, and talk about the business/marketing side of content. But I would still love to have a space to review the books I enjoy and talk about what teas I like, and other aspects of those things, like what works or what doesn’t in the books I read.
The question is: can I afford, not only in time but in mental resources, to make such a new space for myself?
I’d love to say “yes.” I’m desperately yearning to say “yes.” But I know myself well enough by now to know that the answer is a “maybe” at best.
This thought makes me sad, but it also makes me somewhat proud because I am finally learning to recognize my own limits, and step back from bad patterns of behaviour from my past. I have had a habit of taking on too many projects at once out of fear of missing the perfect opportunity. However, that leads to things inevitably slipping – and I really don’t like that feeling. Changing those bad patterns is a work in progress. But at this point, it’s better for me to finish what I’m doing and do it well than to chase the shiny new objects in my path and, Atalanta-like, drop them all in favour of the next golden apple.
So: I’ve made a choice to leave off the juggling. That tea and books review site is sitting there in the back of my mind, waiting for the right moment. But it’s not now. And knowing that is a sign of growth, I think.
One of the hardest things to keep in mind as a writer is that you’re not writing for just yourself. A lot of the time, you’re writing to help others. Whether readers want to learn something new, need to make an important decision, or are searching for a sense of belonging to combat isolation, the writing—if you want to build an audience, which I do—needs to address what they’re looking for in some way.
Sometimes the insight on how to do so can be summed up in a single sentence.
Last year, I was at a cocktail party held after business hours by a company I was working with. Also at the party were some of the writers whose work I had been editing for this company. One of them was talking about how when he started writing for this company, he didn’t really have a handle on what his style should be like until he had a key conversation with a friend.
“Look, when I’m reading something, I’m busy and I’m looking for advice. In the end, I just want to be told what to do,” the friend said.
I could hear the awe and relief in this writer’s voice when he repeated that line to me and the others listening to him: “I just want to be told what to do.”
It’s a good lesson to keep in mind: try to leave as little useless ambiguity as possible when you’re writing something. (I say “useless” ambiguity because under certain circumstances avoiding any shade of grey in your writing is a disservice. Letting your readers come to their own conclusions is a good thing.)
In other words: tell your readers what they want to know (and make it snappy).
Is that a hard thing to do? Certainly. If it were easy, I wouldn’t have so many long, rambling posts in my archives. (I’ll leave it to you to read through them if you’re so inclined.)
“I just want to be told what to do” has become one of my own mantras when it comes to writing blog posts for myself and my clients. So what about you? How have you tried to apply that lesson to the people you want to help, persuade, or convince?