Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

How to Edit FAQ Pages

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?

Not quite.

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.

Use Common Editorial Sense

First off, don’t get too frightened of the whole concept of an FAQ. Good FAQs should follow plain language guidelines, including:

  • Addressing the reader directly by using the words youyour, and yours
  • Avoiding jargon wherever possible
  • Using simpler words and grammatical structures to convey complex ideas
  • Using the active voice
  • Sharing information in a conversational way

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.

Discuss only a single important concept per question

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:

  • Who is eligible to get a new service or device upgrade
  • How to register for the new service
  • How much this new service or device will cost
  • How long it will take for the upgraded service to be rolled out across an entire area or city

This advice sounds straightforward, but there’s an important corollary to remember, which is…

Make sure you answer the right question and clearly display the relevant info

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:

  1. How much will the reserved device cost?
  2. Will my $XX reservation fee be returned to me?

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:

  1. Will I be charged anything when I reserve my device?
  2. How much does it cost to reserve a device?

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.

Keep an eye out for repetition

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.

Make the content fit your company’s voice/brand

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.

Where Have I Been for 4 Years?

Wow.

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.

Life at Rogers

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:

  • SEO and keyword research (which I already knew the basics about, but the more info the better)
  • Mobile app development
  • Agile methodology, scrums, and waterfall
  • Usability research and user experience testing
  • Sales and marketing campaigns
  • A/B testing and search analytics

Editors Canada

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!

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.

A Sign of Growth: Learning to Stop Juggling

How many things can one person juggle at a time? It's something I'm still figuring out.

How many things can one person juggle at a time? It’s something I’m still figuring out.

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.

1 Rule to Follow When Writing for Others

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.

The rule

“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.”

What writing for others really means

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?

Blogging for Business, and Some Updates

One of the things I emphasize as a writer when I work with other companies is to post blog updates on a regular basis. So, you can imagine my chagrin to have not posted here on my own site for over a month.

It’s a classic case of the shoemaker’s children running barefoot.

However, I like to think of it as a sign of the fact that I’m actually getting work done for others. And as a result, I’ve got some nice news to share.

Blogging for Businesses on March 4th, 2015

For one thing, I’ve got a speaking event coming up in Toronto that I’m very pleased to share:

What: Blogging for Businesses, hosted by Canadian Small Business Women

One of the challenges of being a business owner is finding effective ways to promote your business. One way is blogging: at this event you’ll learn the importance of blogging for your business, as well as some tips on how to make it work for you. I’ll talk about:

  • Reasons why you should blog
  • Reasons why you shouldn’t blog
  • Ways you can still add value with regular content even if you fall into one of the categories of people who shouldn’t blog.
  • What you should do before you start a blog
  • How to craft effective blog/web copy and structure a blog post
  • Using the hub-and-spoke model to integrate your blog with your wider marketing efforts

When: March 4th, 2015, 6:30 to 9:30 PM

Where: North York Central Library, Room #1, 5120 Yonge St, Toronto

Register on Eventbrite here.

New Guest Posts and Articles to Share

Secondly, I’ve added new client work to my portfolio. In particular, I’m quite proud of two new pieces I’ve written for others; here are some excerpts to whet your appetite.

What Bloggers Can Learn From Good Print Advertising

The first thing you’ll notice about this ad (despite the blurriness – a result of taking this photo while riding public transit) is that although the main image is in black and white, it grabs your interest.

For one thing, the contrast between the black background and Parlby’s face and neck make the ad stand out. For another, her picture isn’t centered, which creates room for the main quote. In fact, this ad in general makes good use of a design principle called “the rule of thirds”, which adds visual interest to photos by positioning items of visual interest a third of the way into (and not in the centre of) a photograph.

This balance of image and text creates harmony, while the flashes of yellow in the corners add visual interest. Overall, the design here is a winner.

Read the full article on Kaleidoscope Consulting here.

Yes, LinkedIn Can Help Freelancers Make Money. Here’s How.

The most important thing to remember is this strategy works best over a long period of time… The person you contact today may not get back to you until the following week, arrange a phone call the week after that, and then request you follow up a month later. In other words, it will probably take weeks or months for that first touch to result in paying work.

…To many freelancers, LinkedIn is intimidating because the general tone is a lot less personable compared to other social networks. However, for those who know where and how to look, LinkedIn can be a gold mine of freelance possibilities.

Read the full article on The Freelancer by Contently here.

Guest Post News: Why 2015 is My Year of Assertiveness

Happy new year, everyone!

I hope you all had a chance to spend time with your friends and family, and that you got to relax, think, and make some good plans for 2015.

Remember the last post when I talked about my goals for 2015? Well, I’ve refined those goals even further, and written about them as a guest post on the blog of Aprille Janes, a business coach. Here’s a snippet from that post:

Of course! So much of my inability to charge what I’m worth stems from a sense of guilt, of a belief that it’s wrong, even unfeminine, to focus on money. But now I felt myself moving from recognizing the problem to finding the solution; I felt I was approaching the edge of something, ready to peer over it and see the perfect word to encapsulate 2015 waiting for me.

I started writing notes down frantically about all the things I wanted to accomplish in January 2015 and all the loose ends from 2014 I wanted to tie up. At the bottom of the list, I spontaneously wrote this:

I need to become convinced of my own monetary value and self-worth. It is of no use to anybody if I’m too timid to charge what I’m worth, become overworked, burn out, and then shut my business down. Assertiveness means survival.

Check out the whole post, “Why 2015 is My Year of Assertiveness“, on Aprille’s site right now.

Bonus reading

Some more awesome news: A few days before Christmas, my writing debuted on xoJane! I can’t wait to write more for them. Here’s an excerpt:

Do I still mess up a lot? Yeah. Do I still need things explained to me about how I’m using the same thought processes as the people derailing the conversation? Yeah. Do I still have a lot of ingrained sexism inside myself that even my increased knowledge hasn’t fully extricated, like the assumptions I make about who the manager of a retail store is? Yes. Do I still unconsciously make my voice sound higher when I’m around unfamiliar men? Yup. Do I still sometimes commit the cardinal ally sin of apologizing just to let people know I’m oh-so-sensitive and that “I’m not like that”? Unfortunately, yes.

Are there people way more articulate out there than me who can deconstruct sexist and racist arguments with mastery because they have to live with that bullshit on a day-to-day basis while I don’t? Hell fucking yes.

Check out the whole thing at “xoGEEK: How Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors Made Me a Better Feminist“.

What I Learned in 2014, and My Goals for 2015

Image credit: Katinka Bille Lindahl, Flickr

Image credit: Katinka Bille Lindahl, Flickr

It’s weird to realize that the holidays are now upon us; I can’t believe how damned quickly 2014 rushed by. But it’s time to face facts: it’s the middle of December, and that means that it’s time to look back on this year, analyze what I learned, and make goals for 2015.

So, what was 2014 like for me? It was tumultuous, but in a good way. Here’s why.

What I accomplished

I started slush reading for a new magazine.

I joined a writer’s critique group (though I’m currently on hiatus as I get my business in gear).

I hired a business coach.

I made a small profit this year while freelancing. I landed some big clients (like the Yellow Pages), landed some clients very close to my heart (like Trent University), and even got published in a print anthology!

On top of that, I attended conferences, learned from others, and realized that I don’t know as much about online marketing as I thought I did.

How I changed

I think 2014 was the year that I really started to take myself seriously as a business person. It was the year I realized that the reins to my future were in my own goddamned hands, and that I needed to grab them hard and steer.

Let me back up a bit.

I first decided to freelance way back in 2009, and some of my archived posts talk about the progress I made then towards my goal. So in some ways, I consider myself to have been freelancing for 5 years.

Despite this, for years I was working in-house and freelancing on the side. Even after I was laid off, I still took short-term contract gigs in order to get some stable money coming in. I was on the fence, refusing self-employment opportunities like the OSEB program in favour of contract work.

This year was different, though: I finally got off the fence and stood on the “self-employed” side. No short-term contract gigs because I was worried about major upcoming expenses like my wedding. No waiting and hoping that a stable, permanent job would somehow miraculously be offered to me.

And my god, that change has meant a lot of effort. I thought I networked before when I started to freelance, but I realize now that  I was a dilettante at the whole thing. Now I put a lot  more effort into networking, and take the follow-up process much more seriously.

However, the biggest change was the fact that I hired a business coach to guide me through this transition. Because I had a coach, I invested in my own personal development to an extent I had never done before. And as a result, a lot of the in-built pessimism and negativity I don’t really discuss online melted away. I’ve consciously learned how to feel grateful and be mindful. I felt like I had more control over myself, and that was (and is!) a really good feeling.

My goals for 2015

So how will this deeper sense of control manifest in the year to come?

I have a habit of making big, grandiose plans for the new year and not following through. But I really do think I’ve made enough changes in how I operate to make the following goals feasible:

  • Sign up as a service provider with the Canadian federal government, using this book as my guide.
  • Study to become a Certified Copy Editor with the EAC and take the certification test.
  • Start selling eBooks and writing resources on this website and through Amazon/Kobo.
  • Expand my service offerings to include workshops and content marketing

There are other goals, but these are the ones I feel comfortable sharing for now.

What about you though? What are your goals for 2015? I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts below.

4 Print Advertising Mistakes You Should Avoid

print_advertising_mistakes_mockup_smallI get several flyers in the mail every week. Most are conventional: coupons, sales, and so forth. However, I sometimes find one that catches my eye.

Unfortunately, one caught my eye last week for the wrong reasons. It was such a jumble of information that I had no idea what to focus on when I read it — which means it’s a valuable educational tool.

So, today, I want to talk about what you shouldn’t do when designing print advertising, using this flyer as an example.

I made a copy for you, too — download it and follow along. There’s even a screenshot on this page so you know what to expect.

Note: This is not the actual flyer. This is a mockup that I made to show the flyer’s poor design elements while also maintaining the privacy of the organization that made it. While some phrases from the original flyer remain in this mockup, all identifying information has been removed.

Mistake #1: A Giant Wall of Text

The first thing you’ll notice about this flyer is that aside from the header and footer, it contains 3 columns of nearly continuous text. The columns contain subheadings, lines, and the occasional bullet point, but those features disappear when you squint your eyes.

The thing is, studies have shown that people rarely finish big walls of text online. Instead, they skim and pick out the information that most applies to them. Considering how much the online world has affected our media overall, I’m sure that those reading habits hold true in print, especially for advertisements.

Mistake #2: Not Enough White Space

This is related to, but not the same thing as, Mistake #1. It’s possible to have a lot of text and still use white space judiciously to encourage readability. White space calms the eye and encourages readers to keep on reading. However, this flyer doesn’t do that. Instead, it’s an avalanche of information, and it gives readers very little opportunity to rest their eyes and reflect.

Contrast that with print advertising examples like this, where the use of white space to convey visual interest and additional information is what makes several of those ads so remarkable. Granted, this flyer wasn’t designed with memorability in mind, but research has shown the importance of white space to readability.

Mistake #3. No Path to Lead the Eye

In this flyer, I have no idea which information is the most important. Where am I supposed to start, and where am I supposed to end? Should I just read everything in order from the top of the leftmost column to the bottom of the rightmost column in order to find the one piece of information that might help me?

Put another way, there’s no sense of hierarchy. No textual element immediately grabs my eye to help me get my bearings.

As a result, I have no idea where to focus my attention. There’s no underlying visual path to lead me through the maze of the text. In contrast, here’s a great example of a print ad with dense text that still has a coherent visual path.

Mistake #4: Caring for Your Own Needs Rather Than Those of Your Audience

You’ll notice that the mockup contains phrases like “employment counselling,” “skill development,” and “language instruction.” Those phrases are one of the few indications that remain of who originally created this flyer, and why. The flyer is meant to promote community services to people in need.

This means that the mistakes outlined above lead to the worst problem of all: they show that the organization behind the flyer was more interested in listing everything it did rather than addressing the needs of its target audience. Chances are this choice was made with the best intentions — Every program we offer is important, and we can’t omit any information! I hear them think.

However, imagine who benefits the most from the kind of employment, education, and settlement programs that this organization offers. These programs are meant to help people who:

  • need job training,
  • need to improve their English, or
  • have just arrived here from another country.

In other words, this organization helps the kind of people who are least likely to be able to understand this flyer’s wall of text and most likely to benefit from better readability because they’re experiencing bandwidth poverty.

In that context, think about what a missed opportunity this flyer is. The people it means to help are those most likely to be overwhelmed by its breadth of information. Do you think that was the plan?

I certainly don’t. And I certainly think it’s a pity.

What Would I Do Differently?

I’m not a designer. But even so, I think several things could be done to make this flyer more effective. These include:

  • Rearranging all of the information so that similar programs are grouped together
  • Creating new, larger subheadings to highlight each grouping — an “employment” subheading, a “settlement” subheading, and so forth
  • Making regional versions of each flyer so that each one lists only the services offered in the region the flyer is delivered to
  • Ensuring that all information for a single program stays within a single column — you’ll notice that in the mockup, the info at the bottom of column 1 bleeds over into column 2, and that the info at the bottom of column 2 bleeds over into column 3; this is native to the original flyer

Of course, a lot of other things could be done to make this print advertising more effective. These are only a few. But you need to walk before you can run.

What Are the Different Types of Editing?

Amid all this talk about plain language and writing web copy, it seems like a smart idea to pull back and look at things from the other side. A lot of the myths about editors out there exist because people don’t really know what editing entails.

So what do you do if you think you’re looking for an editor, but aren’t completely sure? What exactly do editors do, and what types of editorial tasks are there?

The 4 major types of editing

The Editors’ Association of Canada lists 12 types of editorial skills on its website — the variety might surprise you. However, broadly speaking, most editing is broken down into 4 types: substantive editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. Also broadly speaking, the stages of the editorial process are approached in the order outlined above as a piece of text moves from beginning to end, from creation to publication.

Let’s look at each in turn.

1. Substantive editing

This type of editing is also called “structural” editing. This is the stage of the editorial process where, if you’re writing a piece of fiction, your editor will look at things like character development, pacing, dialogue, and plot. At this stage an editor will analyze how your story holds together and determine if there are any issues (eg: plot holes or unclear character motivation) that you need to address in a future draft. In non-fiction contexts the process is very similar, though I personally have not worked with book-length non-fiction. An excellent source for information about non-fiction substantive editing is Scott Norton’s Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers.

Substantive editing involves looking at the bones of your work, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, and seeing if any of those bones are fractured or dislocated. During a substantive edit, editors will ask themselves questions like:

  • Does the current order or flow of information make sense?
  • If this is a work of fiction or narrative non-fiction, does the overall narrative arc have a satisfying opening, climax, and close?
  • Are there certain elements of the work that need to be moved to different locations of the text, expanded, or omitted?

If you’re a fiction writer who is part of a critique group, you’re probably familiar with this process — many of the comments you might receive from your group members mirror those that a substantive editor would give you. (This is something I’ve had personal experience with as part of a critique group.)

2. Line editing

This is also known as “stylistic” editing. Not many traditional publishers have dedicated line editors anymore; instead, both substantive and copy editors may handle various aspects of this process. Instead of looking at things from a section-by-section level as substantive editors would, line editors focus on the text line by line and paragraph by paragraph to ensure smoothness, clarity, and flow. During a line edit, editors will ask themselves questions like:

  • Does the author rely on a particular crutch word or phrase?
  • Is there jargon, and is it appropriate?
  • Is the language of this text too formal or informal for its target audience?
  • Can a sentence be rephrased to avoid awkward constructions like double negatives or the passive voice?

Again, if you’re a fiction writer in a critique group, line editing concerns often pop up in critiques, and for good reason. For example, you might have a certain stock word or phrase you’re unaware of.

3. Copy editing

Hey Bob, can you give this a quick proofread for me? I think there’s a word missing here.

Chances are that when a colleague or friend asks you this, what they’re looking for is not a true proofread, but a copy edit. Copy editing (or rather, what those not in the know consider proofreading) is all about checking text for errors in grammar, syntax, and punctuation. However, there’s more to copy editing than just mindlessly shuffling through a dictionary. Copy editing is about consistency just as much as correctness, as this short post by Ken Follett illustrates:

First [my copy editor] checks spelling and punctuation. Now, my spelling is not bad, and I always look up difficult words such as Khrushchev (three aitches) or Willy Brandt (not Willi Brand). But she always finds some errors.

Then she checks consistency, just like the continuity person on a movie set, who makes sure that if the actor is wearing a green sweater when he goes to the front door, he’s wearing the same sweater two weeks later when they film him coming out of the house. A copy editor makes a note that Rebecca is thirty in 1961, and checks that when we get to 1971 I don’t absent-mindedly say she’s forty-five.

There is a whole host of things that copy editor check for aside from the usual culprits of grammar, continuity, and punctuation — a topic so large it warrants a post of its own.

4. Proofreading

So if checking for grammar issues isn’t proofreading, what is?

It’s checking page proofs —  but let’s step back a bit to understand what “proofs” really are.

After a manuscript has been edited, it’s then sent to a typesetter/designer. This person takes the edited text and actually does the physical/visual layout of the book, making sure that all of a work’s textual and visual elements — tables, images, page numbers, captions, running heads and footers, and so forth — form a harmonious visual whole.

However, the initial typesetting is far from perfect. There may be pages where only one word is printed, dangling there, separate from the rest of the paragraph on the previous page. Sometimes the spacing between certain elements (eg: subheadings and the following text) is inconsistent from page to page. In other situations, a word or phrase change significantly in meaning if there’s a bad line break in the text, like in this stunning example. When typesetters actually save the page design (usually using a program like Quark or InDesign), they either print the files out or export them to a digital format like PDF. Those files are what we really mean when we say “page proofs.”

Proofreading is all about looking at those proofs as a visual whole and pointing out issues in spacing and placement to the typesetter. In addition, proofreaders correct any (hopefully few) remaining errors in the text that the copy editor didn’t catch.

Because proofreading is one of the final editorial stages before the actual printing process, a good proofreader (or a good author!) will not introduce major changes to the text unless absolutely necessary. This is because adding a completely new chapter — or even a completely new paragraph — runs the risk of upsetting the visual flow of the entire document, potentially introducing further new bad breaks or spacing issues. Proofreading is not the time to add “one more thing”. Instead it’s the detail work, the final sculpting of your text before the clay dries completely.

So what does this mean for you?

Chances are that the further away your text is from publication, the more editing your text needs. As you refine your writing with the help of an editor, you’ll get closer and closer to the proofreading stage. Understanding that fact is a great place to start when you’re looking for editorial help.