Christina Vasilevski

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

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.

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.