Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

How I Run My Site: WordPress Plugins

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

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

Security and Site Maintenance

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

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

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

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

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

Site Optimization and SEO

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

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

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

Social Media and Sharing

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

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

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

Looking Like a Professional

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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?

3 Lessons From The Art of Entrepreneurship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Give your presentation balance

There were five speakers at the event:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Were you there too?

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