Christina Vasilevski

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

Advice for Hosting a Digital-Industry-Focused Book Club

For the past year, I’ve been running a book club at Scotiabank about digital product and design. It’s been a lot of fun, and here’s what’s worked the most.

It’s OK to Write Multiple Drafts

Sometimes, your initial UX writing drafts fall short. It’s ok to rewrite things and suggest design changes. Here’s a quick example of that.

Guest Appearance on Productivity Alchemy

A few months ago, I was interviewed by Kevin Sonney for his podcast, Productivity Alchemy. And it’s live today!

In it, I talk about how I stay organized and productive both in my role as a content designer and in my home life.

Moving into Content Design

I’ve always seen myself as a word person. From ordering dictionaries from Scholastic during my school days to taking courses in book publishing to writing about editing , working with words has always been at the core of my identity.

So it’s with a mix of pride and surprise that I’m announcing my a new job as…. a designer? Really?

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.