Christina Vasilevski

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

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 â€” 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 â€” 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.