Christina Vasilevski

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

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.

1 Rule to Follow When Writing for Others

One of the hardest things to keep in mind as a writer is that you’re not writing for just yourself. A lot of the time, you’re writing to help others. Whether readers want to learn something new, need to make an important decision, or are searching for a sense of belonging to combat isolation, the writing—if you want to build an audience, which I do—needs to address what they’re looking for in some way.

Sometimes the insight on how to do so can be summed up in a single sentence.

Last year, I was at a cocktail party held after business hours by a company I was working with. Also at the party were some of the writers whose work I had been editing for this company. One of them was talking about how when he started writing for this company, he didn’t really have a handle on what his style should be like until he had a key conversation with a friend.

The rule

“Look, when I’m reading something, I’m busy and I’m looking for advice. In the end, I just want to be told what to do,” the friend said.

I could hear the awe and relief in this writer’s voice when he repeated that line to me and the others listening to him: “I just want to be told what to do.”

What writing for others really means

It’s a good lesson to keep in mind: try to leave as little useless ambiguity as possible when you’re writing something. (I say “useless” ambiguity because under certain circumstances avoiding any shade of grey in your writing is a disservice. Letting your readers come to their own conclusions is a good thing.)

In other words: tell your readers what they want to know (and make it snappy).

Is that a hard thing to do? Certainly. If it were easy, I wouldn’t have so many long, rambling posts in my archives. (I’ll leave it to you to read through them if you’re so inclined.)

“I just want to be told what to do” has become one of my own mantras when it comes to writing blog posts for myself and my clients. So what about you? How have you tried to apply that lesson to the people you want to help, persuade, or convince?

Blogging for Business, and Some Updates

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

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

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

Blogging for Businesses on March 4th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Register on Eventbrite here.

New Guest Posts and Articles to Share

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

What Bloggers Can Learn From Good Print Advertising

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

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

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

Read the full article on Kaleidoscope Consulting here.

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

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

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

Read the full article on The Freelancer by Contently here.

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.

Change: What I’ve Been Doing and Where I’m Going

Oregon sunset-bIt’s been about two years since I decided to transition to freelance work. However, it’s been a bumpy road. I’ve taken on contract work that took time away from doing freelance work. In some ways, I’ve decided to focus on writing posts on here not about what I do for others, but about my own personal interests.

Lately, I’ve been trying to re-examine the choices I’ve made. Some of those choices, like freelancing, are things I’m still happy with. However, I’ve realized that I really need to try and move my blog beyond book reviews and talking about tea (both of which are quite fun, I admit!) to discussing things that other people want to learn or know more about.

What this means is that over the next few weeks and months, regular readers of this blog are going to see a bit of a shift in what I’m talking about.

I’ll still talk about books and publishing, and write the occasional book review on here if the mood strikes. I’ll still talk about pop culture, geeky things, and things that make me think.

However, I’m also planning to discuss in more depth the things that I’ve learned about the kind of business that I’m trying to run, and also talk about the projects I’m working on. In other words, I’m trying to make my blog more of a personal/business hybrid, instead of a personal one alone. My goal is to do roughly one post a week, alternating between discussing personal topics and professional ones.

Here are a few things I’m planning on talking about soon:

  • The aftermath of being a graduate of Ryerson’s publishing program, including commentary from fellow Ryerson publishing alumni
  • What working with a business coach to change my personal focus and development has been like
  • Interesting things I’m learning about the state of content marketing and what people in my industry/niche have been going through lately
  • What it’s been like to be part of a writing critique group, and what I’ve learned from joining one

This may not be the most exciting-sounding stuff on the planet to the people who have followed my posts in the past, but I figure that being honest about my thoughts and discussing upcoming changes in public is the best thing to do.

I hope that this leads to some good things. And I hope that you readers like it too.

It’s time for a blog-hop

So, it looks like there’s been a popular blog-hop going around, and it appears that I’m the newest target participant. Marie Bilodeau, Matt Moore, K.W. Ramsey, and Adam Shaftoe and many more have all taken part, asking each other questions, posting responses, and tagging three others in turn to contribute to the hop. I got tagged by K.W. Ramsey. Comparisons to Ponzi schemes and pyramid schemes have already been made, so let’s liken this instead to a zombie plague! Where will the outbreak spread next?

I’m just gonna answer the same questions that K.W. did on his blog. Here we go:

1. If you could time travel and steal somebody else’s novel/short story/film for yourself, what would it be?

I think I’d steal the first Dresden Files book by Jim Butcher. Not because I want to keep it for myself, but because I couldn’t stand it even while I was reading it (I gave up on the series halfway through the second book), and I’d want to protect others from such dreck.

2. What writing sin do you actively have to struggle against in your own work? 

“Sin” is probably too strong a word here, but let’s say that it’s monotony. I see a lot of tics in my own writing. I use lots of dashes to denote changes in thought – this happens in my fiction writing, my blogging, and my personal corrrespondence! I also tend to over-punctuate with commas, write lots of compound-complex sentences, and so forth. I need to learn how to vary my sentence length and structure for greater impact.

3. Pick three writers, past or present, that you would want to have dinner with. Why those writers?

Hmm. Let’s go with Catherynne M. Valente (whom I’ve mentioned before), Neil Gaiman, and Shakespeare.

I would invite Catherynne M. Valente because then she could give me a blood transfusion by which I would absorb some of her writerly awesomeness.

Neil Gaiman I’d invite because he seems like he’d be an amazing raconteur, and he also seems genuinely friendly. (Plus, if the Valente blood transfusion didn’t work out, he’d be the backup.)

Shakespeare I’d invite because that’s so obvious I shouldn’t even need to provide an answer.

4. You have forty-two words, write a story. 

Spring came, then summer, and then fall. But not winter; she’d gotten bored of it. Gotten so long ago, in fact. But at least there wasn’t anyone left to tell her what to do. She’d gotten bored of people long ago, too.

 Tag, you’re it

So now here comes the fun part where I spread the zombie plague tag three others to take part: Léonicka Valcius, Carolyn Charron, and Rabeya Merenkov!

I want you guys to answer these questions and then find 3 other people to tag in your response posts:

  1. What is one thing you’ve learned about writing that you wish you knew when you started?
  2. If you could go back in time to witness one particular historical event (knowing that your presence wouldn’t alter the timeline), what would you choose?
  3. If you could delete 3 words from the English language, what would they be?
  4. What is one piece of writing advice that you think is really overrated? Why?

Writing resolution update

It’s the 19th, and I’m proud to say that I’ve stuck with my resolution of writing at least 250 words of fiction every day!

One of the biggest reasons behind this is that I’ve got a huge motivator now: less than 2 weeks ago, I was accepted into a writing critique group. The members of the group meet up in-person every week; the critiques work on a rotating basis so that different people submit pieces of writing every week, and everyone comments constructively on everyone else’s work. My first piece was critiqued just this last Thursday.

And Oh. My. God. Having a supportive, understanding group of people to be held accountable to makes such a huge difference.

There’s the pleasure that comes from people praising your work, of course. But there’s an equally exquisite pleasure to be found in hearing other people tell you the moth-eaten holes in your story’s fabric – holes you can’t really grasp because you’re the moth. That is, you’re the moth that’s…creating the fabric, instead of ruining it?

You know what, never mind. I’m rolling with it.

Before I got my first critique, I was just writing in response to random little prompts, punching in the metaphorical clock each day to reach my word count goal. But now? Now that I know what needs fixing, I’m making up new scenes left and right, and not only that, but I’m actually returning to scenes and expanding on them. Even as I was falling asleep last night, I was thinking about what new sensory details I would add in today’s writing.

Is this what writing every day really does to you? Because I’m so glad that I’ve gone beyond the clock-punching stage. I really hope I can keep it up.

According to “I Write Like”, we all write like men.

Something interesting just happened to me on Facebook. A friend of mine posted the result of an online test that analyzes your writing called I Write Like. According to the special little algorithms of this site, my friend’s writing resembled that of William Gibson.

Colour me intrigued. I plugged in an excerpt from my own work in progress into IWL’s little testing brain, and the results stated that my writing sounded like Neil Gaiman’s.

Colour me delighted!

Then the originator of this post noticed something interesting: all of the people responding with their testing results were women, yet all of the test responses came back with the names of male authors. The original poster’s creative writing sounded like William Gibson, yet her blog writing sounded like David Foster Wallace. Hell, my blog writing, according to IWL, sounds like H.P. Lovecraft! (Seriously? Ew. That’s just insulting. My prose can’t possibly be that overwrought, can it?)

A third woman’s writing sounded like Arthur C. Clarke. A fourth woman pasted in some paragraphs from her romance novel and got Cory Doctorow. A fifth woman got J.D. Salinger. A sixth woman plugged in two excerpts from her story and got both William Gibson and Chuck Palahniuk.


Things were sounding mighty fishy, so at the suggestion of the original poster, I plugged in some excerpts of famous novels written by women and posted the results:

  • An excerpt from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre sounded like Charles Dickens.
  • An excerpt from The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood sounded like Anne Rice – finally, a female name, though the comparison made us laugh.
  • An excerpt from The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion sounded like Cory Doctorow.
  • An excerpt from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time sounded like Stephen King.

It was only after this spate of copying famous books that another contributor to the Facebook thread got a female result: according to IWL, she sounded like Margaret Atwood, lucky her.

But how come it didn’t recognize Atwood’s writing the first time?

For one final test, I decided to use the big guns: an excerpt from the Harry Potter series. I pulled my copy of The Deathly Hallows off the shelf and, after some searching, found a passage thick with ellipses and words like “Dementors” and “Voldemort”.

The result? Success! I Write Like stated that the sample sounded like J.K. Rowling herself!

Of course, you’d hope a tool like that would have the ability to ID the literary fingerprint of the most financially successful author alive. But even so, this provides a lot of room for thought:

  • This year’s VIDA survey found that, like the years before it, the majority of articles in our culture’s top literary magazines (Harper’sThe Atlantic, The NYRB, etc) were written either by or about men, or about books written by men.
  • This is despite the common wisdom – unfortunately I don’t have any statistics to verify this – that outside of this validating circle of critique the majority of published books are written, purchased, and read by women.
  • This experiment of mine falls in the wake of some online controversy regarding the screenwriting bias of Dr. Who – despite airing over 60 episodes since then, the show has featured not a single female screenwriter since 2008.

Why is it that despite all of the sterling examples of female authors we have across both “literary” and “genre” writing, so little of it is respected enough to be considered distinctive or unique? The richest, most successful author in the world is a woman! Why is it that despite the fact that every single contributor to this Facebook thread was a woman, it took seven tries for this supposedly comprehensive online tool to come up with a single female author’s name?

I’m not dying to become the next H.P. Lovecraft or Neil Gaiman. (Well, maybe Gaiman, by a whole lot.) I’m dying to become the next Catherynne M. Valente or Aliette de Bodard. I’m dying to become the next Ursula K. Leguin. How long will it take the literary industry, or even the world as a whole, to recognize that there are women out there – amazing, challenging, jaw-dropping female authors – with unique voices of their own?

Update, April 4th: The shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke award was announced today. And guess what? Despite the fact that the majority of jurors were women, and the fact that nearly 1/5th of all of the longlisted books were by female authors, all of the books on the shortlist were written by men. Quelle surprise.

Camp NaNoWriMo

Camp NaNoWriMo 2013So, in a previous post, I talked about how I was a finalist in this year’s Friends of the Merril short story contest. This means that I now have the opportunity to pitch a novel to ChiZine Publications, even though they’re currently closed to submissions. The problem is, I don’t have a novel ready to pitch, and I definitely don’t want to give up such a golden opportunity.

So, I’ve decided to spend April writing a novel from scratch.

Well, not really from scratch. But so close that it pretty much counts. I went over some past scraps of writing I saved on Scrivener to see if any of them were promising enough to expand into novel length. Happily enough, one of them was, so for the past few weeks, I’ve been expanding on that scrap and asking questions about the world it takes place in. I have a lock on a few characters, their motivations, and the plot. The settings and locations are still roiling around, but I think I’ll have enough of a foundation ready to start work in earnest on April 1st.

Which brings me to Camp NaNoWriMo. You didn’t think I’d be doing this without some source of external motivation, did you? I’ve found that having something else to keep me accountable – NaNoWriMo, a contest deadline, an assignment for my writing class – has been the best way to keep me writing consistently. So this time, I’m taking part in the Camp in the hopes that having a group of fellow writers poking me with a stick will be successful. And this time, I’m upping the goal significantly.

I aim to have 75,000 words written by April 30th. This means 2,500 words a day.

That high-pitched noise you hear in the distance is my writing brain whining in terror. The mechanical clicking accompanying it is my analytical planning brain doing all of the pre-writing necessary (see: plotting, characterization, and setting note above) to make this work. I noticed when I did NaNoWriMo in 2011 that I took a haphazard, nonlinear approach to writing the story down. Looking back, and knowing what I know about the mechanics of storytelling now, I think that was a mistake. So this attempt to write a novel is as much an experiment  – am I better off as a planner rather than a pantser? – as it is an attempt to get something ready for ChiZine.

Anyways, if you’re interested in my progress, I’ll put up a writing count meter on the sidebar. If you want to take part, sign up at – you can use the same login credentials you use for the regular NaNo site. And if you want to cheer me along, you can find me under the user name “cvasilevski” on the Camp NaNo site.

Wish me luck!