Good Writing is Never Random — Even on BuzzFeed

Not just for academics?

Not just for academics?

You’ve all read those popular culture BuzzFeed articles, right? The fluffy articles that tell you who are the most popular characters in the Harry Potter books or what are the fifteen inexpensive things you can do to update the look of your apartment. (Or the more serious ones that talk about how many times Vladimir Putin condemned the use of armed force without the UN’s blessing.) Then there are the endless quizzes like “Which Shakespearean Character Are You?” or “Which City Should You Live In?” or “Which Type of Flower Are You?” or whatever. It all seems so casual; it’s as though the writers are right there in your living room, just chatting like normal people.

But that whole quintessential “People’s Internet” feel doesn’t just happen. In fact, it’s as carefully created land nurtured as the look and feel of any site on the web that looks more rigidly professional. And the way the more casual feel of BuzzFeed is created is by following a writing style guide.

Yep. Even BuzzFeed has one: the¬†BuzzFeed Style Guide. A list of rules about what words should be capitalized, when certain words are hyphenated, and how to use the word “transgender” (always as an adjective and never as a noun). Here are some examples of guidelines presented there:

  • yaaass – Apparently this word requires three “a’s” and two “s’s.” Precisely.
  • frontman – All one word
  • vinyasa yoga – This must appear in BuzzFeed often enough that it actually needs a specified spelling and capitalization. Who knew?
  • Vitaminwater – Capitalized, and all one word
  • bitchface – No surprise that a popular culture site would need this word.
  • de-friend – You do not use “unfriend.”

There are guidelines for writing a Q&A article. For putting timestamps on an article. For captioning a photo. And — joy of joys, for me — BuzzFeed uses the serial comma! I could weep.

Photo of cover of BBC News Styleguide

Everybody needs a style

But the point is that even on a more casual site, the casualness can only be maintained by having a house design and sticking to it. If there were no style guide, the site wouldn’t be casual–it would be chaos. The best way to communicate is by making things consistent enough that everyone can follow what they’re reading with equal ease whether they’re reading a serious article or taking a throwaway quiz to post on Facebook. When the style of writing and design is that consistent, it becomes completely transparent and invisible. What it does is let the actual information come through, without distracting the reader’s attention with different spellings, inconsistent capitalization, and other style differences.

Good, consistent writing (including good spelling!) really are important.

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