Category Archives: * Style tips

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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Elements of Style vs. Eats, Shoots & Leaves

When you’re looking for writing resources, often the first thing people mention is a little book called The Elements of Style by William Strong & E.B. White. (The book is frequently referred to not with its title, but simply as “Strunk & White.”) It’s a collection of a few grammatical rules and some style rules that Strong, and his later editor White thought everyone should follow if they wanted to write properly.

I’m not the only voice in the wilderness that speaks against this book, but those of us who don’t like it much are certainly in a minority.

It’s not that I think it doesn’t matter that you write grammatically or with proper style — I do. I just don’t think this book is that great at teaching what good style is. There are a few useful tidbits in there, so I still think the book is worth reading. I’m in general agreement, for example, about trying not to overuse the passive voice (e.g. instead of the passive “the field was covered by now,” I’d prefer the more active “snow covered the field”).

But other style books, in my opinion, are more useful. And when it comes to a quick-yet-entertaining summary of good grammar, in my opinion nothing beats Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynn Truss. I have never seen a book that helps you understand commas, apostrophes, other punctuation, and general grammar so thoroughly, while still making it interesting and fun.

Truss and I don’t agree completely; few grammarians do. If you saw my earlier post on the Oxford Comma, you know my opinion about that. Truss’s very book title demonstrates why it’s needed — at least sometimes. As an illustration of how she handles even thorny topics like this with great humour, notice how she remarks,

There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.

So I’d suggest looking in other places for style suggestions, but as a quick resource you want on your desk, Truss’s book is the best.

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Filed under * Punctuation, * Style tips

We all speak the same language – or do we?

If you think that editing gets complex as you have to keep track of individual “house styles” versus APA or MLA Style, versus Chicago Style, and so on — imagine adding another layer to the complexity as you need to keep track of Canadian English versus American English, versus British and even Australian.

You may not be dealing with differences in pronunciation, since you’re editing words on the page, but there are plenty of alternate spellings to keep track of, and even alternate words for the same thing.

Most people are aware of the “-our” words in Canada and Britain (flavour, saviour, behaviour, and so on) compared to the American versions (flavor, savior, behavior). But there are many more differences than that.

For example, think of the American lyrics, “I’ve been working on the railroad, all the livelong day.” Do you realize that in Canada you’d technically need to sing, “I’ve been working on the railway”? And as a Canadian, I remember driving in the U.S. and asking a gas station attendant if I could use the “washroom,” and getting a blank look. In most places I’ve visited in that country, they don’t use that word, but say it right out: “bathroom.” If I’d been in Britain, I might have had to use “toilet,” and in Australia, “comfort station.”

This is why, if you’re going to be editing materials from other English-speaking countries — which is more and more likely in the internet age — it’s very important to use the right dictionaries. You may have to amass quite a collection. And since even dictionaries from the same country will vary to some degree, you’ll want to establish ahead of time, with your client, which one is going to be the standard for the project.

The same thing will likely apply to style guides, and you’ll need to investigate whether, say, the Chicago Manual could properly be applied to a manuscript you receive from Australia. If your client wants you to conform to a guide that reflects Australian style, you’ll need to get some sort of access to that guide.

We may all be able to read each other’s books and other writings, because we all still do speak the same language. But these regional and national differences in grammar and spelling (and even, in some cases, punctuation) are very real. And we’ll ignore them at our peril.

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