Quick And Dirty Tips from Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty
By Susan Johnston Taylor, Freelance Writer
Set it aside, come back
For millions of people with questions on correct word usage, punctuation, or sentence structure, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips is their go-to source for clear, accessible, and oftentimes entertaining grammar explanations. Mignon Fogarty created Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips podcast 12 years ago and quickly expanded it into a popular network of short, instructional podcasts.
Fogarty has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and penned seven books, including The New York Times bestseller Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. With hundreds of podcast episodes and entries on her website, Grammar Girl and the Quick and Dirty Tips network is still going strong.
We talked to Fogarty about why she takes on side projects, how she adapts her writing for different platforms, and more. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What challenges have you overcome to get where you are now professionally?
Mignon Fogarty: I think the biggest challenge I have overcome is probably boredom. I've been Grammar Girl for 12 years, so I've been writing every week about language. Just trying to come up with something new each week or to put a new spin on it is challenging. I'm always looking for a pop culture reason to cover an old grammar topic in a new way.
I have met that challenge by trying to have side projects. I've written books. I’ve designed games, both digital games and a physical card game. I travel, give talks, and do webinars. I always try to have something going on besides the everyday bread and butter work of writing for the website and producing the podcast every week.
Hiring, has also always been a challenge for a couple of reasons. First, it's hard for me to hire an entry-level person to manage my social media because of the nature of my work. I can't have a lot of typos or poorly written teasers. There's no room for error. Where someone else might be able to hire an entry-level person and train them over time, I feel like that's a little harder for me. I'm not perfect at all, I mean typos do get by me. But in the past when I've tried to hire people, it hasn't been worth the effort that I need to go through to edit their work or train them.
Hiring, in general, has been a challenge because I feel like the business could grow a lot more if I were to hire people. But I really value my freedom and I feel like having employees would tie me down too much. I guess it's not really a challenge, it's a choice I've made to prioritize my freedom over growth of the business. I did partner with Macmillan Publishing early on and now they do all the heavy lifting for the Quick and Dirty Tips network, which I founded, but they manage it all today. I guess instead of hiring, I just found a smart and reliable partner, so that was good.
At what point did you decide to expand to the Quick and Dirty Tips network that you have now?
Almost immediately. Grammar Girl was the first podcast and it took off really fast. Within six weeks it was number two at iTunes. I knew then that I was onto something, that it could be a bigger business. I think within a couple of months I had the Quick and Dirty Tips network going and I had the second show which was the Modern Manners Guy. I just started adding shows as quickly as I could.
Especially back then, I felt like it was the format that was part of its success. A lot of podcasts are people having a conversation are they are really long. I found that I enjoyed listening to short concise podcasts like Quick and Dirty Tips. In some ways, I made the show for me and then, because it was popular, I realized we could do a lot of topics that are short and to the point but still interesting and help you do something better. It was immediately apparent to me that it was a network and a bigger business.
How does your approach differ when you're creating content for your podcast, website, or social media channels?
The biggest difference between the podcasts and the articles on the website is the podcast has more adverbs. When we're speaking, we use a lot of adverbs, I'll say, "I am really excited about this interview,” for example. That word conveys a sense of enthusiasm and authenticity. We use a lot of adverbs when we talk. But when you see them on the page they look excessive, like filler.
I used to transcribe the podcasts word for word to help people who are learning English and following along. But after awhile, all of the adverbs started to bother me. I’d go back and delete a lot of those usually's and really's.
Another thing is, I feel like in the audio, you need to be a little bit redundant. You need to drive the message home more than you need to on the page because people are listening and it's hard for them to go back and review something. I'll repeat things more often in the podcasts and I'll take out those repetitions in the script before it goes on the site.
I'll also include extra examples on the website that aren't in the podcast because it would be tiresome to read through 10 example sentences of the point I'm trying to make. But on the website, people might appreciate seeing different and subtle ways how a word or punctuation can be used.
On social media, it's always a balance between giving everything away and trying to drive people to the website. I find that the posts where you give people a short answer tend to do better on social media than the posts that are are just a headline. I do a mix of those posts because from a business perspective, it is important to get people to come to the website. But from a marketing perspective, it's also important to have people think positively of the brand and get what they want from it.
How do you define good writing?
It's important to be as clear as possible. I really like writing that is clear. In general, that means having your sentences not be too long and turning things into bulleted lists whenever it makes sense. With nonfiction and web writing, I don't like clever writing for clever writing's sake alone, but when you mix a good story with wordplay or irony, that really gets me. So, I especially like the non-fiction writers Terry Pratchett and Gail Carriger for that reason. I think they're good storytellers but also clever writers.
I have other language books that I really like: Rosemarie Ostler and Lynne Murphy both had wonderful books out about language in the last year that combined words with stories. Lynne's book (The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American English) is about the difference between British and American English and Rosemarie's book (Splendiferous Speech: How Early Americans Pioneered Their Own Brand of English) is about American English and especially how it developed on the frontier. I just loved how both of those books were filled with fascinating tidbits about words but also stories about how people lived. I really admired how those two books wove storytelling in with teaching people about words and language.
What's the best and worst advice you've ever gotten on writing?
The best advice I have ever gotten is once you write something, set it aside for awhile and revisit it again. Sometimes you don't have the time to do that. But if you can give yourself a couple of days to set something aside and then go back and edit it, it's always going to be better than if you tried to do it right away.
I wouldn't necessarily call it the worst advice, but the advice I've gotten that I don't think is correct is that writers need to write every day. There's a lot of guilt that goes into telling writers that they should write every day if they want to be a "real writer" and I just don't think that's true. I think different schedules work for different people and some people might find that writing every day works for them and other people might find that setting aside one or two big chunks a week is the best way for them to write.