Book review: ‘Founding Grammars’

In the summer of 2014, “Weird Al” Yankovic released “Word Crimes,” a sarcastic blast at what the song parodist saw as the decline of proper grammar, word choice and punctuation. Yankovic is a stickler on “whom” and “literally,” and he is an advocate of diagramming sentences. A link to the song’s video was widely shared on social media, and anyone who works as a writer or editor probably received an email from a friend or relative about it.

Not everyone enjoyed the song’s mocking humor, however. On the Language Log blog, linguist Ben Zimmer called it the “ultimate peever’s guide.” Mignon Fogarty of the University of Nevada-Reno, perhaps better known as Grammar Girl, wrote on her website: “I don’t believe in word crimes, and I don’t believe in encouraging people to think about language that way.”

Such a battle between prescriptivists and descriptivists of language feels like a contemporary phenomenon. Certainly, the Internet has led to plenty of chatter about “they” as a singular pronoun as well as debates about serial commas, split infinitives and prepositions at the end of sentences.

foundgrammarsBut in “Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War over Words Shaped Today’s Language,” author Rosemarie Ostler shows that this conversation about language has been taking place since the founding of the United States. It is not new, but it is fascinating.

In eight chapters, Ostler takes the reader through grammar’s evolution in the United States. She does so in a roughly chronological way, from Noah Webster through Geoffrey Pullum. In between, Ostler covers the inside stories on “The Elements of Style” and the Merriam-Webster dictionary, as well as lesser-known works such as “The Institutes of English Grammar” by Goold Brown and “Every-Day English” by Richard Grant White.

“Founding Grammars” begins with an origin story. Shortly after the American Revolution, Webster sought to further declare the new nation’s independence via a distinctly American way of speaking and writing. He and others saw grammar knowledge as essential to the country’s success.

Grammar books and dictionaries were, as Ostler describes them, “the self-help manuals of their time.” These grammarians, however, did not always agree on the details, leading to the type of debates over language that we still see today.

Elsewhere, Ostler weaves issues of politics, ethnicity and class into grammar’s history. In the presidential election of 1828, Andrew Jackson was criticized for his “shaky spelling skills” among other language-based shortcomings. Abraham Lincoln faced similar attacks when he ran for the White House in 1860. Ostler explains the motive for such criticism: “Saying that Lincoln didn’t know how to use the language correctly was an indirect way of saying that he was from the lower classes and therefore unworthy to be president.” Yet both men were popular with the American public because of their plain-spoken manner, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address used what was considered the proper grammar of the era.

After the Civil War, the “verbal critics” emerged, dispensing advice on English as a way to raise and maintain a person’s social status. Some of these grammarians had a streak of bias in their guidance, disapproving of words such as “smithereens” and “hooligan” brought to America by immigrants from Ireland.

At the same time, the study of language took hold at U.S. universities. Academics such as Thomas Lounsbury of Yale University argued that English was constantly changing and that the elitist directives of the verbal critics were based on whim rather than science.

“Founding Grammars” includes debates about changes in spelling and word choice as well as grammar itself. A linguist and former librarian, Ostler leans toward the descriptivist camp. Maintaining a neutral tone, she tips her hand on occasion, describing “The Elements of Style” as “relentlessly conservative.”

But this is a history book, not a writing guide, and it’s a successful and entertaining one. Ostler’s level of detail is impressive throughout “Founding Grammars.” The reader learns, among other things, that Webster worked on his famous dictionary using a standing desk and that Davy Crockett inspired the phrases “kick the bucket” and “bark up the wrong tree.”

Ostler provides the background on not only how different grammar texts and dictionaries came about, but also how popular media reacted to them at the time. For example, The New York Times, Toronto Globe & Mail and The New Yorker were apoplectic in 1961 when Webster’s Third International Dictionary took what they saw as a permissive view on “ain’t.”

Throughout the book, Ostler’s writing is clear, concise and engaging. She connects the threads of the story of America’s English with grace and authority. Even Strunk and White would approve of the way “Founding Grammars” unfolds.

This review also appears in the Winter 2015 edition of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

Q&A with Samantha Harrington of Driven Media

Samantha Harrington is co-founder and lead writer at Driven Media. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses the site and her role in it.

Q. What is Driven Media about? What do you hope to achieve?

A. Oh, man. That’s a big question.

Driven is a media startup that, at its most basic level, aims to put more relatable women’s faces and voices in the media. We did a bunch of market research — surveys mostly — to figure out what problems people had with the media. We didn’t just want to start blindly producing content without first making sure there was a bigger need we were solving.

So many young women told us that they wanted to see more relatable stories and more positive content. So that’s what we try to produce.

I think at a larger level, we’re sort of creating this community of women who can learn and grow from each other’s stories. There are so many studies that show the impact of media consumption on self-worth and questions of identity. Sometimes it takes seeing or hearing the stories of others to realize, “Oh yeah, I can do this too. I can be who I want.” We’re all searching for something so we might as well do it together.

Q. Describe your role with the project.

A. So on the business side of things, I’m a co-owner of Driven Media, LLC. There are four owners: Hannah Doksansky, Hrisanthi Kroi, Josie Hollingsworth and me. This role means doing everything from dealing with taxes and legal documents to keeping track of receipts and expenses.

On the content side, I’m Driven’s lead writer. In a multimedia organization, that means writing everything from long-form features, blurbs for graphics, video intros, blog posts, email newsletters and more. I also do a bit of the graphic design for Driven — Hannah and I trade off on that — and some of the basic web stuff — posting, SEO, etc. Hrisanthi and Josie do the more serious web dev.

Q. How do you decide what stories to cover, and how does the reporting and editing work?

A. So we’re working on a series about immigration right now thanks to a partnership with Beacon, a crowdfunding platform for journalism. Within that, we’re really focused on telling human-focused stories of female immigrants living in the U.S. There are a lot of other themes that we’d like to work on in the future, but immigration has been a really incredible way to start out.

We’re five big stories in on the reporting front at this point, and it’s definitely my favorite part of the job. Hannah and I are doing all the reporting, and we start out by making contacts in whatever way we can. Because we’re traveling and reporting in places that we’re not experts in, the first few days are always all over the place. We’ve gotten into cities and completely changed from we thought the story was.

Take Maine for example. When we got to Portland, we thought the story was going to be focused around the Somali community there. But the more conversations we had, the more we realized that the story we needed to be telling in that moment was about asylum seekers in the state. So we try to not be too stubborn about what we think we’re going to do write off the bat.

So we start out by contacting organizations mostly — cultural associations, resettlement agencies, university groups, business associations, etc. — and then we ask who they know that would be willing to share personal stories about their lives and go from there.

This was something we had a really big issue with in West Virginia. We went in knowing that, according to the most recent census, there was a relatively large Filipino population in West Virginia, but once we got there, no one knew what we were talking about. We called countless organizations, and they all responded, “There are Filipino people here?” So we started scouring Facebook and searching Twitter and cold-contacting people that way. Surprisingly, almost everyone responded.

Once we get in touch with people, we try to spend quite a bit of time with them. We like to spend as much time just hanging out and talking to our subjects like friends as we do interviewing them.

Editing varies depending on what kind of media we’re working with. If we’re writing something, I’ll usually put it together and then email it to Josie or another friend for a look-over. With audio and video editing, it’s a lot of conversation between Hannah and me trying to figure out what looks best and makes the most sense for the story we’re telling.

That’s a really long and meandering answer, sorry. We’re still getting into our groove.

Q. You are a 2015 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What advice do you have for those who will graduate in 2016?

A. This is hard because everyone is so different and is looking for different things.

For better or worse, I’m a live-in-the-moment kind of girl and am way too impatient to work my way up a ladder at a big organization.

I’ve always said that all I really want from a job is just to be happy in it. I don’t want to waste any time doing anything I’m not really excited about. For others, who are more patient, maybe more traditional jobs and career paths are perfect for them.

But I guess regardless of who you are and what you’re looking for, my advice is go get it. If there’s something that you want, you have to ask for it and work for it. Don’t just wait hoping that what you want might fall in your lap. Get out there and fight for it. You’ll be amazed at what you can do.

Also, a last piece of advice, more startup than personal, is just to aim to solve a problem with everything you create.

Follow Samantha Harrington and Driven Media on Twitter.

Ben Carson needed an editor

The rise of presidential candidate Ben Carson has led to increased scrutiny of his background. That’s a normal part of politics, though at times the news media fall short on asking relevant questions.

In the past week, news organizations have done stories on Carson’s claims of overcoming a violent childhood and being offered a full scholarship at West Point. Carson wrote about those experiences in his book “Gifted Hands.”

The Wall Street Journal looked into another segment from the book. Carson wrote about an unusual request from a Yale professor to retake an exam. Here’s how the Journal described it:

carson-wsjThis is where an editor could have helped Carson when he was writing “Gifted Hands.” If I had been working with his manuscript, here are two questions I would have asked him about this incident:

  • “Wow! What a remarkable story. And it was captured on film. Can we ask the Yale Daily News if we can include that photo in the book?”
  • “I’m not following the logic of the professor’s experiment. How does it demonstrate the honesty of the students? Maybe those who left were simply annoyed about having to retake the test. Can you revise this to make that clear?”

Perhaps if an editor had asked such questions then, Carson wouldn’t be facing them now.

Q&A with Marisa DiNovis, editorial assistant at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers

Marisa DiNovis is an editorial assistant at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers. She is a 2015 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and a winner of a scholarship from the American Copy Editors Society. In this interview, conducted by email, DiNovis discusses her job, her path to book publishing and her reading recommendations.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical day like?

A. Every day in publishing is different — it doesn’t have the same daily or weekly rhythm as a newsroom or magazine office environment. My job title is Editorial Assistant at Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Random House. Most editorial assistants in book publishing report to either the publisher of an imprint or an editor or two, and work on a range of tasks from developmental editing a manuscript to writing jacket copy and from drafting profit and loss statements to submitting copyright notices.

I report to our publisher/editorial director, and I also provide editorial support to executive and mid-level editors. Our group consists of 12 wonderful editors (who have worked on books like “The Phantom Tollbooth” and “The Golden Compass”), and I interact with our design team, managing editor, copy editor and marketing and publicity teams on a daily basis.

At Knopf BFYR, we publish books for all ages, including board books, picture books, chapter books and middle grade and young adult novels. One of the best parts of starting my career at Random House is that even entry-level editors are allowed to acquire. So in addition to backing up other editors on their books, I also interact with agents and authors as I look to build my own list at Knopf.

On a given day, I might be working on any number of projects. I always spend time reading. Sometimes it’s a manuscript on submission from a literary agent. Occasionally, it’s an interesting story I find in the slush pile (hard-copy submissions from unagented writers), and often it’s a sophomore manuscript from an existing Knopf author for which I’m supporting the editor.

I write a fair amount each day as well, which might take the form of a decline note, an editorial letter for an author whose manuscript we’ve bought or suggestions for a submission that isn’t quite ready but I’d be willing to evaluate again after revision.

As an assistant, I spend part of my work day on a few administrative tasks, like taking my boss’s messages, scheduling conference rooms and ordering in books from our warehouse — but unless you work as an administrative assistant, these tasks do not monopolize your time. You might also find me structure-tagging a manuscript with notes for design and production, attending a meeting to brainstorm potential illustrators for a picture book manuscript or aggregating Web copy for fall 2016 books to send to our copy editor.

And every so often my day might include an author visit with R.J. Palacio or Markus Zusak!

Q. You were a journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. How did that area of study help you move into your career, and what did you have to learn on your own?

A. That’s correct. I was an editing and graphic design student within the journalism major, and I also majored in English. The marriage of those two areas of study provided me with an excellent framework for my field.

In journalism, the departmental focus on practical skills and professional development was invaluable. It’s difficult to teach networking, but the journalism school helped me navigate where to begin.

On the editing and design track, and specifically in my editing classes, I learned how editing and design teams interact and work together—an insight that has been very helpful every day I’ve interned and worked in publishing. I also use my copy-editing skills on a daily basis. Whether I’m querying an author, doing a cold proofread with a manuscript or preparing a document for the production team, I’m thinking about the principles of copy editing.

The English major taught me how to speak eloquently about literature. Without that, I couldn’t perform successfully in my job. I usually read anywhere from five to a dozen manuscripts and books in a given week. I would argue that studying English is just about the best training there is for the reading marathon that is a publishing career.

On my own, I needed to learn what hiring managers in publishing look for in an entry-level applicant. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources out there — trade publications like Publishers Weekly and Poets & Writers magazine as well as the Young to Publishing Group, and, of course, industry professionals. Book publishing is relatively small, so it was important to learn who’s who. LinkedIn and Twitter helped with that, as most publisher websites don’t list personnel.

Given the size of the industry, I learned networking is vital to getting a job. In my first informational interview, I was told that editorial jobs receive more applications than jobs for any other department in publishing, thus making them the most competitive. It was essential to develop a sense of the different houses, their respective mission statements and their successful books, in order to align myself with the divisions that matched my goals.

But perhaps the most important thing that school didn’t teach me was my personal literary tastes. As an aspiring editor, one aspect hiring managers look for in a candidate is someone who knows what he or she likes — they want an assistant equipped to make informed observations and confident decisions when weighing the strengths and weaknesses of a submission.

Q. Book editing sounds like a good gig. What advice do you have for students pursuing internships and jobs in this field?

A. I am so obviously biased, but every day working in books — especially books for young readers —is incredible. I can’t think of a single person I work with who wouldn’t tell you they are in their dream job.

My best piece of advice is this: intern, intern, intern. I say it three times for a reason. Try to do at least a few internships during college. Full disclosure: I can’t count on my hands the number of in-office and remote internships, freelance jobs and related on-campus publications I worked at in order to land my job.

At UNC, students are very lucky in that the Triangle area is a book publishing microcosm—you have Oxford University Press, UNC Press, Duke University Press, Algonquin Books, Light Messages Publishing, Technical Information Publishing Services, Lulu and others. Take advantage of the proximity during the school year. I know I did, and the connections I made there are a part of what helped me get my job.

I mentioned this earlier, but learn the industry. Publishing is almost entirely based in New York, which can present financial obstacles for summer internships. Remember that university career services often offer grants for students doing unpaid summer internships. Many of the larger houses pay a modest rate for summer interns, which is helpful, but these internships are highly competitive. Don’t forget about the smaller companies that can help you get your foot in the door—oftentimes it’s at the smaller houses or agencies (or even a book-related start-up company) where you get more hands-on experience.

Informational interviews are also key. Find the editors, publicists or marketing assistants who do jobs you one day hope to have. If it’s a high-level employee, try to find his or her assistant. Then reach out to that person. Ask for a short phone interview, question-and-answer by email or an in-person meeting if you’re visiting New York. One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to find people who had been in the industry for five years or less, and ask them how they got their job and what prepared them for it.

If you’re excited about books, show it. On social media, in person. It’s easy to be cynical about the economic climate in the publishing and news industries. It’s less easy to show that you’re invested and eager to learn regardless. When I interviewed for this job, my now-coworker told me he thought I was more passionate about children’s books than he is, and I really do believe that was taken into consideration when the hiring decision was made.

Strive to be overqualified — there’s really no such thing.

Q. Editing is fun. So is reading. What book(s) are you reading now, and what recommendations do you have?

A. I bet you thought this would be a short concluding answer! Well, I’m reading a number of books and manuscripts across a many different formats.

I’m just finishing up a submission that is a circus-freakshow retelling of “Hamlet.” I am also digging into a modern counterpart to “The Little Prince,” which I found in the slush pile. I’m also re-reading “His Dark Materials” by Philip Pullman for a large-scale project to brainstorm new cover designs for future editions.

For my book club, I’m reading an advanced reader’s copy of “Julia Vanishes,” the first installment of a debut fantasy trilogy by Catherine Egan. But the reading project I’m most excited about is a first draft manuscript by a bestselling Knopf author — unfortunately, I can’t say more about this as it isn’t released for public knowledge yet. And last, I always try to be reading one non-work-related book for fun, and right now that’s “Full Cicada Moon” by Marilyn Hilton, a middle grade novel in verse.

For sheer thrill and excitement, the book I can’t stop recommending this season, for readers of any age, is “Illuminae” by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. Think “The Hunger Games” meets “Star Wars,” told through a dossier of uncovered files with a healthy dose of a self-destructing artificial intelligence. I haven’t had as much fun reading a book as I did with this in years.

In a lot of ways, I’m as much interested in design as I am in literature, so I love reading picture books and graphic novels. Neil Gaiman recently published an illustrated version of his YA short story “The Sleeper and the Spindle” — it’s an enchanting read made even more interesting by format. “Honor Girl” by Maggie Thrash and “Nimona” by Noelle Stevenson were my two favorite graphic novels of the year, an LGBTQ-inclusive YA memoir and a middle grade fantasy respectively.

And then there’s my self-proclaimed soapbox book, “Anna and the Swallow Man” by Gavriel Savit, a debut that comes out at the end of January. This is a World War II novel with magical realism perfect for readers who loved “The Book Thief” — and the most captivating and merit-worthy piece of literature I’ve read in 2015.

A revised course on alternative story forms

In 2008, I worked with Poynter’s NewsU to create a free course on alternative story forms. Now, we’ve worked together again, this time on a new version of that course. Thanks to Vicki Krueger and Vanessa Goodrum at NewsU for making that possible.

A lot has changed since 2008:

  • Digital news organizations have increased their use of alt story forms such as lists, games and FAQs. Even The New York Times is getting in on the act.
  • People are using tablets such as the iPad to read online, and the old course’s Flash-based presentation didn’t work in that setting.
  • Some of the examples of alternative story forms in the course became stale in design and content.

The revised course has new examples and updated exercises. It has a “digital first” focus.

The course’s goal is the same — to select and create the story form that best matches the news and information you want to convey to your readers. As before, the course is free and self-directed. I hope that you find it useful.

Q&A with Tracy Duncan of Star Wars Stylebook

A tweet from the fan-created Star Wars Stylebook explains the difference between hyperdrive and warpdrive.
A tweet from the fan-created Star Wars Stylebook explains the difference between hyperdrives and warp drives.

Tracy Duncan is a blogger who runs the Star Wars Stylebook account on Twitter. In this interview, conducted by email, Duncan discusses the origins of @SWStylebook, common questions she receives and her outlook on the next movie in the series.

Q. Why a “Star Wars” stylebook?

A. I originally wrote a post for the blog I run, Club Jade, on common errors you see with certain “Star Wars” terms. This was December 2012, not long after Lucasfilm was sold to Disney and the new movies were announced, so Star Wars was again a big part of the mainstream discussion and I was running across pretty simple errors like “Jedis” and “Lucasfilms” everywhere from Twitter to Associated Press stories. That post did pretty well, but it didn’t really find an audience outside of the fandom.

The stylebook concept really took off with Twitter. In June 2014, I saw @APStylebook do an #APStyleChat about religion, started thinking about how that would apply to the term “the Force” and that old post, and that led to @SWStylebook.

I expected it to maybe get a hundred or so followers in fan media, but it took off with standard journalists as well. I owe a lot of that to @tvjedi, who brought it up among Chicago-area media when the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art was announced there not long after I started publicizing the account.

Q. How do you determine what to include in the stylebook, and what are some of the common questions people have about “Star Wars” terminology and names?

A. I try and keep it to the most basic terms, things your average person would recognize or know about. There’s so much additional material with “Star Wars,” I could probably spend weeks tweeting about various types of tanks or spaceships, but most people are only going to know or care about things that are prominent in the movies, like AT-ATs or the Millennium Falcon.

I get asked about “tauntaun” and “stormtrooper” fairly regularly. Stormtrooper can be confusing because the prequel versions, the clone troopers, have a space between the words, but stormtrooper doesn’t.

I also get a lot of pronunciation questions about things that aren’t really named on-screen, which is understandable, but also not really something I’m comfortable advising on because it’s not something I’ve particularly paid attention to. But if there’s something official out there that I’m aware of, I will try to link it. Last week, someone asked me about how to say AT-AT, and almost the next day, they were talking about it on a Youtube series produced by Lucasfilm.

Q. How do you deal with the different versions of the movies as well as “Star Wars” books, comic books, etc.?

A. I’m old enough that I grew up on the VHS versions of the films, but I can’t really get that worked up about the changes. I’d appreciate being able to buy pristine versions of the THX versions on Blu-ray, but it’s not a huge issue for me.

I do have a deep dislike of the CGI Jabba scene in “A New Hope,” partly because the digital Jabba isn’t that great, but mostly because the dialogue in the scene is redundant. Everything we learned there had already been told in the Greedo scene. (I can take or leave the whole shooting first thing, honestly.)

I was a big Expanded Universe (never Extended!) fan, mostly of the novels that have since been declared non-canon because of the new trilogy. If I hadn’t spent years reading them, I doubt I’d have absorbed enough about the series to be able to do something like Star Wars Stylebook, but I also think they’d been in a deep spiral of declining quality for a long time.

Licensed fiction is always a risk, but there were a lot of wasted opportunities and particularly by 2012, the audience that was still reading them was only a small fraction of fans. I can’t blame Lucasfilm at all for their decision — anyone who’d been paying attention knew it was inevitable the moment they announced new movies.

As for the stylebook, we actually had a big discussion at one point over whether Anakin’s nickname should be spelled “Ani” or “Annie.” Early things like “The Phantom Menace” novelization have it as “Annie” — and that’s what I went with originally — but captions from “The Clone Wars” cartoon had it as “Ani.” That was fan preference as well, so if someone asks, “Ani” seems the safer bet.

There’s also conflicting information about whether “dark side” should be capitalized or not, and if it’s Toshi Station or Tosche Station, but in those cases I also go with the more recent stuff — or I might ask someone at Lucasfilm, if it’s not on the Databank or something else I can check myself. They’ve been pretty consistent since the prequel days, but that hasn’t always been the case.

Q. ”Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” opens in December. We’ve seen the trailers. Any predictions on how good the movie will be?

A. My gut — and everything I’ve been reading — tells me it’ll be good, or at least super fun. I definitely think it has a good chance at pleasing a lot of fans. Here’s hoping!

Q&A with Megan Paolone, deputy copy chief at BuzzFeed

Megan Paolone is deputy copy chief at BuzzFeed. In this interview, conducted by email, she discusses her job and BuzzFeed’s approach to story editing, headline writing and stylebooks. 

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical workday like?

A. As BuzzFeed’s deputy copy chief, I monitor for spelling, grammar and style errors. My day-to-day consists of editing of basically any type of post that goes up on BuzzFeed (news stories, features, fun posts and lists, service pieces, etc.); fielding grammar and style questions from writers and editors; and helping to run the copydesk Twitter account we started a little less than a year ago, @StyleGuide.

My workday 99.9% of the time starts with checking my email as soon as I wake up, just to make sure there hasn’t been anything that’s come in overnight that needs our immediate attention. Our global copydesk is now seven people (three in New York, including me and our copy chief, Emmy Favilla; two in our London office; and two in Los Angeles), and adding the U.K. team that signs on around 5 a.m. ET along with those L.A. editors who are on later has put us close to a 24-hour copydesk — and alleviated a lot of the stress we used to have when there were just two or three of us.

Once I’m at the office, I’m alternating between checking email and Gchat (to answer questions, check on any drafts that editors have sent in for a read, etc.), editing in our CMS, keeping an eye on Twitter and Slack (to answer questions, pick up posts for backreads, and bounce questions/style stuff off the rest of the copy team), and monitoring the site and our live stats for trending posts that need edits. There’s a lot of “Does this sentence read strangely to you?” conversation happening among the copydesk throughout the day as we’re all working on different edits, as well as our ongoing fights about whether we should hyphenate or close up certain words.

We aim to be really accessible to everyone. Weekly we send out via email copy roundups (addressing common issues from the previous week and additions to the style guide) and copy Q&As (answering questions we’ve been asked over the last week).

We recently added a “guest editor corner” to our roundups where we let writers and editors talk about their biggest word pet peeves, and that’s been a really fun way to get the staff involved in what we do, which can probably seem tedious if they’re not interacting with us regularly. Typically once a month we hold copy classes and refreshers for the staff in the offices where we’re based (and sometimes virtually), as well as copy quizzes to test people’s skills and to see if they’re paying attention to the style guide.

Q. How do story editing and headline writing work at BuzzFeed?

A. At BuzzFeed, we put a lot of trust in the individual writers. Everyone has an editor whom they report to, and, especially in longer reported stories and features, who will give feedback throughout the writing process. We actually have a built-in commenting function in our CMS, but a lot of back-and-forth is also done via email, Slack, etc.

Especially for shorter one-off news stories, writers are responsible for their own headlines and deks, though there’s generally input and suggestions from their editors, and sometimes from us on the copydesk if we’re taking a look at a story before it’s published. Because so much of our traffic is social, and not search-based, we typically don’t worry about squeezing a lot of buzzwords into headlines for SEO purposes. This gives us a little more creative breathing room in headlines sometimes, because we can write a really short, two- or three-word hed, and then throw more important information in the dek. Especially for stories coming from BuzzFeed News, more descriptive headlines have also become less important for us as more and more people share “screenshorts” (not a typo!) of text on Twitter, which often contain a few sentences with the meat of a story.

We also do a lot of headline optimization and testing of different headline – thumbnail combinations, to see what shares best, what’s getting the most clicks, etc. It’s often just a really simple tweak (e.g., TK Struggles Only Copy Editors Understand vs. TK Things You Understand Only If You’re A Copy Editor). Our social and data teams have done a great job creating really easy-to-use optimization tools that work across editorial, whether you’re in the News, Buzz or Life divisions. “Optimized” heds that have been tested with these tools are always more successful, and that success can sometimes translate into tens of thousands of more views.

A lot of what we do is reading posts after they’ve already been published (i.e., backreads) and we prioritize breaking news and posts on the homepage, as well as stories that are going viral and trending in our live site analytics. Because our team is pretty small compared with the rest of BuzzFeed’s edit staff, we prioritize whatever’s going to get the most eyes on it.

We do, however, always do at least two reads before publishing on longer, reported news and features pieces — usually anything that’s more than 1,000 words. Our edits on these longer pieces are sometimes done in Google Docs, but more often than not, we’re editing directly in our CMS, and sending along comments, concerns and questions to the editors/writers once we’ve finished our edit.

Q. BuzzFeed has its own style guide. How is it different from the Associated Press Stylebook, and how do you decide when to add or edit entries?

A. We like to say that the BuzzFeed Style Guide is a style guide for the internet. A lot of our style is based on AP and we still follow a lot of the AP guidelines, but our guide is really internet-specific and deals with words and style and issues that AP and even Merriam-Webster (which is our house dictionary) don’t delve into. It’s our attempt to standardize a lot of the slang and weird web terms that live in places like Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook and Reddit.

Beyond styling internet-y words like “Vine-ing” (as a verb, though “post a Vine” is preferred) and “hacktivist,” we also have pretty extensive language guidelines. Our LGBT section, for example, is really wide-ranging and inclusive. We borrowed a lot from GLAAD’s media guidelines (which we credit), but so much of it comes from conversations we’ve had and continue to have with BuzzFeed editors, as well as occasional input from readers. We’ve also just added a section on commonly misspelled names of celebrities and well-known public figures, and that’s been really helpful for our sanity, especially regarding weird contrived celebrity nicknames like J. Law and Kimye.

As for adding new entries, we do it when it’s necessary — usually if there’s a place where we differ from both AP and Merriam-Webster and is worth noting because it’s a term we use regularly. As I mentioned earlier, we’re all constantly chatting about how we’re using different terms, and if there’s a word we’re seeing a lot that hasn’t been in the guide and isn’t standardized anywhere else, there’s a pretty good chance we’ll add it. We recently added “thinkpiece,” and decided to close up “afterparty” (we’d had it hyphenated previously, and were seeing the one-word use was a lot more common).

Q. Editing for BuzzFeed sounds like a good gig. What advice do you have for journalism students seeking similar jobs or internships?

A. So my job actually started as an internship right after I graduated j-school from Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. I think the single most important piece of advice I can give is to get as much diverse experience as possible, both writing AND editing via internships, college student-run publications and even freelancing.

I started as a copy editor and writer at my college paper in undergrad and got of a lot of diverse experience doing news and entertainment reporting and writing, as well as a crash course in AP style. Once I got to Syracuse, I blogged and edited for a few of the student-run magazines and websites (writing a few features and a lot of entertainment-type blogs and reviews), as well as interned as a breaking news reporter for the regional newspaper there, the Syracuse Post-Standard and

Copy editors specifically have to be incredibly detail-oriented, and must know their AP Style and grammar stuff inside and out, and I’m a firm believer in continuing to do your own writing and reading to practice these skills. Reading a lot of good writing is really important because it helps you start to recognize what works and what doesn’t, and teaches you how to think critically about what you’re reading — which is among the most important skills to have in any type of editing that you’re doing. One of my favorite things about my job at BuzzFeed is that I get to read and edit so much different content (both in style and subject), so I try to keep my personal reading habits just as diverse to keep up with what other sites like BuzzFeed are doing.

And, finally, everyone’s favorite: networking. It’s how I got my internship that’s turned into a job I really love and feel continually challenged by. Reach out to the writers and editors whose work you love, via Twitter, via email, etc. But have a reason (i.e., you loved a piece that they recently published), and don’t ask for a job, or for them to look at your résumé immediately. Personalize your emails and cover letters — people can recognize a form letter a mile away. Show you’ve done your research and you’re familiar with their work or the place where they work, and be specific; there’s nothing more frustrating than someone writing, “Tell me about BuzzFeed.”

Don’t stress! Job searching seems really daunting, but as long as you stay organized and do your research, you’ll be OK. Good luck!