Student guest post: When words lose their power

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Lily Stephens is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in editing and graphic design. She has interned at Chapel Hill and Durham Magazines and as a Dow Jones News Fund editing intern at Bay Area News Group (Mercury News and East Bay Times.) 

“I think the AP Stylebook says to capitalize formal titles directly before a name,” I say to my classmate. Actually, this is a lie. I know the Stylebook says this.

So why would I couch my statement with “think?” In J557, our Advanced Editing class, we spend a lot of time editing in teams. In these situations, I periodically catch myself making qualifying statements that aren’t strictly necessary. Generally, I’m considering someone’s emotions and trying not to hurt their feelings.

I know from experience that it can be pretty embarrassing when someone points out how many misspellings you haven’t caught in a one-page article. And sometimes being sensitive in those moments can keep your co-editing relationship on friendly ground. Like alerting your date to the fact that there is an entire spinach leaf wedged between his teeth, working collaboratively on a piece of writing is an art.

But it’s a thin line to walk between thoughtfulness and undermining your own credibility. Though I’m confident that my classmates feel comfortable working with me, I’m not so sure about their belief in my editing skills. The more I invite them to question me by couching statements with “I think” or “correct me if I’m wrong, but,” the less they trust me when I make a claim. And as I’ve run into this more and more, I’ve started to notice myself communicating similarly outside of the classroom, too. So why am I constantly using language that makes me sound less confident than I really am?

My research (read: several hours poring over Google search results) has been pretty enlightening. It turns out that as a female-identifying person, I’m more likely than my male counterparts to “soften” my communication.

In an interview about the themes of her book “Playing Big,” author and career coach Tara Mohr talks about the speech habits women in many cultures have adopted that are diminishing our words. She explains that we use words like “actually” and “just” to come across as more agreeable, but this often impedes the message we’re trying to get across. Mohr says: “I also believe that it’s because for centuries, women did not have the political and human rights to protect our safety if we spoke up and threatened or angered those around us.”

This reminded me of a saying I’ve often heard from women in my family, that “you have to let a man think he’s making the decision.” It’s always seemed like outdated advice, but that’s akin to what I’m doing when I say that I “think” the AP Stylebook says something. My classmate ends up looking it up and coming to that conclusion for themselves. It’s not something I do exclusively with male classmates, but it ends up affecting others’ perception of me and by proxy the gender group I identify with.

Tara Franks, who teaches courses on gender and communication at Arizona State University, explains: “If I’m unable to assert my opinion with the same authority that a man can and therefore, I’m not taken as seriously, and that’s repeated over time with multiple women in similar contexts, then what happens is women as a whole lose credibility in a particular space.” This, in particular, makes me think a little more seriously about whether I should change the way I communicate.

I should say that although the evidence is clear, it doesn’t mean that it’s every woman’s responsibility to police her language in order to undo centuries of socialization. Even typing that sentence was exhausting. However, I’ve found it really interesting to be a more aware of my communication style in light of this information.

Here are the steps I’ve started taking in my own life:

  • Try to be more aware of when I’m making qualifying statements.
  • When I notice that I’ve made one, I ask myself what the motive was, and whether it was good.
  • When I really know what I’m talking about, try to say it confidently. People can learn from my expertise (e.g. in Harry Potter trivia).

Of course being sensitive in our communication is useful, but I think the takeaway here is that in doing so we should strive to be intentional with our words.

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Stormy Daniels, copy editor

Stormy Daniels in 2015 (Creative Commons image)
Stormy Daniels, who appears in and directs pornographic movies, is making headlines over an alleged affair with Donald Trump many years ago. She’s in the news now because it has come to light that shortly before the 2016 election, she was paid $130,000 to stay quiet about the relationship.

Daniels, whose given name is Stephanie Clifford, is an active Twitter user with more than 500,000 followers. As one would expect, she uses social media to promote her line of work.

Lately, Daniels has used Twitter to take on trolls who are attacking her and defending the president. When doing so, Daniels often points out shortcomings in the wording of their tweets.

Here she is on spelling:

daniels-loser

daniels-spelling-lyingdaniels-spelling-skank

Here she is on punctuation:

daniels-punctuation

Here she is on word choice:

daniels-harlot

daniels-wordchoice

Apparently, this porn star (I prefer two words) is a lover of language. Perhaps Daniels will be able to find a career in words when a career in images is no longer an option for her.

Fake News is a real beer

fakenews-beer

While picking up a few things at the grocery store, I noticed a beer with a timely name: Fake News.

I grabbed a six pack and read the label. Fake News is made by Gizmo Brew Works, a brewery in Raleigh, North Carolina.

As a journalist, I dislike fake news. It’s disinformation designed to confuse and mislead. It’s a real problem.

As a beer drinker, I like Fake News. It’s a tasty India Pale Ale that gets good reviews. I recommend it.

I was curious about the beer’s name, so I contacted Gizmo Brew Works to learn more about how the brewery picked it and how the company selects names for beers in general. Here’s what Joe Walton, head brewer and co-owner of Gizmo Works, told me via email:

Q. How do you decide what to name a beer?

A. That’s a great question with many answers, some more logical than others. We always start with the beer first. We release 20-plus completely new beers a year, so we have to come up with a lot of names.

Sometimes, the beer names itself. Our Beekeeper Honey Wheat is an example, as well as Hop Chocolate (a chocolate IPA), Hoppy Grounds (a coffee pale), Born 2 Bee Wild (a sour version of Beekeeper with wild yeast). These are the easiest but also the least frequent.

With 4,000-plus breweries in the United States with more opening daily, obvious names are few and far between. With so many new beers, we now tend to name a new beer that’s possibly a one-off, such as Lavender Kolsch or Red IPA until they prove themselves in the market. If the demand is there to bring it back, then we brand it (in the above instances, Reunion and Hop Hydrant respectively).

Then there are beers themed to a series, such as our high gravity monthly Inventors Series releases. These beers are all named after an inventor of something physical or conceptual. So Bright Idea, our Imperial White Chocolate Stout, is named after Thomas Edison and Renaissance Man after Da Vinci and Biplane after the Wright brothers, etc.

The final is the catch-all “WTF do I name this beer” category. These tend to be the most difficult but can lead to some of the strongest branding.

Our summer seasonal Deep Blue Saison is a play on the movie “Deep Blue Sea.” It’s a summer beer so sharks are relevant and the label is a great white jumping up to snatch blueberries out of the sky. Instead of blood smeared over his face, it’s blueberry jam.

We also have a peanut butter brown ale named Arachibutyrophobia, which is the fear of getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of the mouth.

Q. Why did you decide to call this one Fake News?

A. Fake News was ironically a one-off, our first New England Style IPA. They tend to be more hazy and juicy with less perceived bitterness. They’re arguably the hottest trend in brewing right now outside of sours.

The name idea came to me as a play on words: Fake NewsEngland IPA. Considering that there are few words with more buzz in our country right now than “fake news,” it paired nicely with the style. It also was something we knew would get people at least talking about the beer.

Politics are normally a no-go in branding, at least for us. What’s funny for your side of the political spectrum is normally a gut punch to the other side, so why alienate half of your consumers with one beer and worst case turn them off your brand entirely and have them start trolling you?

Fake news is different. It applies to both sides, so regardless of your political views, it’s relatable and again a phrase we are hammered with daily from news, social media, etc. It’s been amazing watching how people react to the name and description (it’s almost always posted with a picture).

Fake News is now a year-round beer for us that’s a top two seller. It was also a lot of fun to come up with and write.

Student guest post: Some special relationship — we can’t even agree on words

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the second of those posts. Megan Cain is a UNC-Chapel Hill student who is studying broadcast journalism with a minor in entrepreneurship. She is also a contributing writer at College Town.

If we were going to see a movie in the United Kingdom, we would be attending the theatre. If we went to see that same movie in the United States, we would be attending the theater. Either way, you would be buying the snacks. Blimey!

No matter our location, communicating with one another would be as easy as pie, with the exception of the occasional colloquialism. Both Americans and the British have their own special sayings, but navigating these differences can be dodgy territory.

Why do these differences exist? Well, you could say Americans were on a bit of a freedom high. After separating themselves from their mother nation politically, some felt they should follow suit from a linguistic perspective.

When America took its first census in 1790, there were over four million Americans. Almost 90 percent of these Americans were descendants of British colonists. Words were created for new creatures and new surroundings, taking influence from the languages of fellow colonists.

“As an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government,” Noah Webster wrote in his 1791 Dissertations on the English Language. Not everybody felt the same way. Throughout the 19th century, Webster was met with fierce competition from the more British-oriented Nathaniel Worcester. The BBC has analyzed which spellings caught on and those that didn’t.

I am writing this post because I’ve spent the past eight months with our fellow English speakers, traveling to both Australia and the U.K. I won the Carolina Blue Honors Fellowship, allowing me to work for a digital sports company called FanHub Media. Recognising my journalistic capabilities, FanHub immediately tasked me with writing and editing numerous documents.

The problem? I consistently questioned words I had been spelling correctly for the majority of my life. In an extra twist, FanHub has clients all over the world, so I had to consistently switch my brain back and forth from American to British English. I had to sharpen my editing utensils and dig further into content than I ever had, ensuring that I wasn’t over or under-correcting based on American phrasings and spellings. I never thought editing English would make me uncomfortable.

However, I believe my discomfort led to my greatest growth as an editor. I was forced to start from scratch. I questioned what I didn’t know and even what I did. I learned to pay even more attention, constantly asking myself about who my audience was, and I realised I should have been doing this all along.

How we edit depends almost solely on who the audience is and what will make the most sense to them. You wouldn’t edit a feature story on a baby panda appearing in National Geographic Kids in the same way you would edit a doctoral dissertation on the fertility and breeding cycle of a female panda. Audience should remain at the forefront of an editor’s mind.

I apologize for my nonsense, but I invite you to take a gander at British English once in a blue moon. Might make you feel like a below-average bloke, but it’s good practice.

Cheers, mates!

Reforming our word choices

The good people at Copyediting recently asked me to occasionally write posts for the site. I’m honored to participate.

My first post there is about the word “reform.” I often see it used too loosely in news stories about legislation and politics.

In its most recent edition, the AP Stylebook encouraged journalists to consider “whether a more neutral term is better.” It’s good advice.

You can read my full post at Copyediting.com. Thanks to Laura Poole, the site’s co-owner and director of training, for the opportunity.

Submitting facts to a candid world

declaration-painting

“Writing the Declaration of Independence,” a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

As one of the best breakup letters of world history, the Declaration of Independence is a wonderful document.

Its author is Thomas Jefferson, with editing help from John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. The Continental Congress also changed some wording before approving the declaration.

The list of complaints against King George III is especially interesting in its detail. That section is introduced this way: “Let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

On this holiday, I encourage you to read the full text of the Declaration of Independence or listen to a reading by NPR journalists. In either form, please appreciate the declaration’s language, structure and message, and have a safe and happy Fourth of July.