Interview transcript. Minimally edited for clarity.
Well, I’m really excited about this because I feel like there’s something about this industry that feels really personal in a lot of ways. A lot of people that I’ve met tie their identity to content creation in a really deep way that I feel isn’t necessarily the same in other industries.
Plus, you have such an interesting story, and talking about the personal aspect of how you evolved from a place as a technical writer to where you are now is just going to be super interesting. I’m excited.
We spoke on Coffee & Content a few weeks ago and it was really fun. Thank you for being here Grammar Girl (or Mignon Fogarty), I’m really excited to chat with you today. Can we start by having you do a simple introduction and a quick biographical snapshot?
Sure, yeah! Thanks for having me back. So, yes, I’m Mignon Fogarty better known as Grammar Girl. I think of myself primarily as a podcaster. That’s how I got started, but I’m also a writer and an entrepreneur. I have written seven books and I’m the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips Podcast Network, which now operates in partnership with Macmillan Publishing.
Gosh, who am I? I have an undergraduate degree in English and a master’s in Biology from Stanford. I worked for a while as a technical writer and ended up being Grammar Girl. So that’s the short version of who I am and how I got here.
I did not know that you had a master’s in Biology. How did you go with English and then Biology? Where did that combination come from?
I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. So going to college was the goal. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do when I graduated and I really just wanted to write, but with a degree in English, I soon found I didn’t have anything to write about.
So I became interested in science after I graduated, started going to community college, and taking science classes to see if I could do it. I never took any “real science” as an undergrad. So I found that I really loved it. And I went thinking initially that it would be something I would write about.
Then I got really interested in the science itself and took this huge detour where I thought I was going to be a research biologist and I was working in a lab on fruit fly stem cells. And then eventually found my way back to writing.
Wow, that’s interesting. So you’ve kind of had this in and out with writing a little bit in your career. Pre-college, what was the thing that made you want to go and learn English? What got you so interested in writing as a focus?
Well, I grew up as an only child and I spent a huge amount of time at the library. When I was growing up, my mom would take me to the library to keep me entertained, to read books, and to take little classes, poetry classes, writing classes, etc.
From a very early age, I got lots of positive feedback on my skill as a writer. So I just thought of myself as a writer from very early on and enjoyed doing that. And then, through high school, I was on my school newspaper — I was the editor in chief of my school newspaper, and I was on the annual staff.
I really identified very much as a writer. I had a summer job at the local newspaper. I was doing page layout because it was all I could get a job doing and I wanted to do anything they would let me do with the local paper. So that was a great experience. Then in college, I was an English major and I worked on the school papers a little bit there, too. So, I’ve always been interested in writing from a very early age.
Got it. The title of this interview and one of the things we found in Coffee & Content was how you found yourself in technical writing. What was the path that got you in there? What was your early experience in technical writing?
Right. Well, I was in graduate school doing biology during the dot-com boom in Silicon Valley and I actually wasn’t enjoying the lab research part of biology. I’m very clumsy. So I would spill things and it would feel very dangerous.
After your first couple of years, it can be quite tedious work. And I like really fast-paced things, I’ve learned. So my undergraduate college roommate was in business school and she dropped out to start a startup and I dropped out to join her in that startup. I went into a series of dot-com startups that all — well, hers was acquired — all the subsequent ones went out of business.
It actually worked out quite well. Because when all the companies I worked at shut down, the people I worked with scattered and went to a bunch of different biotech companies and almost immediately hired me to do technical writing and marketing writing at those biotech companies.
Because I had such a deep understanding of the science as well as being able to write, which is a pretty rare combination. So I quickly found myself with a career as a science and technical writer. I also approached science magazines and wrote articles for The Scientist Magazine and other trade publications.
Oh, wow. So which biotech startups did you end up going to? Any that we might know?
Let’s see. Probably not, you know, because they’re all out of business, but I worked at a site called Caregivers Zone. That was for people who were caring for sick or ailing relatives. And I worked for a site called Genetic Health, which was a very, very early competitor to 23andMe.
I was the Head of Content for both those companies and it was just a fabulous experience and I’m still really proud of the work that we did there.
So then how did this all end up rolling from being a technical writer to eventually transforming into your superhero name — Grammar Girl?
Well, I was a little bored as a technical writer. It’s sort of the common theme when I start changing things up. I love technology. So I heard about this new thing called podcasting and I decided I wanted to try it out. So, actually, I had a science podcast first called Absolute Science, and I did that for about eight months before I started Grammar Girl, so Absolute Science took a lot of time to produce — it was taking me about 20 hours a week, which, when you’re working for yourself or you’re a freelancer, time really is money. So I couldn’t justify continuing to do that, but I had fallen in love with podcasting and I realized I saw my editing clients make the same writing mistakes over and over again.
And so I thought, well, I’ll just do a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast about writing: how to use a semicolon, “which” versus “that”, etc. — obviously people need this information and maybe I can make it more fun than it is in other ways that it’s available. I just wanted to keep my toes in podcasting and much to my surprise it took off and within six weeks it was number two on iTunes. So having been at a whole bunch of startups, I knew that I had a business. At the time, the business model wasn’t there for podcasting like it is today, but I knew when you instantly have an audience like that, you somehow have a business.
So I continued my freelance technical writing work while doing Grammar Girl at the same time for about six to eight months before I was able to do Grammar Girl full-time. So, essentially, two full-time jobs for that short start-up period.
One of the things I love about that is that I think there’s this mindset in Silicon Valley which is so interesting that I haven’t really found many other places where it’s like — people like it, it’s a business.
And I think that’s such an interesting and innovative mindset. It’s so different from what you see in other places where I think most people are like — people like it, maybe it’s a hobby. But it’s totally different when you look at Silicon Valley, which sounds like it was a big part of what actually got you to where you are.
Absolutely. My husband teases me that I don’t know how to have hobbies. I think I’ve tried to turn them all into businesses, but I think I’ve gotten better at that over the years. I’m not trying to monetize my garden anymore.
I mean, it is cool though. It’s crazy what you can monetize.
Especially as a smaller organization. You have a thousand fans, you have a business, and maybe it’s a small business, but it’s a business. That’s really cool. I love people hearing about that part of the story and seeing the evolution that you went through.
Getting back to a couple of Quick and Dirty Tips. What would you say are the three most valuable things technical writing taught you about being a writer that you carry forward?
Oh gosh. Let’s see. I think I learned that clarity is probably the most important thing.
When you’re doing technical writing, it has to be clear and accurate. And I think that meshing with that is that I learned to be very open to feedback and not take edits personally, because it has to be accurate. And the experts, the people who made the DNA sequencer or whatever, are just going to know how to accurately describe how it works better than you are as the writer.
So you have to be incredibly open to feedback and incorporating it and changing the writing around to make it more clear. I think those were the two most important things I learned.
And then just learn to be curious. There are story ideas everywhere. This is more about science writing than technical writing, but, once you start looking around, I always had more story ideas than I could possibly pitch. And if you view the world through the lens of wondering where the story is, you’ll find them everywhere.
Yeah, I see that in my work, actually. I think that that’s a really interesting concept, that the soft skill of being able to accept critical feedback in a good way is so critical to being a strong technical writer. And I honestly had never really thought about that until you said it just now, but I’m thinking about the writers on our team and all the writers that I interact with through the course of our business and you’re totally right. The good ones are the ones that know how to accept feedback.
How do you think about getting better at that? I mean, it’s a soft skill, but is there a strategy of being better there?
I mean, I think it’s more of a mindset. When you’re asking people for feedback — I guess if you’re forced to ask for feedback, you might not welcome it as much, but when you’re asking for it proactively, then you should be really open to getting it. I just always look at the feedback I get and think: this has made the piece better. Like, look at how the feedback you’re getting is making you look better.
Like editors make me look better, whether it’s catching typos or rephrasing something in a way that’s more clear. I don’t know if there’s a strategy, but it’s just viewing it as something that helps everyone and makes you shine, too.
Yeah, but I think even that kind of thing is fundamental. It’s something that we can’t underestimate. I think the concept of the collaborative aspect of writing is in some ways something that you wouldn’t expect with writing because, in a lot of ways, writing is so personal for a lot of people.
And one of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten to know a lot of technical writers is there are the “science people” that came from engineering and can write, then there are the “writers” who came from writing backgrounds who became technical writers. And for “writers” — and understandably so — it’s very personal.
So I think the idea that you’re producing something and that it’s a collaborative process is worth remembering, I think that that soft skill is there and it’s important.
I guess it depends on your work situation, but you don’t have to accept every change either and can push back sometimes.
So what do you think, from your origins as a technical writer, what do you think you carried through into Grammar Girl and what parts of that do you think really influence the work that you’ve done there?
The thing I’ve been good at through all my writing is taking concepts that are hard or boring to understand and making them more interesting.
That was the feedback I frequently got as a science writer. I take this difficult stuff and make it easy to understand. And that’s the same thing that I carried over into my writing about language and to Grammar Girl. I’m very careful not to use big grammatical terms or even small grammatical terms like “adverb” or “adjective” if they aren’t necessary.
I will try to keep it as simple as possible and not use words that could make people feel intimidated. I think that a lot of times when people are reading a difficult topic, whether it’s science or language, they feel intimidated. They feel dumb, because they don’t know the jargon. And I want to avoid that whenever I can.
You want people to feel comfortable and that’s when they can learn and access and integrate new information. So, yeah, making it as accessible as you can is something I really took over from science and technology writing into Grammar Girl.
You know, as you’re talking about this, one of the things that strikes me as being super interesting, and is part of the brilliance of Grammar Girl, is that you’re kind of documenting grammar. You’re a technical writer for language.
Yeah. I thought of a really good example that might help people understand. So in my first book whether you use “was” or “were” in a sentence, like “if I were a rich man” or “if I was a rich man,” from Fiddler on the Roof, that’s called the subjunctive. And most people who write about language will talk about it as the subjunctive.
And I insisted that in the index of the book that it was listed under “was versus were” in addition to being listed under “subjunctive” because if you don’t already know, you’re never going to search for the word subjunctive. And that’s the kind of thing that I think I was especially aware of having come from a technical writing background.
Yeah. That is totally technical writing. That is absolutely what it is. It’s crazy. To think that like, it probably is true that like Grammar Girl had to start as a technical writer, that’s the foundation! That’s so cool.
Well, it’s interesting, too, because it’s harder for me now that I’m so engrossed and deep in the language world, it gets harder for me to recognize that “subjunctive” wouldn’t be a word that everyone would know. When I came into it, I wasn’t an expert, so I was more aware of what people didn’t know. So I have to remind myself of that now or my editor reminds me of it.
And that’s an interesting point, too, just taking from the technical writer’s perspective is that I think we often forget that part of the importance and brilliance of technical writers is that they don’t know everything that the engineers, the scientists know.
And they force the scientist to explain it to them so they can explain it to other people. Through your progression, you’ve kind of moved a little bit over that line in terms of language. And now you have to have somebody else help you with that, but only kind of.
Yeah, that’s what I do. I explain hard things.
So, thinking a little bit about the progression that you’ve been a part of, which is the development of the web and all of these media formats around it and how language has transformed over that time. I think that you’re in a really interesting place to comment on how this total reshape of the media landscape impacted language. How do you feel about that? Positive, negative, or just is?
Language has always been changing. And I think it’s changing in an interesting way today for me because technology has made researching language so much more interesting and easy. I have print additions of the Chicago Manual of Style on my bookcase, but now I subscribe to the digital version and I can go in and search for the thing I want and find it much faster than I could before. It would take me maybe 5 or 10 minutes to find what I was looking for before while flipping through the Chicago Manual of Style. Now I can find it instantly. So in my research, I can go to the Oxford English dictionary online and I can search and find all the words that are of Celtic origin.
I mean, you could never do that with a physical dictionary. It’s just brilliant to be able to do that. You can go to Google Ngram and search for phrases and how often they appear in books and how that’s changed over the years.
How the word “schadenfreude” spiked in news in 1980 and has been rising ever since. The tools that are available for dealing with language are just so much more advanced now. I absolutely love it. I think technology has just done wonders for our ability to interrogate language. That’s my favorite thing about technology and language.
Yeah, I agree with that. It’s crazy to think about pre-Google. I mean, a lot of it really is actually a lot newer than Google, right? Because we think of Google as being this binary moment. Like, there was before Google and after Google, but a lot of the stuff you described is actually much more recent than that, like all of those like analytical tools, and that’s really cool.
So, I think — like I suspect almost everybody who’s listening to this — I have used Grammar Girl and Quick and Dirty Tips throughout many situations and it’s always been so helpful and so wonderful. I think one of the things that I would love to know, and I suspect anybody listening to this would love to know is what advice you would give to people who just want to write effective and engaging content, but still want it to be easy to consume and good for people from an understanding perspective?
I think formatting is really important on the web; having good subheadings that break up the text, bulleted lists, etc. whenever you can. I think that a well-formatted page on the web (and in print, too) makes it a lot easier to consume information. So if you put thought into that for your readers, that will help them.
And the other thing that I try to do is bring in fun where I can. It’s still a dry topic — grammar and writing — but I try to bring fun in with the example sentences when I can with interesting asides when possible.
For example, one of my favorite stories, I was researching the origin of the word “harbinger” and where it comes from. A “harbinger” is something that’s sort of foreboding. Like something is going to happen. And it comes from the idea of the Knight Harbinger who used to go ahead of the King and prepare towns for the King’s arrival.
So that’s a really cool story. And then in the process of learning about that, I discovered that there was a Keeper of the Swans in the Royal court. Back in a time when they had the Knight Harbingers they also had the Keeper of the Swans. So I tell that story as a little aside because I think it just brings so much fun into the story.
So, I mean, I know when you’re doing technical writing, there are varying degrees of when you can bring fun into the process. But I think whenever you can and it’s appropriate, you should.
I’ve seen a really easy example is a lot of companies have tried to “fun up” their release notes a little bit and still get the information in there, but also make them a little bit more pleasant to read; a little less dry.
So I think there are places you can bring that stuff in. And frankly, people read things that they enjoy reading, there’s just no way around that. So I don’t think there’s any underestimating that.
This has been a ton of fun and I’m kind of sad that we have to get going here soon, but before we do, what can we expect from you coming down the line? What’s in the future for Grammar Girl?
Well, as you may have gathered, I like to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. And we have an intern who is fluent in Chinese, so I’ve just started creating TikTok videos to help people who primarily speak Chinese learn English.
I’m putting up TikTok videos with Quick and Dirty Tips — getting back my real origins. These are 20-30 seconds long with really basic stuff.
Like, why does the word “okay” have two spellings? I’m able to put Chinese subtitles on them because of our intern. They’re still interesting to people who speak English because the videos are in English, but I’m able to add Chinese subtitles and I’ve always wanted to do more for English language learners. So that’s my new project. That’s what I’m experimenting with right now. I’m the @therealgrammargirl on TikTok.
That’s great! That actually answers part of my last question. Most people know where to find you, but for those who don’t or haven’t found you yet, other than @therealgrammargirl on TikTok, where else would people find you online?
Awesome. Very cool. Well, Mignon, it was really, really great having you, this was a ton of fun. I hope to nerd out about more English and maybe Chinese in the future. Talk to you soon.
Thank you. And, actually, I would be completely remiss if I didn’t mention the podcast. The Grammar Girl podcast has over 800 episodes and has been going for more than 15 years. So I should not forget to mention that.
Grammar Girl & Founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips Podcast Network
Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer’s Digest’s 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing” and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” and the “Today Show” and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase “grammar nazi” and loves the word “kerfuffle.” She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University.
Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. She strives to be a friendly guide in the writing world. Her archenemy is the evil Grammar Maven, who inspires terror in the untrained and is neither friendly nor helpful.
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