Can you imagine learning about grammar for fun? If you said no, then you haven’t heard of Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl. Writer of the podcast, Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (named the Best Classic Podcast by iTunes in 2009 and 2010), and several great-to-read, highly applauded books, Mignon has put the verve back in verbs and the cool back in commas. Her work has been described as “delightfully droll” in the LA Times, and “Helpful. Smart.” by the Kansas City Star, and that’s not it! Even Oprah is a fan of Mignon’s word wisdom, having brought Mignon on her show to clear up some perturbation about possessives.
We were lucky enough to catch up with Mignon, who filled us in on everything from recording podcasts to common grammar questions, and closed out the whole with some super advice!
How did you transition into your current job as Grammar Girl?
I was just a run-of-the-mill writer and editor, but I love technology and had become interested in podcasting. I noticed that my editing clients were making the same mistakes over and over again, such as using a “which” when they needed a “that,” and thought they might like a short, fun podcast that helped them remember writing rules. I started the podcast on a whim as a hobby, and it became popular almost immediately. It kind of took over my life, not that I’m complaining.
How many years have you been Grammar Girl-ing, and what’s changed about your job over time?
I’ve been Grammar Girl for a little over five years. In the beginning, when people would write in to tell me I made a mistake, I would assume they were right; but over time I’ve found that people often believe things about language that aren’t true. It’s easier for them to write to tell me I’m wrong than to look up the rules themselves. I still always double check when someone says they’ve found an error, but I don’t panic the way I used to. Also, when I started, I just produced an audio podcast, but now I write books, produce videos, give radio interviews, and maintain active Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Have you always been a grammar enthusiast?
I always wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t as interested in the detailed rules as I have become. I studied journalism and literature, and it wasn’t until I became a working writer that I realized how little I knew about the mechanics of the language.
What’s it like recording a podcast? Can you fill us in on the process?
It’s easy. Because the podcast is about language, it needs to be relatively precise. I can’t just talk off the top of my head, so I research and write a script for each show. Once the script is written, I record the audio in my walk-in closet because it has great acoustics. I edit the audio, cutting out my misspeaks and coughs or sniffs, and then convert it to an mp3 file. I work with a production guy who adds the music, uploads the file to a server so it’s accessible on the Internet, and updates the podcast feed, which is the file that people subscribe to. The feed delivers new episodes to programs such as iTunes and Stitcher that people use to listen to podcasts.
You started your career in science writing. Can you tell us about some of the subjects you tackled?
My favorite project was a three-part series I did about the science of smoking cessation treatments — everything from phone lines to drugs. That series led to another one of my favorites in which I interviewed scientists who work in hated industries such as tobacco companies and oil drilling companies. It was interesting to hear how they approached their jobs when so many people think their work is evil.
What do you love best about your job?
I love that I’m helping people. I get messages saying that my books or podcasts helped people pass tests to get a job, helped teachers get troubled students interested in language, and helped students get better grades.
What seems to be the most common question you get about grammar?
People seem to have a hard time remembering the difference between “affect” and “effect.” The comma is also difficult because there are so many different ways you can use it.
What’s your favorite punctuation mark?
I like the semicolon because it’s an underdog.
Do you have any words of wisdom for girls pursuing their dream job?
Have more than one dream and take opportunities when they arise. My story is often framed as “follow your dreams and everything will work out,” but I had other dreams before Grammar Girl that didn’t work out. I produced a science podcast that I enjoyed, but it wasn’t going anywhere. I experimented with a new idea — Grammar Girl — and when it took off, I ran with it. I’ve seen people get completely derailed when they have too much invested in a single dream that falters. Life rarely follows the path you think it’s going to follow. You’re more likely to find success if you’re open-minded and flexible.