I first heard of Grammar Girl via her podcast some years ago. As an English geek, I immediately took to its straightforward explanations mixed with her engaging, entertaining style. Since those early days, Grammar Girl has become a New York Times best-seller.
Grammar Girl was created by Mignon Fogarty, a magazine writer, technical writer, and entrepreneur. She has served as a senior editor and producer at a number of health and science web sites and 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 arch enemy is the evil Grammar Maven, who inspires terror in the untrained and is neither friendly nor helpful. Using the Fountain Pen of Niceness and the Shield of Dictionarium, she keeps the Grammar Maven at bay, while still finding time to talk to us.
MF: I had fallen in love with podcasting, and when I noticed my editing clients were always making the same mistakes (affect versus effect, who versus whom, lay versus lie, and so on), I thought it would be fun and helpful to produce a short podcast with a quick writing tip every week. The podcast rocketed up the iTunes charts and I had a huge audience within a month. It was in the right place at the right time with the right idea, and then I worked my tail off to turn it into a business.
TH: Why grammar?
MF: Actually, I write about grammar, usage, punctuation, linguistics, and word origins, so it’s not just grammar. A lay person often thinks of all these things as grammar though, so “grammar” is the best single term to convey the range of topics I cover.
TH: What is your background/qualifications as grammar guru?
MF: I have an undergraduate degree in English and I was a working writer and editor before I became Grammar Girl, but I didn’t have any real expertise when I started. I’ve developed my expertise over the last seven years with all the research I do for my Grammar Girl work.
TH: Do you have any writing stuck away somewhere that will never see the light of day, but nevertheless helped you build your skills?
MF: Not really. Nonfiction writers don’t do a lot of writing that sits around unpublished.
TH: Every writer has things they would like to accomplish, e.g. first sale, next sale, first novel sale, first bestseller, etc. What accomplishment are you striving for right now?
MF: I’m working on an outline for a novel, but I have been working on it for a long time.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you? What is the most fun?
MF: Research is the best part for me. I love learning new things.
TH: Have your reached the point at which you realized that you had “made it” as an writer? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances where you had that realization? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
MF: I definitely felt like I had made it when Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing made the New York Times bestseller list–that was an amazing day–but those moments are fleeting and the euphoria fades. I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I can rest on my laurels. Every new project is a chance to succeed and a chance to fail.
TH: Some say that artists have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach?
MF: Absolutely. Grammar Girl is a brand and I have built a business around that brand. My books are a big part of that business, but I have other Grammar Girl products too. For example, I have two Grammar Girl branded games: an iOS game called Grammar Pop and a card game called Peeve Wars.
TH: So, Peeve Wars. Why do you find “literally” to be the most annoying?
MF: That’s based on what I hear from other people and how annoying they find “literally.”
TH: What are the most effective ways you have found to promote yourself?
MF: I love social media, so I spend a lot of time on Twitter and Facebook. Nothing beats an e-mail newsletter for promotion though. Every author should have an e-mail newsletter.
TH: Can you recall a moment when a two or more influences or inspirations came together and smacked you with a cool idea?
MF: Sorry. No.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as a writer?
MF: The first time I was ever in New York was to fly in and sign my book and partnership contract. Sitting in the top corner office of the Flatiron Building with the CEO, president, and publisher of Macmillan was definitely a memorable moment.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
MF: In the near future, I’ll be doing an update to Grammar Pop and getting my card game, Peeve Wars, published now that the crowd funding part of that project is complete. After that, I’ll be starting a job as the Chair of Media Entrepreneurship in the School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. I’m sure it will take some time for me to get used to teaching, and then I’ll have to decide whether to make more games, write another Grammar Girl book, or do some other new entrepreneurial project.
TH: Is this something that extends into your daily life? How frequently do people come to you with grammar questions?
MF: I answer multiple grammar and language questions every day.
TH: From a linguistic standpoint, do you consider yourself a descriptive or a prescriptive grammarian?
MF: I consider myself to be a descriptivist-prescriptivist blend. Personally, I’m lean toward the descriptive, but as Grammar Girl, I know that people are coming to me for answers about what is right or wrong. I give prescriptive advice, but also try to provide a descriptivist perspective so people understand why I’m giving them the advice that I do–that it’s often not as simple as right or wrong.
TH: What resources do you use most often in your research?
MF: I use Garner’s Modern American Usage and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage almost every day.