5 Questions With Emmy Favilla, Global Copy Chief, BuzzFeed
Join the author of “A World Without ‘Whom’: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age” this year at SMWNYC.
The digital age has afforded us with a slew of new ways to communicate, from emails and texts to social media messages and visual content. Given all of these new tools, symbols, abbreviations, and linguistic styles, publishers like BuzzFeed must find ways to tell stories in a way that resonates with culture in a consistent fashion.
At SMWNYC, Emmy Favilla, Global Copy Chief and creator of the company’s style guide, will disclose how BuzzFeed streamlines its editorial style to maintain a coherent tone of voice across all of its content and channels. She will also share how the copy guide was produced and why certain decisions were made along the way.
We recently sat down with Favilla to learn about what it means to “write for the internet” and gather tips for brands and publishers looking to create their own guides.
SMW: What is the biggest myth people hold about writing for the internet?
EF: A big misconception is that it requires a much different skill set than writing for print does. Journalism is journalism, essays are essays, humor is humor, and we’re all speaking the same language regardless of the medium. Sure, strategy comes into play when you’re promoting content on social media—working for a digital company, you learn pretty early on what sorts of headlines and thumbnail images are more conducive to sharing, for instance—but for the most part, when it comes to the stories or posts themselves, writing is a skill that is transferable.
We’re seeing hashtags and emojis in the pages of magazines now too, after all! Coming from a print background, I’d barely had any experience editing digital media before joining BuzzFeed. Making the transition to copyediting for a website didn’t require a very steep learning curve beyond the technical elements, like learning how to use our CMS.
SMW: What are some of the key language differences when it comes to writing for social audiences vs. writing for more traditional audiences?
EF: I don’t think it’s so much social vs. traditional as it is what the genre of the content itself is. If we’re talking about a 10,000-word investigative piece or a breaking-news story, there’s not going to be much difference in the language used, whether it lives on the BuzzFeed website or inside a print edition of the The New York Times.
Headlines are the one exception because the name of the game on the internet is shareability. You want people to click on a post and retweet it, to share it on their own pages and with friends. So, being mindful of headlines that don’t sound stilted or overly formal and instead using plain language, perhaps in the way you’d synopsize a story casually to a friend, is always going to be beneficial for that purpose.
When it comes to more lighthearted, entertainment pieces, the traditional journalism rules are a little more flexible. You can write with a voice that’s more conversational, using all capital letters and forgoing the use of punctuation if you want something to sound like it’s being bellowed into a black hole, or using made-up abbreviations (like “caj” for “casual”) or slang words for comical effect. We can be a little more forgiving of hyperbolic phrasing, like declaring something you love as “everything” or using an emoji to stand in for a word (e.g. “🔥”).
It’s also important to consider the fact that when you’re writing for the internet, whether intentionally or not, you’re also writing for a global audience. For this reason, it’s important to make things as universally digestible as possible: for instance, not using state abbreviations like Fla. and Mo., which may not be as immediately recognizable to audiences outside the U.S., and instead spell out the entire state name. You learn to be a little more aware of things like that.
It’s important to consider the fact that when you’re writing for the internet, whether intentionally or not, you’re also writing for a global audience.
SMW: BuzzFeed has hundreds of writers on its staff. How did you go about aligning all of them on a single style guide?
EF: The first iteration of the style guide was circulated among staff in early 2013 when the number of total employees at BuzzFeed was probably somewhere just above 200. We had only hired Ben Smith as editor-in-chief and started publishing news stories the year prior, and it was before the division of the editorial staff into news and what’s now the BuzzFeed Entertainment Group (or BFEG). That said, at that time the guide was just a fraction of the size it has grown to today!
As the first and only copy editor at BuzzFeed at the time, I basically poured through the site looking for inconsistencies that could benefit from standardization, as well as compiled FAQs from all of our staff writers and editors. I felt the best way to organize the guide was to start with a general word list, then follow that with specific sections, some of which referenced broad stylization topics (e.g. abbreviations and acronyms acceptable on first reference, numbers) and others that were associated with sections (or “verticals”) on our site at the time, like food, music, and LGBT.
The guide has since been regularly updated (I’d say on average at least four or five updates a month, whether that be with additions to the word list, revisions to outdated bits, or otherwise) based on feedback and questions from our staff as well as conversations among the copydesk as to what warrants an “official” guideline.
The BuzzFeed Style Guide has grown to a point that no matter what division of the company you work for or what you’re writing about, you’ll likely find the answer to your style questions in it. For example, we’ve published regional style guides for our UK and Australia bureaus. The copydesk also sends out regular reminder emails to staff with style tips for timely events (e.g. the Olympics, the Super Bowl, awards shows, etc.) and a list of any new updated to the guide.
SMW: BuzzFeed has been expanding its “hard news” reporting for the past few years. How do you all balance information with entertainment given some of the sensitivities inherent to the news cycle today?
EF: BuzzFeed News and BFEG are two disparate divisions under the BuzzFeed umbrella, each with their own goals and voice. When it comes to the specific language used in stories, regardless of which department they’re being produced by, the BuzzFeed Style Guide advises on best practices for writing about potentially sensitive subject matters (e.g., sexual assault, suicide, disease and disability, race and ethnicity) and the BuzzFeed News Standards and Ethics Guide is a resource specifically for our news editors.
SMW: Do you think all companies need style guides? Who should own this type of initiative and what are some pieces of advice you can share for getting started?
EF: I think all companies that create any sort of content produced for public consumption could certainly benefit from a style guide to help to ensure consistency and quality. Specifically, through spurring discussion and pooling thoughts about topics that may require input from an array of demographics. It also benefits employees to know there’s a resource they can turn to for answers, rather than having to send off emails or figure out who the appropriate person or team to resolve their questions may be.
At a typical media company, the copydesk owns this initiative. For media companies without a copydesks, the responsibility may also fall to the managing editor. At a non-media organization, I’d imagine that the appropriate team or person would be determined on a case-by-case basis, but I’d say someone at least in a mid-level managerial role who knows about the ins and outs of their industry would be ideal.
To get started, I’d recommend consulting research style guides or style sheets used by similar organizations or media outlets to determine what yours should include and how to strategize with respect to how it’s formatted. Reading through material that’s already been published or created by the company to gauge what should be standardized would also be helpful. Consult colleagues to learn about the questions they most often struggle with when it comes to phrasing or grammar. Pool as many resources as you can!
SMW: One last bonus question. Do you have a favorite emoji or Internet slang term?
EF: I’m a fan of the upside-down smiley face. It conveys sarcasm or irony in a playful way, and you can also use it to express general disillusionment. It wears many hats.
Want more insights? You can pick up Favilla’s book, “A World Without ‘Whom’: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age,” on Amazon.
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