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BuzzFeed’s Emmy Favilla On Creating The Essential Modern Language Style Guide

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Buzzfeed’s approach to creating consistently engaging content? A style guide that quickly evolves with the times.

As language and the way we communicate evolves, the style that we adhere to should also evolve.

To be relevant and authentic, you must speak the same language as your audience. But how do you draw the line between keeping it one hundo, and maintaining editorial standards?

Emmy Favilla (Global Copy Chief, BuzzFeed) and Ammon Shea (Editor, Merriam-Webster) recently discussed this and more at SMWNYC.

Style guides – the writing and editing style that newspapers and websites follow to maintain accuracy, clarity, and consistency – vary in scope and length.

Not sure whether to write “13” or “thirteen”? Check the style guide.

Since 2014, the BuzzFeed Style Guide has been leveraged by numerous sites and is viewed as an evolving set of content standards for the internet and social media.

Favilla stated “It’s important to have a style guide that is consistently updated and re-evaluated. That’s what the Buzzfeed style guide is, it’s a living document.”

In fact, BuzzFeed updates their style guide 5-15 times per month. These updates could be as simple as adding a new buzzword such as “Adulting” or, completely revamping how we refer to the LGBTQ community.

Embracing an emphasis on sensitivity by leveraging experts

In speaking with Favilla, Shea stated: “One of the things that’s particularly interesting about the Buzzfeed style guide is the emphasis that you’ve placed on sensitivity.”

BuzzFeed prides itself on the large amount of space devoted to how content creators can properly refer to different cultural and ethnic groups, as well as topics such as adoption. For example, they say “placed for adoption” as opposed to “put up for adoption”. Upon reflection, this choice is quite obvious, but not all decisions are as cut and dry.

Realizing they can’t authentically be the expert on every sensitive topic, BuzzFeed incorporated standards from other style guides that deal with specific issues. Their guidelines on how to reference gender identity are directly lifted from the GLAAD Media Reference Guide.

Beyond relying on people in the ‘word nerd community’, Favilla spoke about the need to directly communicate with everyday individuals who are members of certain groups they may not be as familiar with. Initially, BuzzFeed decided to refer to people who rely on wheelchairs as “wheelchair users”, they assumed “disabled” sounded offensive.

However, Favilla was contacted by a disabled individual on Twitter who informed her these guidelines were often pushed by people who don’t have disabilities. He went on to state many people who are disabled don’t mind saying they’re disabled because it’s such a large part of their identity. Ironically, by removing the word disability, you’re unintentionally inferring something is wrong with being disabled. Although this is a sample size of one, additional research helped them discover “disabled” was a more appropriate term to use.

Adapting to and embracing evolution in language

OMG was first added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2011. Back then, this was a big deal because many gatekeepers didn’t know what it meant, and they felt its inclusion would contribute to the dumbing down of the English language.

“Just because you haven’t heard of something, doesn’t mean it’s new.”

Fun fact: The first known use of OMG was in a 1917 letter to Winston Churchill.

Echoing this sentiment, Favilla went on to say: “The dictionary is not the gatekeeper of our language. We as speakers dictate where the language goes. A dictionary is a simply a recording of how people use language over time.” She credits Urban Dictionary, which first launched in 1999, for helping accelerate the understanding and use of slang terms. These terms, which are often started by younger people, can often be met resistance from older generations.

As Favilla puts it, “People have always had this ‘get off my lawn’ approach to slang”. However, some of these terms are eventually embraced by mainstream society.

Today, as everyone – including younger people – can use social platforms to share information with even more reach, we’re seeing an increase in how quickly these terms and norms are spread.

With this acceleration, a fluid and reactive style guide is key to staying relevant and authentic.

Curious to learn more? You can further explore this topic in Favilla’s book A World Without “Whom”: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age.

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