Lessons Learned on the Journey to Becoming Grammar Girl

By Apryl Motley, CAE

That old adage about the early bird getting the worm might be cliché, but it’s worked wonders for Mignon Fogarty, known to grammar enthusiasts everywhere as Grammar Girl.

Her take on being early is “finding places where there isn’t as much competition” and carving out a niche. A podcast host since 2006, Fogarty, now author of seven best-selling books, credits much of her success to being early, establishing herself as a trusted source of knowledge, and being helpful. Here are an additional five lessons for association communicators straight from Grammar Girl.

First Science, Then Syntax

Fogarty began her career as a scientist and earned a master of sciences in biology at Stanford University. She also has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington. “I spent a lot time hanging out in bio labs waiting for my future husband to finish ‘just one more experiment,’” she says.

The spirit of experimentation rubbed off on her, and she decided to try one of her own. “I decided to specialize in science so that I would have something to write about,” she explains.

Therein lies the second lesson: To be successful in your niche, you have to have something unique to say. You need really engaging content.

On the other hand, according to Fogarty, “It’s important to experiment, but recognize when it’s not working and move on.” And that’s just what she did. Fogarty left her lab to become vice president of marketing at a tech start up in Silicon Valley during the dot-com boom. When the company folded, she freelanced as technical editor and writer, which began her love affair with grammar.

Making the Most of Mistakes

“I realized editing clients were making the same mistakes over and over again,” she says. Upon making this observation, she found herself jotting down three ideas on a napkin, and her first Grammar Girl podcast was born.

“I recorded those three ideas and posted it on iTunes,” Fogarty recalls. “Within three weeks, it was ranked at number two on iTunes podcasting.

“It hit a nerve,” she continues. “No one was podcasting about grammar.”

The third lesson learned: Be different. Fogarty’s tone made her Grammar Girl podcast different. In her words, “it was fun and friendly rather than being academic, dry, or snarky.”

From Podcasting to Publishing

With the successful launch of her podcast, Fogarty knew that she was on to something that could be bigger. Her mantra (and the fourth lesson) is “when something works, don’t back off. Give that fire as much oxygen as your can.”

She published her first book in 2007 through a partnership with MacMillan Publishers. Fogarty says, “The company was looking to get into digital initiatives.” She brought this expertise to the partnership, while MacMillan had the capacity to distribute her work to a larger audience, which illustrates the fifth lesson: Find partners who have expertise and resources that you don’t have.

Fogarty continues to expand her repertoire of skills. She currently serves as chair in media entrepreneurship at the University of Nevada Reno and created an iOS app called Grammar Pop, demonstrating that she embraces the sixth and final (possibly most important) lesson: “It’s never too late to learn something new. Don’t ever forget that.”

Apryl Motley, CAE is a communications and publishing consultant and freelance writer.