The Responsible Communication Style Guide: A Kickstarter and an Explanation

TL;DR

I’m working on The Responsible Communication Style Guide with Recompiler Media. This project is something I’ve been thinking about for years and I wanted to write up how I got to this place.

Our Kickstarter is here — backing at the $15 level is the fastest way to get a copy of The Responsible Communication Style Guide to use in your own work.

CONTENT NOTES

This post is over 2,500 words. There’s some heavy emotional stuff in here (lived experience + the Holocaust, how language affects our lives, and diversity in technology). I do hope you’ll read the whole thing.

How to Screw Up as a Journalist in One Easy Step

I screwed up early in my career as a freelance writer: I conducted an email interview with an individual named “Chris” for an article I was working on. In the article, I referred to Chris with a male pronoun. My source emailed me immediately after reading the article to say that “Chris” was short for “Christine” and that she would appreciate me fixing the error.

Chris was super nice about the whole thing, making me think that I wasn’t the first person to make this particular mistake. Now I do some obsessive Google-ing if I’m not sure how to describe a person just from an interview — though even Google can’t always tell me enough information.

Ever since, I’ve also been looking for a guide or workshop or some sort of education on how to ask questions about identity without being offensive. Sure, asking someone their pronouns is one of my standard interview questions (along with how to spell their name and what their professional title is), but that’s not enough.

  • How do you even begin to ask a trans person about referring to them by their dead name if you’re writing about them during a time when they still used that name?
  • How do you make sure that unconscious bias doesn’t influence your writing?
  • How do you write about someone engaged in activism without bringing an internet shitstorm down on their heads?
  • Heck, how do you even determine if you’re only telling stories about people like you or if you’re finding diverse sources or stories?

I don’t have the one true answer to all these questions. Figuring out how to handle these sorts of topics requires both empathy and context. Context, in turn, requires lived experience.

What is ‘lived experience?’ Lived experience, or the experiences, emotions, and impressions of a person living as a member of a minority, is easily dismissed as a buzzword from a women’s studies class. Hanging out in tech circles, I mostly hear people talking about their lived experiences and how they differ from what other people may see (such as a woman talking about an act of discrimination, only to be told by a man that he’s never seen any problems in the industry). While I don’t think that this sort of gaslighting should be dismissed, there are even bigger dangers to ignoring others’ lived experience: My paternal grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. He spent six years in concentration camps. When he was liberated in 1945, he was 18. He weighed 85 pounds. In the years that followed, my grandfather encountered Holocaust deniers. These people told my grandfather that the hell he went through never happened.

I don’t want to turn this blog post into an example of Godwin’s Law, but every time I hear someone discounting lived experience, I see them become a little more willing to accept anti-Semitism and other bigotry. Suffice it to say that I strongly believe in the importance of involving someone with lived experience when creating training materials about their identity, history, community, and other related topics.

Back to the Question at Hand: Improving Our Ability to Communicate

At the same time, expecting anyone (no matter their lived experience, expertise, or knowledge) to educate either individuals or organizations purely out of the goodness of their heart is both rude and unreasonable. My landlord doesn’t let me live in my apartment out of the goodness of its warm, fuzzy, corporate heart, so I need to spend my time in a way that gets my rent paid — and I expect the same to be true of every human I encounter. (Kronda Adair has written several brilliant posts on this topic — start with this post.) In the event we all wind up living in a communist utopia, remind me to revisit this point.

That means paying multiple editors to look over my work who can bring the right context to it, right? Since I don’t have a lot of money, I generally can’t afford to work with more than one editor on a project. As it happens, since I write for the web, I often can’t afford to work with even one editor.

When I’m flying without a grammatical net, there are some options for improving my writing without spending a ton of money:

  • I use a ton of technology. There are tools to analyze common grammatical mistakes, such as the spell check tool built into most word processors. But there are also tools that do more specific editing tasks, such as the Hemingway app, which helps writers to follow Hemingway’s writing advice (limited adjectives and adverbs, short sentence structures and so on).
  • I got an education in writing and communications, and then kept learning. I have a couple of degrees in communication, which included loads of classes on writing. I also still read a ridiculous amount about writing. I kept learning after getting a degree, using self-education materials available from experts, ranging from writing hacks to full-fledged textbooks. A degree isn’t necessary in this field and an in-person class isn’t even required.
  • Lastly, I adore my style guide. I don’t (usually) sleep with the AP Stylebook, but I still keep both the digital and print copies handy. I also own a bunch of other style guides. I ask the publications I write for if they have their own style guides. I also have made my own style guides, both for individual publications I work on and more generally (i.e., I’ll go to bat with an editor to make sure ‘internet’ is not capitalized).

The resources for writing responsibly and ethically are few and far between. During my education, the closest I got to a class on how to write with some level of sensitivity was a graduate-level course on how to write about controversial topics — where ‘controversial’ was read as ‘political’ or ‘religious’ more than anything else. (Side note: That class was taught by Arthur Magida, author of How to Be a Perfect Stranger, which I have referred to as The Book that Keeps Me From Screwing Up Other People’s Weddings. I highly recommended it.)

That particular class was incredibly valuable, but I had to wait until I was working on a master’s degree to have an instructor start talking about how to start thinking about dealing with difficult topics, despite taking my first journalism class in middle school. How is there not a basic class in every journalism, public relations, and marketing program on how to write for diverse audiences? We teach basic interviewing techniques, like how to ask a question to high school journalism classes, but fail to teach those same students which questions to ask or who to ask questions of. I don’t know what your student paper looked like, but mine didn’t exactly reflect the demographics of our student body. It reflected the perspectives of the teachers leading the class and of the kids in accelerated English classes — despite having a big ESL program at our school, I can’t remember a single ESL student writing for the student paper. I’m not advocating for fully restructuring journalism (yet!) but we do need to make a point of teaching empathy in journalism.

We’re at the beginning of conversations about representation in the media. There are a few organizations now that try to track statistics on authors and writers, like the VIDA Count. Getting more diverse writers (and other media makers) into big publications is just a first step. Telling stories of underrepresented demographics is the next step — and I’m not talking about tokenism. Pro tip: it’s perfectly fine to have an article about a technical project led by a woman without ever asking her about whether she thinks tech is a tough industry for women. As a matter of fact, skipping the focus on how different the story’s subject is means that you get to spend more time on how cool the actual project is.

Some individuals and organizations have started working on this problem, but many resources are fragmented. I have more than a dozen style guides and media guides just for covering religion. (I’ll get more into what’s out there in another post I’m already working on.)

We still have a long way to go to get to a truly diverse media scene, though. I keep thinking of our current media landscape as the beginning of a very long journey — we’re still outfitting ourselves for the trek and don’t really know what’s on the trail ahead. We won’t even know some of the work we need to do to get to that far off Wonderland until we get on the road. We know that we need to remodel or replace many of the systems in place to produce journalism and other media, but until that work is done, we won’t know many of the steps that come after.

Let’s Talk Ideals and Infrastructure for Writers

In my ideal world, I could just use pronouns that aren’t based on gender for writing and everything else. I recognize that I have to stick to the current system if I want readers to be able to understand everything I publish, but I certainly don’t like the existing system.

Until there’s a good opportunity for a linguistic revolution, I’m focused on making the existing system better. That means starting with the writers who make the articles, blog posts, and other things we read (along with the scripts for plenty of the audio and video content we see, too). Style guides are a good starting point for talking about how we cover things because we’re already used to looking up details we might get wrong.

In fact, some organizations have put out specialized style guides for how writers can cover their specific communities. These resources are all over the place, however, and sometimes contradictory. Creating a standard resource is the first step to making improvements in who writes what stories. Having discussions about diversity and inclusion before publishing anything will, at least, limit some of the more thoughtless headlines and references that we see constantly. As a personal goal, I’d like to see publishers avoid referring to an Olympic athlete as someone else’s wife.

I have thought of other formats this style guide could take. I kept coming back to the idea of doing the research and running an in-person workshop, geared towards newsrooms. But while we clearly need more educational materials about writing responsibly, style guides have more power than classes. I’ve taken more writing classes than I can count. I don’t remember where all the handouts and notes are from those classes, though I can point to the occasional writing hack and say that I picked it up from a particular instructor. You could have swapped out most of my writing teachers for other writing teachers and I would never have noticed.

But taking my AP Stylebook from me would turn me into a mess. And while I could manage if you took my Chicago Manual of Style or one of the other style guides I rely on, I would be pretty unhappy. These reference books have impacted my writing far more than anything or anyone else.

Making a Real Difference with The Responsible Communication Style Guide

I’ve spent the past couple of years casually talking about making a style guide that answers some of the questions I have. Audrey Eschright, the publisher of the Recompiler, heard me talking about the idea for The Responsible Communication Style Guide this spring. She said that she wanted something similar and would be willing to work on the project.

Working with Audrey is amazing — we’re on the same page about everything except whether there’s a hyphen in ‘ebook’ (I’m anti-hyphen, while Audrey is pro-hyphen, if you’re wondering). Perhaps the most important thing we agree on is how to construct The Responsible Communication Style Guide. Our particular manifesto for this project can be broken down into the following bullet points:

  • We’re hiring the right people to write each of these sections and we’re paying them. None of that crap about asking people to educate us for free here.
  • We’re creating a printed resource, as well as a website. Different people use different formats (and we’ve got some cool ideas for even more approaches once we’ve got the initial iteration ready).
  • We’re developing training around The Responsible Communication Style Guide, because people only use resources they have some familiarity with.
  • We agree that this sort of style guide isn’t just about writing clearly. It’s also about being able to communicate in a manner that doesn’t harm anyone: writers, editors, and publishers influence culture and attitudes so directly that we have an obligation to use that power responsibly.

Yes, we’re both absolutely scratching our own itch with The Responsible Communication Style Guide. But we’re also creating something that we know there’s a need for — and something with the potential to guide major conversations in technology. Yes, journalists working in this space need the guide. But there’s more room than that in the long run. Ultimately, everyone in technology is a writer: a programmer writes documentation, technical blog posts, and internal talks, even if they never publish a single word outside of an employer’s media. Designers, marketers, and even business analysts create reams of written material every day.

This guide gives people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as writers a starting point for thinking, talking, and, yes, writing, about users in an empathetic way. There’s a real potential for The Responsible Communication Style Guide to equip us for important conversations by providing an introduction to concepts of identity and a framework for writing about those concepts.

So here we are. There’s a big chunk of my heart and soul up on Kickstarter right now. I’m a bit terrified, especially of getting things wrong with the people who I want to contribute to The Responsible Communication Style Guide. I’m ridiculously hopeful about what bringing this project to life means for the books and blogs I’ll read in the future. I’m wound up waiting to see who will back this project. We’ve got just under a month to make this happen. Let’s go.

We Need Your Help

If you are as excited as I am, we are looking for help!

  • Please consider backing our project, even at a low level. If everyone just bought an ebook copy at the $15 level, we would need just over 1,300 backers — and there are far more than 1,300 people writing about these topics.
  • Please share our Kickstarter with everyone who you think might be interested. From our perspective, that means journalists, marketers, speakers, and other folks who write publicly. But once the Responsible Communication Style Guide is a reality, we expect people to use it in ways we never considered.
  • Please let us know if you think of any ways to make this material more accessible to your community. We have some ideas (I want a linter for writing!), some of which will be incorporated into this first iteration of the guide and some of which we’ll work on after the Kickstarter (including my hopes for a linter).

Thank you for reading this whole long post and thank you for your help.

Kickstarted Films Need iTunes

Kickstarter is a viable launching pad for films; Veronica Mars, Indie Game, and plenty of other movies have proven that point. But distributing those movies has resulted in some very specialized (and non-repeatable) approaches to getting copies into backers’ hands. Making sure that these films reached audiences beyond the people who directly contributed to their creation has required each individual filmmaker to negotiate distribution deals.

A few weeks ago, however, Kickstarter announce a deal with iTunes: a new collection within the media store that hosts hundreds of movies launched through Kickstarter. It’s a little unclear how these movies are getting to iTunes, for the record; many filmmakers had already negotiated their own deals with iTunes. But it’s a sign that not only are crowdfunding platforms thinking about how to help creatives get the startup capital necessary to launch a new project, but also to continue selling their products long after ‘graduating’ from the platform.

That long-term look is going to prove incredibly valuable, especially in light of the brand that Kickstarter and some other crowdfunding platforms are building. With ongoing successes to point to, rather than just temporary wins, Kickstarter can strengthen the value of launching on project on its platform, rather than the many competitors that have popped up. The only way that a crowdfunding platform could do better would be to build its own distribution platforms internally — which would be a step away from its core offering and therefore not something I would expect to see.

Modify Watches: Making Individualization a Core Principle

We want the best of all worlds: a perfectly designed product with that special customized touch that makes it clear that no one else could possibly have the exact same item. We want to be able to brag that we not only have something just as cool as the kids next door, but that we’ve gone one better and individualized our choice in a way they can’t mimic. I’m not just talking about keeping up with the Joneses, though there may be an inherent element of that, but rather how we telegraph our individuality and values with each part of our lives.

Modify Watches is running a Kickstarter campaign right now that boils down every element of the situation that we all find ourselves in each day — as we get dressed in the morning or make a purchase. The campaign takes Modify’s slick watches and offers a ‘mod-to-order’ version that allows buyers to swap in any image they’d like for the clock face.

Individualization is Driving Our Choices

Individualization isn’t exactly a new trend; it’s something Schwartz has been thinking about for a long time. He notes, “We’ve always thought about custom watches though. If you look at our business plan, I listed out Threadless for year-three goals and Zazzle for year-four. Threadless is all about a design community coming together to create products people love, and Zazzle is about empowering the individual. It took us about four years to finally get there.”

Schwartz picked major players to look up to: both Threadless and Zazzle are pioneers in letting consumers choose exactly what will appear on the products they purchase. Threadless launched in 2000 with a site where users could design and submit their own t-shirt designs. The Threadless community has the opportunity to get in on the action by voting to decide which designs will be printed. Zazzle has an even more extreme business model: the company operates an online platform where anyone can upload designs and have them printed on demand. Individual designers can also create their own stores, letting Zazzle handle all the production, without going through any sort of voting process. Zazzle was founded in 2005. Both companies are constantly growing.

Modify has tapped into the same sort of community love that drive both Threadless and Zazzle. Even without easy individualization options, customers were willing to go to some extreme lengths to make the watches they wanted (including diassembling watches, painting them, and then reassembling them). Part of that is due to the ‘individualization-lite’ nature of the the current iteration of a Modify watch. You can swap out candy-colored watch bands — as well as a few shades that are a little more straight-laced — with one of the many faces that Modify already offers.

“Our goal has always been to let people wear products that they love, that make them feel like they are wearing a unique piece. Modularity (i.e. having our interchangeable faces and straps) enables that,” Schwartz says. “Today you want to wear something conservative? How about a silver face with a black strap? But tomorrow, for $15 more, that can be a funky yellow strap, and a whole new look.”

With that goal in mind, Modify has pursued custom watch orders throughout the past four years. They’ve worked with Google, the WNBA, Nike, and other brands to create watches that matched those organizations’ styles. But, so far, they can’t produce those watches in batches of less than 100.

All or Nothing Works for Individualization

By launching the Mod-to-Order campaign, Modify found a way to raise the money necessary to offer more individualized watches by offering those watches right off the bat. Without the Kickstarter campaign, Mod-to-Order just won’t happen.

Making unique pieces is almost always more expensive and time-intensive than producing copy after copy of the exact same product. The money from the campaign, in addition to directly funding backers’ new watches, will go towards expanding Modify’s space and team in order to actually make the watches, as well as changing the company’s infrastructure to better handle printing and assembly for small numbers.

It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Sure, Modify will continue to operate as a business, but without funding, they won’t be offering truly customizable watches. Given the value at stake, it seems like a good bet. Not all products will really benefit from individualization, Modify has a lot going for it.

First, as a company, Modify is confident that the demand is there. Schwartz’s experience kept the company pushing toward creating one-off watches: “From day one we have always picked up the phone and talked to customers. Everyone on our team has at least one call per week to learn from fans…All indications were that we should explore one-off customization for individuals and small groups.”

Second, the fashion industry is generally one of the better bets for where people will pay a premium for unique items. It’s incredibly hard to sell an individualized truck engine, but much easier to sell a tailored suit or a personalized scarf. It’s an industry where it’s possible to bet big on individual orders and win.

One-Off isn’t Easy

But while the fashion industry isn’t the hardest place to offer custom products, the process still isn’t all that easy.

For a company that’s just starting out, making one-off products can be the hardest way to make a living. Look at Etsy shops for an example: it’s rare to find an experienced seller who doesn’t focus on making just a few different products over and over again. Such sellers often offer the option to commission special products, but they charge much higher prices for the privilege. Modify is able to avoid this particular problem, because the company has been producing and selling its watches since 2010. They’re changing just one small element — the watch face — in their whole production process.

For Schwartz, the idea of educating buyers on the many options individualization offers is one of the hardest steps. “I thought — and still think — that the biggest difficulty will be growing a channel and building awareness that you can do custom watches with us. Zazzle and Cafepress are amazing companies that allow you to customize anything you want. We need to work extremely hard to be heard and seen.”

The question of marketing individualization requires different answers for each product. While newer production methods, like print-on-demand, have made customization very practical, they still seem foreign to many buyers. As someone who is comfortable buying online and who is willing to try out new sellers, I often have discussions with friends who may want to order what I have but aren’t sure how to navigate the process of designing their own t-shirt or negotiating a commission. Selling on such a model requires educating your prospective customers.

It’s an approach that has its difficulties, but also its rewards: anyone with a Mod-to-Order watch will be an ad for Modify as their friends and family ask about the watch that no one else seems to have. Even better, once someone has placed a single order with the company, coming back is much easier — ordering a dozen custom watches as gifts, for instance, seems like a logical next step, especially when the buyer wants something personal yet easy to buy. Modify’s modular watches work in favor of driving multiple purchases, too: once you have one watch, you want more options to swap bands and faces among.

What watches does Schwartz want to wear himself? He says, “I’m most excited that our Creative Director Ashil will be able to produce all of the watches he’s wanted. Since we started the company four years ago he has designed thousands of watches, and only a few hundred have ever gone to production. The guy is a wizard — whatever he wants to exist, I’ll probably want to wear it.” Of course, Schwartz is also planning to put pictures of his niece and nephews on a watch as well.

A Personal Point

As a side note, I did ask Schwartz why Modify chose to launch their campaign on Kickstarter. He said, “We chose Kickstarter for the brand name. In the end, I’m pretty sure that we would have been better served using Indiegogo.com. Better customer service, for one, and many fewer restrictions.”

I have a personal fascination with the way we choose between the many platforms that are driving new business models. It’s very true that Kickstarter has name-brand power, but it’s also starting to seem like a particularly restrictive platform. It’s a factor I’m following closely and that I expect to write about more soon.

In the Meanwhile

There are just a few days left on Modify Watches’ Kickstarter campaign. Take a look and consider backing it. Perks go far beyond a single watch — including having Modify’s creative director help you create the design you want.

Kickstarter: An opportunity for writers?

What would you say if you could post a creative idea somewhere and get people to agree to pay you a small amount in order to complete it? That’s the concept behind Kickstarter, generally speaking. Users are able to describe their concept creative project in some detail, offer certain returns for their supporters (like a writer could provide a copy of a finished story) and collect money from supporters. It’s a sort of grass roots approach to getting certain types of work done.

A Few Success Stories

  • The Misanthropic Misadventures of Bony Levi: 89 supporters have paid a total of $2,130 (passing the requested amount of $1,500) to help Magen Callaghan produce a comic book from a script she’s written. The first issue will be coming out soon and backers will receive a copy, along with t-shirts, character sketches and other rewards for different levels of financial support.
  • Hadean Lands: Interactive Fiction for the iPhone: In one day, Andrew Plotkin raised $10,000 for an interactive fiction game that he wanted to work on full time. His goal was $8,000 and now, with 32 days still to go on his goal, he’s received more than $17,000 in pledges. That amount could easily go up.  
  • The Book of Knish: Loss, Longing and the Search for a Humble Hunk of Dough: Laura Silver needed $5,000 to cover the costs of writing her book on knishes. She received pledges of $5,055 from 71 backers, including one pledge of $500. 

There are plenty of Kickstarter users who don’t raise huge amounts of money, but there are impressive numbers of successful stories on the site.

A Funding Model for Writers

There are a wide variety of books and written projects on Kickstarter, making the site worth considering as a funding model. There’s a certain sense that particularly creative projects do well on the site — stuff that more traditional approaches (like finding a publisher) would never work for. Of course, the truly successful projects all have a few other things in common: the creators tend to have fans or followers in other venues they can bring over, the rewards contributors receive are about in line with the purchasing power of their donation ($20 will usually get you a book, for instance), and the creator is willing to put in time to promote the project. There is plenty of work that goes along with creating a successful, well-funded project on the site.