Monday, August 27, 2012

The write stuff for bloggers

I did something pretty scary on Friday afternoon. I stood up in front of a group of very dedicated and fervent bloggers, who had gathered for the second annual New Zealand Food Bloggers Conference, and told them what was wrong with their writing.

First I risked my life by quoting the author Stephanie Johnson, who has described blogs "as the compost of your life", then I told them I didn't like blogs about cats. I told them to take their fingers off the exclamation mark key (!) and that there would be trouble if I saw one more blogger describe anything as 'devine' (for the record, it's D-I-V-I-N-E).
 
But I also told them that I loved being part of the blogging community and that I saw food blogs as an important way to communicate the joy of cooking and eating. The sharing of recipes and stories - especially those shared during the preparation of food or over a meal - is an intrinsic part of human life and culture. The internet and cheap technology have made it possible for anyone with a camera and a keyboard to connect with strangers and friends from thousands of miles away - and that has to be a good thing.


 
However, that doesn't take away from the fact that some blogs aren't written very well. Of course, what I think is good writing and what you think is good writing may be completely different. That's fine. I think good writing is about knowing your audience and engaging them in what you have to say. It's about finding a voice and knowing that less is often more. Good writing is about pace. 

One of the main differences between bloggers and 'real' (ie, paid) writers, is that bloggers don’t have editors. Writers have sub-editors, who correct grammatical errors and typos, who know the difference between palate and palette and pallet. Writers have editors who tell them exactly what they want from a story. Writers are told how long a piece should be. They don’t have to worry about html or formatting or taking photos while the light is still ok.

Bloggers have to do all of those things, all in their own time. So that means the onus is on you to remember where to put an apostrophe. It’s up to YOU to take your finger off the exclamation mark and to run a spellcheck before you hit publish.


You might think that’s boring or feel that it stifles your creativity. Too bad. Cleaning up after your writing is like doing the dishes after you've been cooking. Tedious, but necessary. If you want to be a better writer, if you want people to continue to read what you have to say, then you have to get that noise out of your work so we can hear the music of your voice.

Bloggers can become better writers the same way as anyone gets better at something. It’s called practice. And experience. Even good writers have to work to become great writers. And I'll let you in on a secret: there are lots of 'real' writers who are terrible at their job. Honestly. Even some really well-known ones whose bylines you see in your newspapers or online every day.

It’s fine to pour out your heart about something, but that doesn’t mean you have to click publish immediately. Let it sit for a bit. Have a think about it. Go back and polish it up. Your first draft isn’t necessarily your best.
Whatever kind of writer you are, you’re only as good as your last sentence. So if you really want to be a writer, you may as well make sure that last sentence is a good one.


There were lots of questions I couldn't answer afterwards - nerves and a hacking cough rendered my brain a bit feeble - but there are lots of amazing resources about writing and blogging available.
Make sure you check out Dianne Jacob's great site and read this piece by Amanda Hesser. Thanks too to Lauraine Jacobs (no relation to Dianne) and Sarah Nicholson for their wise words. Drop me a line if you have found any other links that might be useful and I'll paste them in.

Lastly, huge thanks to Alli and Shirleen for organising such a brilliant event. You can put cats on your blogs any time! Pin It

32 comments:

  1. You are right and I do use too many exclamation marks. I think blogging is a bit of a journey and would be wary of scaring people off with too many rules at the start of their journey. As we move along it is important to learn our craft and hone our skills. I find that I am inspired by the good writing on other blogs. I also think that really good photographs are even more important, but that's because I am a visual sort of person. I enjoyed reading your thoughts, am off to a bloggers conference next weekend, hope it is as challenging.

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  2. I do get a bit put off by a blog when they can't spell and often won't go back due to frustration. Although, having said that, if the pics are good and we have very similar interests and I build up a relationship of some kind I do occasionally stick around. I do agree it is very important to remember a little professionalism and have some standards even if we are not getting paid!

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  3. A very thoughtful piece. I also hold my hands up to being an exclamation mark hogger. Ohhhhhh, I was so tempted to add on there.

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  4. P.S. my mum emails me on occasion to let me know if I had made a grammatical or spelling error. So I'm lucky to have my own editor. ;)

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  5. Thanks for an informative and witty talk at our conference Lucy !!!!!! (Oops - slip of the finger ;)
    Interesting to have the perspective of someone in paid journalism who also keeps up this great blog. Hope your cough/cold is on the wane..

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  6. I think you're very brave, but what you had to say was very worthwhile. When I started my blog it was entirely to record recipes but I find I do enjoy the writing and trying to get it right is all part of the fun. I'm sorry to say that I seem to be less and less interested in photographs of food - must be a sign of age. Although the quality of writing is important, I do think that content is what really interests me in the end. There are some blogs that I read which the authors admit are very poorly written but, for me, the content raises them far above many very stylish and popular blogs. OK, I admit that I'm not typical. By the way, I must tell you about my devine new cat!!!!!

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  7. I agree with you completely, but I wouldn't have been brave enough to stand up and say so to a room full of bloggers, so kudos to you! I do court the exclamation mark key a little too often, but my real downfall is the ellipsis – I appear to be obsessed with them. I may be a little pedantic, but I have limited tolerance for blogs that are riddled with typos and grammatical errors and will rarely read to the end of the post out of sheer frustration (although I make exceptions if I know English isn't the blogger's first language). I also can't stand the over-abundant use of capital letters for emphasis – I feel shouted at. Gosh, that turned into a little rant there, woops!!!! (Couldn't resist the exclamation marks there…)

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  8. It was a bit scary, particularly as we were in one of the new kitchen/lecture theatres at Le Cordon Bleu and there were lots of dangerous implements to hand.
    It might not be completely fair to apply my professional standards to things that people do for a hobby - I'm sure a chef would baulk at my recipes, for example - but my point was that bloggers should at least TRY (sorry Mel, not shouting, I promise) to write as well as they can. It's a bit galling to see some dreadfully written blogs get book deals and the like (sighs heavily). But hey, one man's trash is another's treasure, and there's room for all of us, exclamation mark fans and cat lovers included.

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  9. Is this mistake on purpose? "Whatever kind of writer you are, you’re only as good as your last sentence. So if you really want to be a writer, you may as well make that last sentence is a good one."

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  10. I really enjoyed your talk and so did everyone else I spoke to afterwards. I definitely stumbled into blogging without thinking about any of that stuff - just wanted a creative outlet to try and stave off the general insanity that comes with being home with young children. Now I'm starting to think a bit more about what I'm putting out there and not sure I could bear to go back to the early posts. Particularly useful is the idea you don't need to hit 'publish' straight away (although saying that I'm not sure I'd ever put anything up if I went back to it). Glad to have found your blog.

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  11. Really enjoyed your talk on Friday, Lucy, thanks for the tips!

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  12. I'm totally guilty of using way to many exclamation marks in the beginning!!! Thankfully I've learnt other ways to get my point across nowadays :-)

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  13. ......................... soooooooooo completely totes agree with you're thoughts...!!!!!!!!!!!!! your so write... I heart you're blog !!!!!!!!!!!!!! smiley face etc blather blah ooops....

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  14. Some days it seems I spend my days at work grimacing over other people's typos and it is the last thing I want to do when I come home! (oops I probably use the exclamation mark too much but then again my comments need far too much editing)

    I agree that bloggers should have some sense of professionalism and for me, trying to avoid typos is easier than trying to take brilliant photos. And at least I can return to a post and fix a typo unlike in a comment. I think you said some important stuff in an engaging way - wish I had been there to hear the talk

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  15. Argh, Anonymous, you've shown me up! I've corrected that now. I was going to write on the bottom of this post that you needn't worry about going back through my posts and pointing out errors as my mother-in-law does enough of that, but she is on holiday and obviously I need an editor as much as everyone else does.
    Exclamation marks are warranted on occasion, but overusing them is like adding too much salt to something - be too heavy handed and your creation will be inedible/unreadable.

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  16. Oh well done Lucy, that was very brave of you. Thanks for reiterating some of the points you made. I too over use the dear old exclamation mark and have to consciously try and stop myself. I know writing is not my forte and find myself rather bemused at doing so much of it when all I originally wanted to do was record my cooking. But I do try and I do get rather exasperated by some blogs that ramble on and on and never seem to get to the point - am trying so hard not to use .....!!!!! Damn!

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  17. If your dishes aren't worth washing, maybe what you are cooking isn't worth eating.
    If your writing isn't worth editing and proofing, maybe your story isn't worth reading. Respecting your blog enough to present it with polish is something that we should look into.

    I always find mistakes in my writing. I read it and re-read it as many times as I can handle before posting. I still find mistakes. I think after 100 or so posts, you start to get a rhythm and a style. If you're prolific, 100 posts is only a few months. If not, it can take years to get to that stage.

    Exclamation marks! I write them in my initial drafts, but I edit them out. It's hard not to be excited when writing about something you're excited about. Which is why it's good to edit later. Much later. Polish, polish, polish.

    I wish I had come to the conference. Your wisdom sounds great. Thanks for sharing these tips on your blog too. I'm putting together my theories on blogging based on what I've learned so far. The post still needs a little polish, but it will get there.

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  18. Thank you for your talk at the conference, I found it very interesting. I'm definitely going to take your advice and add more pictures of cats! During your talk I felt strongly that a great advantage of being a blogger as opposed to being a paid writer is that you don't have to produce specific content on demand/ live in blissful ignorance of the commercial demands of professional writing. I'm also going to get an editor friend to give some feedback on my writing as a bit of (un)professional development. Thanks again.

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  19. In order for me to state my grievances, I am quoting this paragraph from your post!

    (yes, this ending needs an explanation mark...calling to your attention)I'm not only a serious explanation mark writer; but do stay within the limits and not go crazy with!!!!!!
    Next, I'm a dot, dot, dot, writer...must have a break in a sentence to assure that you pay attention!

    Quote from Lucy:

    "First I risked my life by quoting the author Stephanie Johnson, who has described blogs "as the compost of your life", then I told them I didn't like blogs about cats. I told them to take their fingers off the exclamation mark key (!) and that there would be trouble if I saw one more blogger describe anything as 'devine' (for the record, it's D-I-V-I-N-E)."

    I have to agree with the author, Stephanie Johnson..."blogs are the compost of your life"...very well said!
    After all, it is YOUR LIFE, and it's your blog, but even if it's about food, you're entitle to blog about things that are happening in your life and not just about food which can be quite boring at times.

    What's wrong with cats? I have a precious little Persian but that doesn't mean that I'm going 'gaga' over every post about my cat as I have noticed in every post on a friend of mine (no children, just a cat treated as a child)

    Next, my biggest 'pet peeve'is a a blogger constantly using the apostrophe in the wrong way, as in
    PHOTO'S...UGHHH!...don't they know that the apostrophe is for OWNERSHIP, and not for PLURAL? I mean, how much schooling have you had!?...now I've used exclamation mark with a question mark...GUILTY!

    You've brought some good points, too bad I couldn't take part in that interesting food blog conference but then, I'm at the other end of the globe in South Florida, just have done dealing with a huge tropical storm Isaac that was lurking at our 'heals' huge winds, gigantic thunder, lightning, and downpour of non-stop rain for 3 days!

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  20. What our audience wants to read is always something to be conscious of. I hope to attend the conference next year with the aim to learn skills from others, like yourself, and to build my blog to it's potential. Thank you.

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  21. hehehehe I am not scared of anything!!!! (please note the !! :-)).

    Of course if you were my editor or client I would act very differently, to me blogging is liberating!

    !!!!!

    Loved your talk, especially the restaurant reviews' part, bad writing, bad photographs, and bad taste I can cope with (I don't really need to make all of those recipes after all), but unnecessary criticism is another matter. How many good restaurant reviewers there are in NZ anyway? Sometimes I cannot believe that even printed matter publish restaurant reviews when the reviewer has been to that restaurant only once.

    Ciao
    Alessandra

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  22. I am absolutely loving the dicussion about this, it's one of the reasons I love blogging.

    Make-Do Mum and Alessandra - you are exactly right, blogging IS more liberating than writing professionally (that's another one of the reasons I do it).

    Elisabeth - despite all my going-on about cats (and boy, are the NZFBA having fun with that at the moment, I've never been tweeted so many cat pics in my life!), I do agree that blogs should represent their writers' lives and as such, that kind of family detail (what we in the game call 'colour') IS important. I just get depressed by lots of pictures of cats with LOL written about them (!!!!!)

    Alessandra - I think restaurant reviewing is really difficult. I do it for work purposes occasionally but recognise that it is a real skill.

    Lastly.... I am NOT saying you can't use exclamation marks in comments. Comments are fun and informal and it's a chance to be silly. But really, just one exclamation mark at a time, please!

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  23. I'll take a well written sentence over a pretty picture any day. Really.

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  24. Hmm, definitely food for thought there. I hadn't really considered proof-reading my writing as the same as doing the dishes, but like the analogy. I shall try and do it more often and pick up at least some of the (many) typos I'm sure to make. I do strive for grammatical correctness within the confines of my knowledge, but am useless at leaving the exclamation mark key alone. Although since I read your post I've been actively trying not to use it, with moderate success, although I constantly feel my sentences haven't ended properly.

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  25. Love all this discussion on spelling, grammar and exclamation marks. I would ask people to look at fiction and non-fiction books and published articles to see how many exclamation marks they find there? The authors, unlike us amateurs, have the skills to convey feelings and emotions more easily. I think people use exclamation marks more frequently now as they are so used to "tweeting" and commenting on Facebook in short "look at me" bursts to make their life sound interesting. I am not knocking it. I am probably just as guilty of making my life sound more exciting than it actually is.

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  26. 1. Thanks so much for speaking at the conference - I knew that the topic would 'rock the boat' a little and am so glad that it did. Gave many of us food for thought! And perhaps also a reality check for some.
    2. I will spell-check my posts meticulously from hereon in.
    3. Did you like your feline tweet bombs on Saturday? :-)
    4. I have since tweeted a few more photos of my cat...are we still friends?

    Exclamation mark count - 1.

    x,
    Shirleen

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  27. It would have been really great to hear you speak at this conference. Maybe I can make it to the next one day in NZ (dreaming here).

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  28. Love the wrap up & some great points to take on board as the writing is what I find the most difficult & I really do want to do it better. I will try & resist my inner child & not send you any more cat pics....!

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  29. Love the wrap up & some great points to take on board as the writing is what I find the most difficult & I really do want to do it better. I will try & resist my inner child & not send you any more cat pics....!

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  30. Hi Lucy

    Thanks so much for going out on a limb, and being brave enough to talk to us honestly and helpfully at Food Bloggers Conference. So glad, too, that you've shared the "guts" of what you had to say here - I've bookmarked it so that I can refer back to it periodically when I get complacent about my writing.

    I really enjoyed your talk, particularly when you spoke about the way in which the sharing of recipes is what connects us to our roots, to our families, and to each other as a community. That to me is what blogging is really all about, and your comments really resonated with me.

    Thanks again for talking to us - I'm only sorry that I didn't actually get a chance to meet you.

    Sue

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  31. Brilliant article. Some very useful tips.

    Mairi - I'm not sure that it is correct to use the ampersand (&) in body text.

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Hello - thanks for stopping by. If this was real life I'd make you a cup of tea and open the biscuit tin, but in lieu of those things, let's have a chat anyway...

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