The great thing about having to give a talk or make a presentation is that it forces you to collect random thoughts about the subject that you might have been having for a while. So it was with yesterday's talk on writing style I gave to the food bloggers' conference Food Blogger Connect.
The first thing you have to say - and I did - is that there's already some fantastic food writing out there from bloggers who have brought some brilliant fresh ideas and voices to the genre. And as many bloggers are now getting commissioned by national newspapers and traditional print journalists like me now blog the dividing line between the two is getting more and more blurred.
But writing for someone else involves more discipline than writing for yourself and for new bloggers or those of you who have ambitions to turn professional it may be helpful to focus on what those differences are. And how a bit of journalistic know-how might help your blog.
* Blogging is about me, journalism is about you - and them
Most blogs are self-centred. I mean that not in a pejorative way, simply that they are generally about the writer and her/his thoughts and feelings about food. Journalists are basically reporters, asking questions, gathering facts, finding individuals to quote that will add life to their piece. I think bloggers could look outwards more and be more investigative (within the obvious constraints of fitting their blogging around a full-time job).
* Journalists have to write in a style that suits the publication and the audience they're writing for
Develop the art of writing for a broader audience. Don't get too cosy chatting with a loyal, but possibly small coterie of followers. And if you get commissioned by a publication - or are looking to approach them - read it first. (A recent edition, obviously, not a two year old copy you found in a doctor's waiting room!)
* Journalists should be (though admittedly aren't always) detached, critical and impartial
Bloggers don't have to be. That's good in a way. You need a bit of attitude but sometimes I find bloggers go overboard in their praise of restaurants, products or books, especially where commercial interests are involved. In the press that would be called an advertorial.
* Journalists have to be accurate
Names, spellings and dates need to be checked, grammar cleaned up (especially commas and apostrophes). That doesn't mean you should abandon your natural writing style. Just read through what you've written and, if you're not confident about your proof-reading skills, get someone else to read it through too. Try to avoid long, rambling sentences and lengthy paragraphs, clichés and repetition. Especially of the word 'lovely'.
* Journalists have to write to length . . .
Ah, length. The bane of many new blogs. It's so tempting to tell your audience everything about that special meal you had or the best friend's wedding you went to but hold back. When I was doing the research for my talk I found some blogs that took 800-900 words to get to the point. People have short attention spans these days. If you want them to stay and read your blog - and revisit it - keep your posts short. Or short-ish. If you're commissioned to write a piece ask for the word count (how long the editor wants the piece to be) and keep it that length.
* . . . and on time
If you're given a deadline stick to it. Editors like writers who submit their copy promptly.
* Journalists need to engage the audience straightaway
That's what your editor expects. And if you don't get to the point quickly your sub-editor may rewrite your intro - possibly in a way you might not like. Draw the reader in with a startling fact or statement or by painting an evocative word picture. Or by relating the piece to a concern you know your readers share. (Like losing weight.)
* Blogging is immediate. A piece of journalism may not be published for several months.
That's actually one of the drawbacks of journalism as the editors who have to work on Christmas features in July and August will tell you. (The average lead-time for a magazine feature is around four months.) Bear in mind that some, at least, of your content needs to have enduring relevance.
Do you agree with my analysis or do you think the differences are overstated? And what have bloggers got to teach journalists?
- Plenty it appears! Look at this brilliant riposte from Juel Mahoney of Wine, Woman & Song.