Sunday, August 14, 2011

How to blog like a journalist

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, clich├ęs 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.

50 comments:

  1. Excellent points, Fiona, some of which I have made myself before when speaking to bloggers about writing style. The length point is a particular favourite of mine - as well as the killer opening line!! One advantage that bloggers have over journalists is the ability to let a unique voice shine through right from the start - for journalists, this often only comes much later after they have established a name for themselves. For instance, I love Marina O'Loughlin's food writing/reviews - and this is largely because of her voice. Great post - thanks for sharing and sorry I could not attend your talk in person!

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  2. Really interesting points Fiona and thanks for sharing - was sorry to miss yesterday's Food Blogger's Connect.

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  3. Thank you very much for writing this Fiona- very thought provoking and interesting points. I will definitely be musing your point about blogs being rather self-centered as I suspect I am very guilty of this!

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  4. Hi Fiona,
    Thank you so much for sharing some of your valued thoughts on blogging v journalism.
    I often feel that blogging for me feels a bit self indulgent and I worry about getting the balance right when I write. The last thing I want is to sound like a ranty know it all , reviewing anything that gets offered to me.
    Actually, I find the whole review thing very confusing. I am quite fussy and probably wouldn't find it easy to rave about a product freely!
    It is inspiring for me to read what you write, and so useful to take some tips from an expert.......Thanks!

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  5. A really interesting article seen as I a very newbie blogger. Although I have a lot of passion and interest it has been difficult to find a writing 'voice.' I'm hoping practice will make perfect, thanks for the tips!

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  6. thank you for sharing - Blogging is so flexible compared to writing for a mag. It is like a breath of fresh air.

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  7. I absolutely agree, Solange. It's great to be able to write about whatever you feel passionate about. Often magazines have to stick to tried and tested themes because of their need to attract advertisers.

    Kate and Lazza65, I'm certainly not saying that writing from a personal perspective is wrong just that you need to mix it up a bit - sharing your knowledge and discoveries not just telling the world how you feel today (when I say you I mean all of us, not you specifically!)

    And yes, Jeanne it's all about finding your voice and that comes with practice (I'm also a big Marina fan). It's easy to feel you must be incredibly witty all the time but that's not some people's style. They may, on the other hand have a talent for research and be able to unearth fascinating bits of information.

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  8. Thank you for sharing this, as a new blogger you worry that people are going to be interested in what you are saying, so it is a temptation to go overboard. Whereas it seems to flow more naturally for someone who has been writing for a while longer.
    I think that it must be a case of pratice makes perfect.
    Cheers
    Marcus
    I also love the fact that blogging allows me to use my love of cooking, eating and photography, the writing doesn't come as easily.

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  9. Truly it's practice, Marcus. Just write a bit every day, even if you don't post it.

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  10. With so many journalists saying they are bloggers, how about a rejoinder post: How to be a blogger as a journalist.

    It is amusing to see some journalist's "blogs" that look like they could go straight to print. Blogging has its own art. Multi-media, hyperlinked and layout, to name a few differences between traditional print and blogging... even if both disciplines come from a love of writing.

    Great post Fiona, thanks again.

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  11. Absolutely accept that, Juel I'd be happy to carry it as a guest post if you feel like writing it - or link to it if you want to put it on your own blog

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  12. Your session was one of the highlights of the conference and it was a pleasure to meet you (we were thrilled you were on our table!).
    Jaden, in her talk today, said 'practise, practise, practise' ;if you want to be good at anything it involves some personal discipline and it's good to be reminded of that. I'm going to write something every day from now on. Thanks again for some very sensible yet inspiring words of wisdom.

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  13. Fiona, I learnt a lot from your sesson at FBC. I am going to pay attention to the opening and getting to the point more quickly.

    Thanks for writing it up here, thought provoking.

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  14. Great post and discussion, Fiona. While I agree that food blogging tends to be more self-centered I would argue that some British newspaper critics (slash journalists?) write as though they're much less fascinated with the subject of their reviews than themselves.

    It would be great if you could extend this to discuss the contrast between food criticism for blogs and food criticism for newspapers and magazines.

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  15. Thanks @mycustardpie and @May - really glad you found it useful.

    And I agree that newspaper critics are not immune from writing about themselves @youngandfoodish though can only think of one that does so on a regular basis. And of course the more famous the critic the more (one assumes) people want to read about them rather than the food.

    Might well do a further post on the subject. When you say 'food criticism' presumably you mean restaurants or were you also thinking of products, books etc?

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  16. Hi Fiona

    Good post and there's many excellent tips there for a lot of writers, in whatever media.

    However this is the second time this month I've seen someone exhorting wine writters on the internet to be more attentive to typos.

    Which is fine advice, but I also think it obscures a larger point.

    The rules you've set out above are just an example of formalism. Formalism doesn't create great art an any field, and it especially isn't an ingredient or substitute for what's missing in too much writing: reflective ,critical insight.

    When the two come together, you get mastery of the kind that only a publication such as The New Yorker consistently achieves, month in, month out. It's why they can write 5,000 word essays about the scrap metal business (for example) and have you absolutely mesmerized.

    But for too much journalism, it's writing by numbers. Hook in the intro? Check. Quotes? Check. Brevity? Check. Proofreading? Check.

    Unfortunately, for many professional journalists under the editorial pressures to "fill the page" (and we've all heard them confess that, including directly to me), that "by the numbers" kind of writing means - job done.

    And for many columns, it is. But as a thoughtful reader, I need more.

    The advantage of seeing so much writing on the web these days is it yields so many informed and critical insights into what's going on.

    I'd trade many, many typos for just one ounce of that.

    My point is? Yes, these are great tips to write by. But let's none of us forget, that's a start to great writing, but by no means its guarantee.

    I think wine writers on the web / aka bloggers I guess, should learn from journalists, but there's no need to genuflect.

    The point of writing after all isn't to communicate format, but a good message.

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  17. Thank you for your brilliant speech.

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  18. Thanks, Fiona. Great post and some very useful reminders. I agree with @winewomansong above about a follow up post.

    One further point, possibly, relating to being 'on time'. Imposing deadlines on oneself, as in publishing, is easy to talk about but can be difficult to stick to over the long term. A method that's worked for me is to send out a regular monthly newsletter to subscribers (like publishing a magazine) which in turn forces me to update my blog. It's all too easy to be distracted by stuff like Twitter, which brought me here...

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  19. I was considering using between 800-900 words to show my gratitude for this post.

    But, given the content, I quickly got it down to a little over 30.

    I hope the effect isn't equally diminished.

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  20. This is very helpful...thanks so much.

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  21. Fiona - great post and it's hard for me to disagree with any of that.

    However I wanted to add one, slighty contrarian, perspective. For two reasons.

    The first is I've noticed there was another keynote speech to the wine bloggers' conference recently, in which the advice about avoiding typos was in the first or second piece of advice. I want to challenge the "tyrrany of the typo" here (perhaps because I'm a bit of a wilful violator of that one).

    But second, I've noticed a few writers on twitter berating themselves over journalistic standards, and I think we need to be careful that they don't miss the key point.

    The key point - no need to lecture you on this - is of course that writing is just a means to communicate. We should remember that the rules above are just the formal aspects of the craft. Their sole purpose is really to make sure that - more than anything - you don't get in the way of getting your message across.


    But, let's be clear: it is the message that matters. And as a reader, that means I am far, far more interested in one ounce of true, original insight, even if it is replete with formal failings, than inches of perfectly honed prose having neither.

    In that context, we should remind ourselves that a lot of formal journalism suffers from the dictates and constraints of editorial policy. Too often, this cuts off promising areas of critical enquiry, just when they need to be taken further. This is what I meant by finding the recent artcle by Suzanne Mustacich in the Wine Spectator somewhat took you up the aisle, but didn't go all the way (if you look at the concluding paragraph). (http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/45534#.TkNa8YkhwPk.twitter

    That's not a criticism of her as a journalist, but merely reflects the constraints under which much journalism is produced.

    Of course, in the best writing, both original insight and the highest journalistic methods come together. The result is a publication like the New Yorker - still my gold standard of any writing in any medium - which can publish 5,000 word essays on the scrap metal business that are utterly absorbing.

    But we (bloggers, journalists - *writers*) don't have to berate ourselves for failing to meet that very high standard.

    So really I'd ask people to remember that the formal rules of good writing are important. We should all reflect on our craft.

    But let's not all beat ourselves up if we think that we're communicating a good and even vital message. It's the message that really matters.

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  22. Phew, right, well I totally agree @JacksonTaylor. It should never be a question of style over substance and my post - and talk - were in no way intended to make new bloggers overly self-conscious. But there are many bloggers who are ambitious to get into print - or other sites online - so I thought it was worth pointing out the sort of expectations that editors would have of them.

    Heavens, we're all guilty of the occasional typo but if your text is littered with them it doesn't help your cause.

    So far as the example you cited is concerned I think you're still being a touch unfair. Suzanne as you suggest, will have had a brief and a word count to adhere to and will have been expected to write for a specific audience. You might feel a blogger would have been able to write from a more individual viewpoint in a more free-flowing style but I personally didn't have any problem with that piece.

    And congratulations @TheHeartyGoodfellow. Nice one ;-)

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  23. Thanks for the excellent workshop Fiona. I wish you could have spoken for a full day!

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  24. @leila - Ooooof! Not sure I could have managed that, but thanks

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  25. Hi Fiona,
    I think I speak for most attendees when I say it was one of the highlights of the FBC weekend. As a very engaging speaker, we could have quite easily listened to you for a lot longer. The response to this post speaks for itself :-)

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  26. I was really impressed by your speech at FBC conference and I'm happy to find here the concepts you highlighted on Saturday, as a remind!
    I do love writing, my problem is that English is not my native language, I'm Italian, so I have to struggle with grammar and construction first.
    I have a very ''characteristic'' Italian English, I reckon, but as you said, I'll keep on writing, and writing, and writing, everyday!
    Thank you again for your inspiring speech.

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  27. Accuracy media, huh funny...

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  28. Thanks for sharing this. I did not attend this conference but will be at IFBC later this month.

    My original degree was in journalism (13 years later, now in culinary school), so I know all about how to write that way. In fact, I find myself going back and forth in voice on my blog...especially if covering something "newsy." One day, I'm casual and introspective; another, I'm all AP-style and inverted pyramid. And because I like to break news (and beat the other mainstream outlets, sometimes), these newsy posts tend to get more readers.

    It's a balance I haven't figured out just yet. Thanks for adding some food for thought.

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  29. Well, seems to me you write really well, Juls. Lots of Brits couldn't write English English as well as that. And thanks, Jacqueline.

    @anonymous ;-)

    You'd probably also enjoy this post @arfoodie which one of the British wine bloggers has written in reply to mine. http://www.winewomansong.co.uk/index.php/2011/08/how-to-be-a-blogger-as-a-journalist/ That's us journalists put in our place!

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  30. Thanks for the post Fiona, you've clearly struck a chord with many aspiring writers. Tom Cannavan says something on Juel's rejoinder (which I read first) about how the two separate worlds of blogging and 'proper journalism' will inevitably fuse together eventually; I think that's right. Personally I can't stand blogs where the writer doesn't know the difference between "its" and "it's" or "your" and "you're". That's not being a snob; bad spelling and punctuation murder the enjoyment of reading.

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  31. This was very helpful and I appreciate your writing about this topic. My question is when, as a blogger, should I stop saying "yes" to publications to use my articles without payment. Is payment a silly notion? Am I being taken advantage of or are the first steps just getting yourself published as much as possible?

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  32. Good question, Sarah. It depends what you're out to achieve. If you want to break into a particular publication (especially a national) you might let them have a free article first time but if they come back to you for more they should pay you at least something. It's wrong that they should use you as a free columnist.

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  33. Great article Fiona. You forgot one difference: journalists don't fill their articles with superfluous photos.
    Henry

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  34. Ah, but a lot of people like that. (I think. Though obviously not you ;-))

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  35. As others have said, your presentation was one of the highlights of the FBC conference. I began blogging because I want to be a journalist and I'm still trying to figure out how to go that step further! Thank you for your valuable insight and inspiration! I really enjoyed the winewomansong post as well!

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  36. There is another thing one has to take into account: the WHY and for what PURPOSE.

    A journalist usually writes to get paid (but perhaps less and less so).

    A blogger may have any number of motivations. Which may have an impact of the way to write.

    But if one aims at good writing, I agree with most of your comments.

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  37. How about tips for a journalist turned new blogger?!

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  38. @Per-BKWine I think a lot of bloggers start simply to express their passion for food and wine but end up wanting to gain a platform for their views. Often this includes a desire to move into print - hence the post.

    Emiko - glad you enjoyed the session and agree about Juel's post. It's terrific!

    And I'm working on that one, Laura ;-)

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  39. so enjoyed your talk at FBC Fiona!
    and thanks for summing it up here.
    will definitely keep these in mind when both blogging and working my day job (change management and communication).

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  40. Thanks a lot for this article. Hopefully I'll able to write like one too. Looking forward to writing something on Asia and its alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. Started project at Drink Asia

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  41. I do like photos but in moderation. I think the words should be more important.
    Your post has got me thinking a bit about wine writing in general and have put some thoughts on my blog: http://worldofbooze.wordpress.com/2011/08/17/why-do-wine-writers-write-only-about-wine/

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  42. Interesting perspective, Henry. The problem is that in 400 odd words there isn't much room to be discursive, though maybe if I was the Guardian would give me more space. Best I can do is to work in the odd joke now and then.

    Even Jancis with her much longer column tends to stick to the knitting which suggests that's probably what readers want when it comes to wine. Which is, of course, where blogs come in . . .

    I'd certainly be interested in reading your piece(s) on Asian drinks Authorator. Do let me know when they're up.

    And glad the talk was useful, Karin :)

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  43. Thank you for making distinctions between journalism and blogging so clearly and showing how they can come together. Thank you for including Juel's 'blog'- what a great line,
    'It's not about the Prose, it's about the people.'
    Inspiration comes from people more than subject matter. Inspiration comes from conversation. It's not what you do but how you do it. Do you agree?

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  44. I do, Lisa, absolutely. It's as much about the content as the style

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  45. Your talk was one of the highlights of the weekend for me, very happy to see your points here again. Thanks.

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  46. Thanks a lot for highlighting all these points that we, foodbloggers should pay attention to in order to present well written and interesting posts! I would like to point out that, although journalism should be the same no matter where on earth is taking place, thhis is not the case. And I'm saying this, because I have my country's example -Greece- where accuracy and all the features journalism should have are not even applied by most of the professionals! Nevertheless, I am trying to do my best and follow your instructions! Thanks a lot for sharing at FBC and here of course!

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  47. Thanks @Angela and artemistsipi :)

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  48. I just flew in from Twitter. Glad I got here. Nice looking site. Reminding me I should update mine.

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  49. thank you for pointing everything out, such a great post.
    i think many reader nowadays need more explanation on taste of food that writers try to write rather than "it is a beautiful dinner at this restaurant"

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