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.