Is food blogging a flash in the pan, or can aspiring authors really carve out a career in the industry?
The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite,” wrote AJ Liebling in his book Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris. “Without this, it is impossible to accumulate enough experience of eating to have anything worth setting down.”
On September 7, 2012, there were 308 food bloggers on the roll of the Irish Food Bloggers Association (IFBA), and there are probably a few more by now. It’s a bit like a feeding frenzy.
“The number increases by a steady two to six each week,” says Kristin Jensen, who blogs as Edible Ireland and set up the IFBA with Caroline Hennessy, aka Bibliocook.
“In 2010, Bord Bia organised a bloggers’ workshop that was the impetus for coming out from behind our avatars for the first time. There were 25 or 30 of us there, almost all the bloggers in Ireland at the time. We launched the IFBA soon after.”
In America, Adam Roberts of Amateur Gourmet — acknowledged as one of the originals of the species — caused uproar in the blogosphere in March when he asked: “Are food blogs over?”
“Everyone with a camera and a soft palate has one,” Roberts wrote. “Food blogs are all rather homogeneous: bright colours, punny title, big, SLR-photographed pictures of food and a safe, crowd-pleasing writing style that wouldn’t be out of place in an airline magazine.”
Or, as one established food writer, who wishes to remain anonymous, puts it: “I’m all for self-expression, but it’s a very developed world and there are an awful lot of people blogging about what they had for dinner.”
A decade ago food writers had only traditional print media in which to publish their work. Editors applied the same standards to writing about food as to other subjects: challenging, reworking, editing and proofreading copy as necessary.
With the advent of the food blogger (who self-commissions and then writes, edits and illustrates), entry requirements to the profession have been cast aside. Food writing has become a free-for-all, and some badly written, misspelt blogs riddled with blurry photos have given blogging a bad name. “We set up the IFBA to foster a sense of community — we don’t judge the quality and welcome everyone,” says Jensen, whose own blog is acknowledged to be of a high standard, as is Hennessy’s.
Roberts, meanwhile, advises wannabe bloggers to create something noteworthy and relevant, not to “copy what’s come before”. He adds: “Whether it’s your concept, your design, your writing style, your subject matter or your photography, you’ve got to find a way to push the genre forward.”
Experienced food writer Hugo Arnold, who has taught food writing classes at Ballymaloe Cookery School, encourages bloggers to apply the standards of print journalism.
“It’s about excellent research, thorough fact-checking and rigorous recipe-testing. If you don’t have an editor, you have to be doubly disciplined,” he says.
“There’s too much froth around and not enough telling the reader something that they don’t know.”
The IFBA’s website is an excellent source of tips and advice, and another good place for an aspiring blogger to start is with a food-writing course. There are plenty to choose from, including online options.
Tom Parker-Bowles runs a two-day Guardian masterclass, entitled Eating Your Words, with guests that include Matthew Fort, Mark Hix and Tim Hayward.
The Arvon Foundation, a charity that runs residential creative writing courses, holds an annual week-long event. This year’s tutors included Lindsey Bareham and Jancis Robinson.
Mona Wise (see page 20) says if she were ever to take an online course, she would choose Don Genova’s at the University of British Columbia. She says: “I’m very familiar with his work and love his style. That said, unless you are very disciplined, I would go for a weekend workshop.”
As it happens, California-based Dianne Jacob, a food writer, restaurant reviewer and author of food writer’s bible Will Write For Food, is hosting a food-writing workshop — sponsored by Bord Bia — at the Brooklodge hotel in Co Wicklow later this week. She’ll tell the participants that anyone can be taught how to write well about food.
“It’s about making your writing more lively, and learning how to describe food without using words such as ‘yummy’ and ‘delicious’,” she says. “The best food writers are obsessed with food, but passion in itself is not enough. For a blog to succeed, the writing has to be good.”
Dorcas Barry, a food writer, blogger and nutritional consultant, is responsible for bringing Jacob to Ireland. She says: “Her book is great but I’m no good at doing writing exercises by myself, and I thought it would be so much more valuable in a workshop situation.”
Some of those attending the workshop will hope to emulate the success of bloggers such as Donal Skehan and Lilly Higgins, who secured book deals.
Catherine Hayes-Sparks, a former GP who blogs as Mum of Invention, describes herself as a “toddler blogger”. She’ll be attending the workshop.
“I started last year — I just wanted to start writing,” she says. “Wordpress [a simple blogging platform] makes it easy. I’m hoping to learn more about finding my voice, and to figure out where I’m going with this.”
“The more you write, the more you find your voice,” says Jacob. “David Lebovitz, for example, is funny, self-deprecating and a beautiful writer. He seems to be having a good time and you want to share it with him. Mostly, you arrive at a blog as a cook, using it as a recipe database. But if you are to return, the blog needs to have a strong identity.”
Barry agrees. “I’m not interested in reading a blog post from someone who’s tried a Nigel Slater recipe and takes a picture of how it worked out. There has to be something original about a blog to keep me coming back.”
Because blogging is by definition a visual medium, good writing has to be supported by strong images. “Becoming an excellent photographer is not optional on a food blog,” says Jacob.
“You might resist this idea at first, because you see yourself as a writer. But part of being a blogger is taking charge of all the parts.”
As well as making your blog visually appealing, it’s important to post regularly. “It’s the accumulation of content that matters,” says Roberts. “The more you update, the more content you create. The more content you create, the more Google-able you become.” Ah, yes. The economics of blogging is all about numbers. And while many bloggers are hobbyists, anyone hoping to make any money out of blogging needs followers — and lots of them.
“If you have an enormous following, then you can make a living from advertising. But for most bloggers it’s a sideline from which they make a few bucks,” says Jacob.
“They are more likely to make money because of the blog — using it as a calling card for work as a freelance writer or consultant — than by virtue of the blog itself.”
As food blogging has boomed, its ethics have come under scrutiny. Some query the apparent cosiness of the relationships that exist between bloggers and commercial interests. “Sponsored posts are when a company contacts you and asks you to write about their product,” says Jacob. “Or you contact them and say you would like to write about their product.
“You have to be very clear with your readers. If you are being paid with a product or a coupon or cash, then you have to consider the value of that versus the transparency of your communication with your readers and your own integrity.”
Some Irish bloggers say that greed has crept into the industry. “I was dismayed,” said one Irish blogger, who does not wish to be identified. “At a recent gathering all the talk was about trips and free stuff and how much they could get. It cheapens what we do.”
“At first,” says Jensen, “you’re so flattered to be asked that you’ll take anything. But the more experienced you get, you realise that it takes quite a bit of work to write a post and take the photos to go with it. As you get savvier, you become more selective and more protective of your own blogging brand.”
Bloggers are now an important part of any public relations strategy. “As blogs become more sophisticated, they are taken more seriously, and the people who write them are in much demand,” says Jacob.
Maeve Desmond, communications manager at Bord Bia, is fully engaged with the food blogging community, working with them to help showcase Irish food suppliers and products.
Bord Bia has sponsored Irish bloggers to attend Salon du Blog Culinaire — the annual jamboree of the French blogging world — in Soissons, near Paris.
“I find the bloggers very truthful and upfront. The best take pride in their writing, layout, photographs and styling, are passionate about food, keep their blogs up to date and fresh, and remember who they’re writing for,” she says.
Not everyone is so complimentary. One restaurant consultant who deals with bloggers doesn’t mince her words.
“They’re liggers,” she says. “Frankly, it’s a cheaper way of getting word of a restaurant opening out there than hiring a PR company. We invite half a dozen around for lunch and then sit back while they spread the word.
“In my experience, many of them are self-satisfied, self-serving, and selfish. They should ask themselves why they are doing it. But, because their next gig depends on them being quite nice about something, we don’t have to worry.”
Most bloggers do not do restaurant criticism per se, as it’s more important to be first into a new establishment than to review.
“Bloggers tend to be resistant to the grey area of reviewing,” says Jacob. “They lean towards being nice and they’re terrified to offend. And if they are not exulting, then they are trashing.
“Restaurant reviewing is not just about creating a list of what’s on the menu and what you ate. You have to tell a story and entertain the reader.”
FIVE TIPS FOR WRITERS
Use specific language
Don’t be lazy — using words such as “nice”, “wonderful” and “delicious” show that you’re not making an effort. However, “unctuous” and “nom nom” are forbidden.
Know your own voice
Are you reassuring, humble, vulnerable, believable, mysterious, funny, knowledgeable, approachable, relaxed, competent, knowing, authoritative or sarcastic?
Tap into trends
Specialised blogs aimed at those on restricted diets such as vegan and gluten-free are on the up.
Remember the difference between print and screen
Hugo Arnold says that a visitor to your blog won’t have the patience to read a thousand words: a couple of pictures and 200 words are about the limit.
Be clear about rules
Have a policy about the circumstances in which you will accept free products or trips, and whether or not you’ll commit to write about them. Put your rules on your blog.