I hear from a lot of you that what you like the most about our site is that you never know what you’re going to find from one post to the next. I love getting this note — because it confirms that a) you guys are paying attention, and b) because it allows me to write inside-baseball posts like this one and know that you will still come back tomorrow in search of the perfect tandoori burger. Correct?
Today I want to answer a question I’ve been asked a lot: How do you write this blog? Which I’m also going to interpret as How do you write and How did you start? It’s an involved question, one I’m not sure I’m entirely qualified to answer yet, and one that, you’ll see, sends me in several different directions below. (To give you an idea, the working title of this post for the past few months had been “Everything I Learned About Blogging I Learned in Magazines” before I realized I had so much more to say.) The truth is, I had no idea what I was doing when, in the winter of 2010, GoDaddy told me that Yes! The URL dinneralovestory.com is available! But I’ve figured a few things out along the way and thought it might help those of you thinking of starting your own blog. (As for starting a career in food writing, you cannot get any better than this post by Amanda Hesser.) What I wrote below should not be mistaken for The Definitive Rules of Blogging 101. There are about eight million people out there generating eight million hits a day and maybe even making money from it — and if that’s what you are after, you should skip this post and seek their advice. I’ve accepted now that this site will most likely never be the source of a down payment on that house in Block Island overlooking Mohegan Bluffs. (Why God, Why?) But for a satisfying job that has led to unexpected places, these are the rules I’ve lived by.
Lesson 1: Shorter Isn’t Necessarily Better. Better is Better
My crash-course in blogging lasted about two weeks. I had just lost my job at Cookie, the parenting magazine where I was editing features, and a website called to see if I could help out launching a few blogs on their lifestyle vertical. I was feeling a little lost — not to mention there was not one more corner of the house to organize, which seemed to be my way of dealing with my sudden daily aimlessness — so I said yes and pretty soon was on the 8:43 commuter train again, headed to a downtown office where the staffers seemed to check every box for website start-up. (Skull caps: Check; Bright Eyes station playing on Pandora: Check; Enrollment in artisanal, fetish-y food project: Check.) Everything happens faster online (first lesson) so my supervisor did not waste anytime laying down a few crucial rules about blogging to his seemingly prehistoric new freelancer. Don’t write in long paragraphs. Don’t write long at all. Online readers like quick hits. They like lists and bullet points whenever possible! Say things that will start a conversation in the comment field. (Or better yet, incite a riot in the comment field!) Tweet everything! Post everything on facebook! And my favorite, which I think about every single day: Remember: Producing content is 10% of the job; Promoting it is 90%. Ay yi yi.
For week one I just followed orders and repeated to myself “Don’t be old.” But by week two, I was done. Here’s the thing. My supervisor was right about every single thing above. If you want more visitors (and any blogger who tells you he or she doesn’t is lying) you can get there more readily by following all of his rules. But you could also assume a certain amount of intelligence from your reader and write the way you want to write, the way most readers want you to write, that is, honestly. The masses might not come right away, but if you take time to write something that is pure and resonant and comes with no behind-the-scenes agenda, people will respond. And you will respond to their response. I remember early on in my DALS life when my ambitions were a little grander, I called my VC friend Roger in Palo Alto for a counseling session on building the “business.” He gave me the best piece of advice — or at least the best piece of advice that I felt most comfortable with. Don’t think about anything but the content for the first year. You need to earn the trust of readers and you need to distinguish yourself. The only way to do that is by paying close attention to what you are producing every day. Roger flip-flopped the formula for me and set me back on the path I knew so well from magazines, and that had never really led me wrong before: 90% of your time should be spent thinking about content, fresh new ideas, and presenting those ideas from a fresh perspective. Your perspective. Everything else? 10%.
Lesson 2: Define Your Mission
One of my earliest magazine jobs was at a major women’s lifestyle title. The editor at the time was a veteran magazine editor named Carrie — she had been in the industry for 25 years, wore all black along with trademark black-framed editor glasses. I didn’t know a whole lot, but I knew enough to know that I should write down every single thing she said and commit it to memory. At our Tuesday line-up meetings, she’d hold up some new book that we should be paying attention to (I one-clicked Botany of Desire as soon as she held it up saying less as a suggestion than an absolute command, “Pay attention to this guy. His name is Michael Pollan”); or of a magazine that was doing something new and exciting visually (Everyday Food! RIP! ); or simply what her latest fashion philosophy was. (“Gap Clothes, Prada Accessories!“) On the Tuesday meeting after September 11th, she told us that she had thought long and hard about our magazine and its place in the new world and decided there was going to be a revamped mission. “We are not a magazine people come to for the news” she told us. “We are a magazine that tells people how to handle the news.” She went on to say that from that point forward the mission of the magazine could be pared down to three simple words: Comfort, Community, and Control. They became known as the three C’s, and if we had an idea we wanted to assign for the magazine, it had better fit into that description. Boy did we roll our eyes at the Three C’s! But boy did they ever work. Having a mission sharpened our focus. It helped us define who we were and why people came to us. When I moved on to my next job and oversaw a large section of the magazine, the first thing I tortured my team with was defining its mission. I also spent about six months writing the mission for this blog. I knew it would be as important for me to lay a blueprint as it would be for anyone who happened to drop by to see what the heck I was up to. This page is one of the most visited of the site. Which is another way of saying This is where I reel them in.
Lesson 3: No Harm in Making Things Pretty
If you spend a little money on a good designer, you will be ahead of 99% of the websites out there. It can take a lifetime to articulate to a designer the look you are after (I was lucky to earn my Masters in this at Conde Nast) but it helps to “pull scrap” as Carrie used to say. Bookmark anything online that you respond to — not just blogs, but websites, textures, colors. Create an inspiration board on Pinterest to stay organized. Or do it the old fashioned way, cut layouts out of magazines and pin it on an actual physical bulletin board. Fonts are incredibly important. Colors are incredibly important. I knew I didn’t have have a lot of time with online readers so I knew the visual first impression would be crucial. When I was working with my very gifted designer, Ava, I sent her photos of baby birds with their mouths wide open. (Because my dad used to say that his three kids asking to be fed and clothed and, you know, parented, conjured up this image.) (more…)