Food Blogging: Ten Things I've Learned in Five Years
It's challenging for me to remember exactly when I wrote my first post five years ago, but I'm fairly certain it was sometime late this month. If web years are anything like that of dog years, then that is quite a good length of time. I searched the archives but knew before I began that I'd long ago deleted the first few posts because they were only worthy of being the best examples of aimless wandering. I was testing the water, wondering what might come from a seemingly simple decision to write about food.
There's more to it than that, and I realize it when I sort through the posts and photos, recipes and stories. It's difficult to separate my life and that of my family from what I've written here because it has happened simultaneously, confirming that my life is truly food-centric in all its crazy gloryor often, the lack thereof, and thankfully so.
So much has changed in the five years while I've shared my "fat-free opinions on a food-centric life." Although I've certainly changed as a result of the experience, the web and general status of food blogging is radically different. When I created Sass & Veracity, it was to provide an outlet for myself to write about my efforts to lose weight, thinking it would hold me accountable. That didn't last long because I soon discovered that to write a food blog, one actually has to write more than stories. At some point, there must be photos and recipes.
So before I launch my list of what I've learned in five years food blogging, let me say cheers to Sass & Veracitywho knows where it will be in the next five years, but I'd enjoy your opinion about a few things I'm considering that I've posed toward the end of this very long piece if you're interested in sharing. I hope you are. And while you're at it, perhaps you can let others know something you've learned in the time you've been blogging. Thanks for reading!
1. It's all about the photos.
Okay, so maybe not 100 percent, but close. And the most expensive camera and lens, or fancy lighting and equipment aren't necessary as long as you learn how to use your camera. It will save time with post-processing as well, because no matter what kind of photo editor you use, your shot is only as good as what you originally captured. I struggle with this often, because of my stubborn lack of patience. I prefer to shoot without a tripod so I can move quickly around the table working from many angles and perspectives. The tripod is cumbersome to me, often feels like an additional thing to contend with and doesn't always help me capture what I see without it. Sometimes the natural light I use changes so quickly, fussing with a piece of equipment is more than I care to do, instead preferring to move whatever I'm shooting to a different place. The light will be different, so adjustments will have to be made, but it's still natural light. I have worked to learn how to shoot in artificial light, and although I've much to learn, practicing has helped.
2. Stay true to your own perspective.
I should have made this number one because it pertains to everythingthe food you make, shoot, and write about, the stories you tell, the voice you create, the effect you work toward. It becomes your signaturewhat others expect from you. And because learning occurs with experience, from time to time, that influence will have an effect on all of the above. Embrace it, but also remember what you set out to do. For me, that is connecting food with my life in some way, and sharing what I've learned in the process. In writing, there are memories and stories shared.Visually, I tend to be more a realist, having little patience for fussy arrangements of food and props. The recipes I share may seem fussy and involved, but my photos aren't. I try to shoot what best exhibits how I cooksometimes it's a mess and others, the stark simplicity of an ingredient will satisfy me. In either case, the photos are directly related to the experience of making the food.
In the first, my learning and experimentation with citrus curds for a wedding cake,
and the second, the simplicity of banana gelato.
3. The food has to go somewhere.
Five years ago, my youngest was a sophomore in high school and my two older boys were long gone from our house, busy with their own lives. Beyond the occasional Sunday dinner or special celebration, cooking for three peopleone of whom didn't have a big appetite and the other two always trying to restrain themselves from secondswas a challenge. Now that there are only two of us, the quantity and type of food I purchase and prepare has changed. There is no reason to make cookies, cupcakes, pies, tarts, ice cream or decadent desserts, no matter how much we may like them, just so that I might share them here. The rationale that if I do bake, I might send the goods to my husband's office, or to the schools of one or more of my friends, only works for so long. Many of the people I just mentioned are very health conscious, so delivering sweets to them would be rude, and ultimately, the habit just makes this hobby of mine more expensiveperhaps wasteful. I know that many who click through blogs expect and enjoy seeing something filled with sugar and butter, chocolate or cream, but I can't and won't do that just to get attention. Somehow, people just don't seem to flock to salad or beans in the same, drooling fashion, but I'll figure out how to change their thinking on that.
4. It's a challenge to not want traffic, attention, or comments.
I've tried. I really have. And although I'm getting better at saying quantity doesn't matter, in the long run, I guess it must. I think it's just how humans are wired. We work hard on something we're passionate about, put thought and care into it, make it personal, then put it out there for others and wait to see whether anyone notices. Well, that would be what it feels like to me. There's a sense of contentment when I've finished a piecesometimes several weeks in the making from the time I finished thinking about recipes and purchasing food to clicking the "publish" button on my WordPress dashboard. Regardless of that contentment, looking at stats is inevitable because I'm curious, and struggle to not seek gratification from numbers.
5. The people I've gotten to know are real.
I think this can be a challenge for people who don't have blogs to understand. How can a person be a friend when you've never actually met themor spoken to them? It's easy. Consider sitting down at a large round table to enjoy an incredible potluck meal with a group of people who are all passionate about food. And to make it even more interesting, consider they come from all sorts of backgrounds and are at varied points in their lives. That beyond food, they might love to travel, or own a business. Perhaps they've given up a career to head in a different direction, or are headed to medical school. Although it can often be a challenge to find well seasoned people like myself in the group, it doesn't matter because ultimately, the food is what draws one person to another. People have babies, get new jobs, have to move across the country, or sadly, lose favorite pets. And sometimes, someone passes away. When I've noticed a blogger hasn't posted in a while, I wonder if they're okay in much the same way I'd wonder about anyone I have known living here in San Diego. They're real people and they matter to me.
6. It can be a struggle to earn enough to pay for the costs of keeping my food blog.
My husband patiently asks me why I feel I need to make money from my blog and my response is always the same (see number 4 above). Sometimes, his question is different, focusing more on what I originally set out to accomplish and whether I'm on track with that. The first question is offered by a caring spouse, the second from an intelligent, successful business man who, when asked about why I cannot write off the groceries, props, equipment, field trips, and other blog-related expenditures I accumulate, candidly explains that until I turn a real profit it's just a hobby. That's all. I know I haven't spent nearly what I've heard others have because of my existing collection of old dishes, linens, and baking equipmentas well as my perspective (see number 2 above)I make due with what's practical. And it's a good thing, because although I've not kept records of what I've earned, it has been less than $2,000 for five years of work. In the last year from March 2011 until now, Sass & Veracity has received 234,590 pageviews and 72,127 unique visitors. That sounds like quite a bit, but in the end, it's nothing if earning money is what writing a food blog is all about. If it wasn't for the people and sense of satisfaction I have from what I've learned, trust me, I would have stopped doing this a long time ago. Without the help of several friends who have very successful blogs and who nudge me along with great advice when I make noise about putting up a "CLOSED" sign, who knows what I'd be up to right now. I know my house would be more organized!
7. The food blog community is very different from the non-food blogging community.
I learned this almost immediately. Writing a personal blog has been a much different experience for me in a number of waysnot the least of which has to do with the amount of time a food blog consumes. But the biggest difference seems to be about what is literal and what is implied. Early on, I often heard it said that the food community was a kinder, more gentle place on the web, and to some degree, I think that is true. Most people are happy when they're cooking or baking and talking about foodunless they're writing a restaurant review and lean toward the snarky side of things, which I will confess I have enjoyed reading from time to time. Personal blogs are focused on such a variety of topics, allowing people to blatantly state what is on their minds. It's often passionatewhether hilarious, or downright angrythe reader is served a plate of candidness. Because the nature of most food blogs doesn't allow for that, the candid aspect appears in other waysin passionate posts of frustration, in comment threads, or in emails and discussions at conferences. It's interesting. I'm a fairly direct person by nature and know that at least in the food community, that doesn't always sit well with othersat least on the surface. I chose the name Sass & Veracity for a reason, and I think sometimes, I've let myself down by avoiding writing my honest opinions thinking others might be offended. What did Abe Lincoln say? "You can please some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time." Smart man. I need to stick that on my monitor and move along.
8. Sometimes it's a challenge to keep up with others' blogs, but it's worth it to make an effort.
It's about community. It's about giving and receiving. It's about appreciation and respect and kindness. It's about learning. So how does one keep up with it? I know I struggle to, but I do my best to read around to check in on others. I know I'm not nearly as good at this as others because I see them wherever I go, their comment miles above the one I'll leave somewhere in the back 40. Although I subscribe to some blogs by email as a pleasant diversion to all the junk mail I have to delete on a daily basis, and I do my best to subscribe to a variety of others, I'm a creature of habit and usually hop from one blog to the next skipping my reader all together. Think of it this wayI'm subscribed and I visit. More traffic for you! I think I keep a blogroll to help me remember to visit as well, even though most others have given up that space for other things. I'm horrible at any kind of consistency because of how much time it can take out of a day to read even a handful of postsand I do read themthoroughly. You can take the English teacher out of the classroom but can't change years of practice, I guess. With that in mind, if I can't cozy up and read your whole post, you probably won't see me because I'm not good at scanning and leaving a courtesy card just so you'll know I was there. What I will do is try to find new blogs to read and the best way I know to do that is to look through others' links. There are some gems out there that seem never to get any recognition and I wonder about that.
9. Writing a food blog is an excuse not to do many things I should be doing.
Like exercising regularlybut I'm working on that. Taking care of what needs to be done around the house with any degree of regularity. Finishing projects I've begun and swear I'll finish if only I can edit that last batch of shots, or work on that draft, or get another round of those broken photo links restored. If only. Clearly, I'm obsessed. I've confessed I'm not making money, that cooking as an empty nester has been a challenge and that baking has become obsolete due to our change of eating habits, yet here I sit. I'm startled by how quickly time passes when I'm working, constantly shifting my day around in my head to accommodate whatever I'm working on. Like today. I'm supposed to be making a wedding cake, and the day is half gone. I know many a person who keeps a schedule to cook on some days and write others, but I've tried that and rebel as soon as I have a schedule worked out, avoiding it like the plague. If there's any schedule to be followed, then it needs to focus on other things first, and this later. I used to write just about every morning because that's when my mind is most clear. But when food is always on my mind, it pushes everything else awayand once out of mind, it's a challenge to get back. I need to work on that just so that I can begin to write again. I miss it.
10. There's much to be said about recipe writing, inspiration, adaptation, and plagiarism.
But I won't belabor it here because that is a whole post in and of itself. What I will say is that one of the biggest chores for me related to posting is writing down a recipe. It's tedious at best and if I could have any excuse to avoid it, I would. I notice that once I've finished writing the opening of a post and uploading photos, I often save the draft and get on with my day. I've approached this dreaded task in a variety of ways over the years and none of them have made it more palatable. I've kept a notebook to record adjustments of ingredients and cooking times, I've written recipes with Google Docs, or bookmarked resources with Evernote and used a stylus to record notes with my iPad and ultimately, I still have to type the recipe, so... I'm whining. Also to be considered is this: I rarely post anything on Sass & Veracity that is 100 percent mine. Let me qualify thatalthough I frequently cook without recipes, I rarely use those occasions as material because I wasn't set up to do that. No notebook, no photoscall it a night off. I don't use my kitchen as a test kitchen because I'm not a recipe developer. I cook, and we eat. Often, I write about it. If I see something fresh and wonderful at the market, then I'll bring it home, find some beautiful light and enjoy shooting it to capture its appeal. Once I've done that, it's pushed aside while I do some research. This often takes hours and hours as I'm easily lost reading about new techniques or methods, ingredients and nutritional information. I thoroughly enjoy doing this. When I finally cook, then it is with thought and an extensive amount of information in my headbut the "recipe" I create is not necessarily mine. It is a synthesis of all that I've read and knowan accumulation of 42 years of experience plus a few hour's research. I routinely list ingredients based on sourced recipes from magazines, cookbooks, and the web, alter them depending on the ingredients I have available or believe to be a preferred combination, and write the directions as I prepared the recipeagain working to streamline and/or incorporate the tools I prefer and the techniques I employ. None of this is done in an attempt to claim ownership of a recipe. I routinely provide links to the resources I use, but believe that since I'm not writing a research paper each time I post a recipe, referencing the MLA Stylebook for appropriate citation standards is a bit much. It has been recently suggested by some that the practice I've just described is a form of plagiarism or "theft," perhaps. No, I haven't been accused, but I'm using myself as an example. Is the fact that I, following copyright law, write down the quantities and ingredients, but modify the method of the original recipes to insert mine a form of plagiarism? I hope not. Although I do know that some, whether by ignorance, lack of careor just plain greed, cut and paste recipes to accompany the photos in their posts, it is not something I do, and yes, it is wrong to make one's work easier by simply using what another has spent time creating. In many cases, it's plain illegal. I understand the legalities, but at what point do those end and the hair-splitting begin?
Allow me to provide an example. I've had a bag of Christmas Limas in my pantry for several months and finally decided to try them. Because they're not all that common, I Googled them and was happy to find that one of my favorite people had written about how she'd prepared themsomeone who has had a food blog longer than just about everyone and who has written two very successful cookbooks. In the post, she referenced the recipe she'd adapted stating that she'd prepared it many times using a variety of beans. The cookbook referenced is one I learned of from her website about a year ago, and then purchased. Because I hadn't heard of this cookbook before, if I hadn't seen it referenced on her website, I'd have missed out on what has become one of my favorites. How great to know the Christmas Lima recipe was from the same book. I made the recipe referencing both the original and her adaptation, focusing more for my own interests, on legumes or pulses in general, and how our body benefits from eating them. The recipe I made is not exactly the same, but that's only because I wasn't exact with my measurements or ingredients. The recipe was delicious, however, and it will appear at some point in the futuremaybebut all the commotion over "copying" has really made me think, so I've considered making some changes around here. I'd be happy to hear your opinion on thisincluding that I'm overreacting.
- Omit quantities for the ingredients I list, omit directions.
- List only ingredients and provide links to whichever resources I've used and readers, if interested, can get quantities there. Please know that sometimes, there could be more than one place to look.
- I will continue to provide my notes because I think they're important. So much of what makes particular recipes work is what isn't writtenit's gained from lots of practice.
- I will rejoice in not ever having to write a recipe again unless I feel it is completely mine and I'd say don't hold your breath on that.
Ultimately, everyone seems to have advice and although I do heed that of others, I also learn by the examples set of what to do, and more importantly, what not to do.
[BlogHer Food '12 will bring food bloggers together to learn, share, inspire, and of course, to EAT! Whether you're new to food blogging or an old pro, you should join us in Seattle, WA on June 8-9, 2012 -- register now!]