OFFICIAL LIVE BLOG - Session #3 (2:30 pm - 3:45 pm), Values Track: "The Meaning of Identity and the Value of Voice in a Crowded
Your identity and your voice are not identical, but they are inter-related. And they are what define and differentiate you in a crowded blogosphere. How can you convey more than just useful information in your blog? How can you share who you are and what you believe...and why does it make a better blog: BlogHer co-founder Jory Des Jardins moderates a conversation with Ree Drummond, Garrett McCord, Dianne Jacob and Susan Russo about the value of our voices.
Standing room only!
Jory is moderating. She's a personal and business blogger but not a food blogger. She's a food blogging fan! How in the food blogging world do people distinguish themselves? I'm going to be asking a lot of questions. Please, in the audience, ask questions too. We'd like an open discussion. And we'd like to tease out action items and takeaways. Let the questions flow!
Each of the panelists have different perspectives. Who here is a new blogger? (A few people raise hands) Who is advanced (only a few). On the panel we have new bloggers, traditional media veterans, and experienced bloggers. Diane Jacob: Will Write for Food. An old hand at food writing, but somewhat new to the blogosphere. When did you start?
Diane: June. *appreciative laughter from audience*
Jory: How does your voice change - or does it - from print media to blogging? Diane is also a writing coach.
Garret - Vanilla nd Garlic. 2006 cupcake blogger.
Garret - started it as an excuse to try different restaurants, but it's continued to evolve
Jory: would you say you're a storytelling blogger?
Garrett - Yeah.
Jory: We cn talk about literary-ness too. Susan -
Susan: We are from Rhode Island, my husband and I, and we always come home to CA with Italian goodies, my mom sends it home. 10 lb chunk of reggiano parmagiano.
(I can identify... grew up in RI...)
Susan: A guy in TSA picks up the big block wrapped in 10 layers of tinfoil and sniffs it a nd goes "reggiano parmagiano? niiiiice" We laughed all t he way to the gate. Jeff turns ot me and says, only in Rhode island would that happen! You shoudl write about it on a blog! So we got home, I did, and that's how it happened!
Jory: I'd love to hear how your voice has changed as you developed your blog! Next we have Pioneer Woman Cooks, Ree.
Ree: 8 months into my regular blog, i was cooking a steak, took photos of how to cook a steak. I didn't know that food blogs existed! I had a favorable response to the psychotic number of photos and the step by step detail. People appreciated that! Then I started a food blog, then moved it back to Pioneer Woman.
Jory: That's quite a number of means of entry to the food blogging world. Audience - anything you want to cover?
Aud: Topic shift. You start out writing one ting, then you realize you are changing. but you are so invested in the name of the blog, the url, and so on.
Jory: Yes, that happens after a year or two to a lot of people!
Jory: How did each of you develop your voice?
Dianne: As a reporter you're not supposed to have a voice. As a magazine writer you have a collective voice. When I started writing for myself later, personal essays, it was a shock to write first person essays and write about myself! It took me a while to get over it. It's normal to feel like it's narcissistic. If you're a good storyteller it doesn't matter. I"m writing *for* people who write about food. I don't want to sound preachy, arrogant, bossy. Straddling a line between friendly, authoritative, knowledgeable, good advice, sharing information as I find out. I'm learning every day and I want to share that, not be an authority when I'm not.
Jory: You are an authority in food writing though.
Dianne: I wrote recently about going to Blue Hill, a really nice restaurant. I thought about being a food blogger, taking photos of 14 courses over 3 hours. How annoying it would be the person next to me took flash pictures at every course! I interviewed the restaurant the next day to ask how they handle it. They don't allow flash photos! I asked how people handle it, photo with no flash, etc. That's how I wrote an interesting piece without claiming to be an authority on something I didn't know.
Garrett: I had a LiveJournal when everyone did, writing my little head off... I had to figure out how to write and how I wanted to communicate. Restaurant reviews, learning about food and cooking. I didn't have much experience with either or with writing. Cupcake Bakeshop.A great blog. First thing I cooked that didn't catch on fire. Cornbread will ignite like THAT. *laughter from audience* Baking cupcakes with maple syrup, etc. After a year and a half of 50 cupcake recipes I started blogging more storytelling. But I did, and people liked it! Now it's about storytelling and sometimes recipes. I write every day and 2/3 of what I write never gets posted.
Susan Russo: I was talking with Garrett last night about a literary voice and composing in a certain way. I keep a casual feel but I am thinking about structure, literary structure and composition. A lot is about family stories, people feel they could sit down with me and sit down and have a cup of coffee and talk about being from New England and being from back east. I don't want to just become food blog of the girl who talks only about her Italian American family and chicken parm. Though, I do and I love that. But I'm shifting and in the process of learning to develop my voice in different ways.
Ree; I'm not the best writer in the world but I write like I'm talking to my sister or my best friend. It's a little bit stream of consciousness unless I'm going step by step. This is so random but, my finger don't photograph well! I'm not a hand model! They look like alien fingers! Please excuse the alien fingers! My voice is not that of an expert. I'm not the end authority on anything! Photography, or home schooling or cooking. But I show you how I do it, and maybe make it seem a little easier, because if I can do it, anyone can do it.
Jory: Did you start that way? A new paradigm of expertise?
Ree; No, I never thought "I'm going to blog about my extensive food knowledge." Sure I can tell you how to brown the roux but I'm not going to tell you it's the only way. With photography I have fiddled a little bit and tried to take photos the way artistic beautiful photographers do it. I feel like an impostor but I try it and tweak it. I feel more truthful and authentic when I do things how I've done them from the beginning.
Jory: Heidi in (other session) said if it's an ugly photo she doesn't post it. But you're more willing to show it all?
Ree: Yeah, I want it to be pretty and look nice, but if I'm doing a recipe with 50 food photos, if the one with the most vital step isn't good, I'm still going to have to throw it in there. I'm very comfortable with imperfection. I can do that because I"m not trying to portray myself as an expert.
Jory: who do you think you're writing for?
Dianne: anyone who's obsessed with food and wants to write about it.
Garrett: I just write for myself. If someone else reads it that is very exciting. The first time I got a comment I called my brother and my friends and was like OH my god! Someone is reading this! I don't know how!
Susan: I keep my core readers in mind. Mostly women, mostly educated women. I hope other people also read.
Ree: I'm definitely writing for the people who read my site. I'm a middle child and if I have an audience I'll do it for them. My husband says I have to stop saying that! But I know the people who read my site so well, they've done a lot of open feedback and I write to inspire and really, I want people to crack up. It's a small group of people.
Jory: A small and apparently expanding group of people!!!
Susan: Wasn't it... 13 million a month? *rest of panel giggles*
Ree: I *feel* like it's a small group of people.
JOry How do you use visuals?
Ree: Extensively! *laughter* With exception of a handful of embarrassing stories from my past. I love color and visual style.
Jory: As your audience gets bigger, do you feel you need to professionalize? Adhering to a role?
Ree: No... that's what I was saying earlier, there were a couple of times where I tried to get a little funky with my photos but it's better if I just take some pictures of it as I go with the skillet and the pans. I like photos in a recipe. Here's stirring, here's sprinkling the stuff in. Without photos, I'd be up a creek.
Jory: HOw about the difference between print and blogging?
Dianne: If you're freelancing for a magazine you have to learn to write in their voice. They can't explain to you what that is. You have to read the magazine. Figure out who is their reader. Who do they think they're talking to? That can be a real challenge. This one magazine asked me to be "edgy" I had no idea how to be edgy and I decided that mean "bitchy". I kept a bitchy writing file of clips to inspire me... Sometimes I wonder how personal or impersonal to be. I'm still getting used to the whole idea of writing in first person.
Audience: Yes, but you might be hired by a magazine because of your original voice. The reason they're successful is their extremely original compelling voice, that makes you feel like you *know* that person. That's what's so incredible about bloggers. That's what the reader gets.
Garrett: I'm still learning.
Jory: how do you stretch?
Susan: content. More about life in California. Cooking style has changed from living here. Farmers' markets. I write differently depending on the context too, for print or blogs. I'm a writer and I can stay original and me, but tweak that voice for new contexts and magazines, I do it for Kitchen Window. On my blog I'm laid back and not authoritative but for other areas I need to talk like an authority. It takes practice.
TW: Are you concerned that if your voice changes you'll lose readers? I started with old cookbooks, scan in pictures of spaghetti aspic with egg in it, fantastic. (slightly horrified laughter from audience) No, it's good. No one will eat it. And my great grandmother's recipe collection. I didn't talk a lot about my family. I have a traditional reader base and i have a non traditional family. Talking about that on my blog for the first time was scarier than telling my mother I was a lesbian! Food is very personal. How do you handle talking about that and your life?
Garrett: there's a hard line to ride between what you want to write about and your personal life. I've posted stuff where I realized, Oh crap, my mother is going to read this. And then the first time I posted a photo? OMG you're a boy! How much of your stuff are you going to put out? Certain amount, you're revealing your life and your soul, sharing your life, attracting readers. At the same time you might turn off certain readers. Once it's out there, it's out there! you can delete it! But it's already out there.
The people who like to read you still will read you. Even if your topic changes, you're still the same person.
Dianne: This happens with magazines too when they change identities and readerships.
Jory: How much role does traffic play in your blog and your voice.
Susan: I have a 15 reader rule. If you say yeah i would still write my blog with only 15 readers, keep doing it! that's your passion and that's your goal. If you want to want to make a ton of money i suggest you go to the Donald Trump seminar next door, not here, you're not gonna do it here.
(Panel and audience raises eyebrows and looks contradictory. Apparently someone here is making the big bucks ! LOL! )
Susan: Well, okay, some people are.
Jory: One blogger who put up a banner that said "defuckify". Guess what, not gonna change that up for anything. Would you do that? Would you change your voice for publication or print?
Susan: I think that's really risky! You mentioned Julie Powell. I love her writing style! I'm not a person who swears a lot. I'm not a prude, it's just not me. I might love to read it though! I'd like to get the readers Julie gets but ... It's a great exercise as a writer to write a piece, then rewrite it as Pioneer Woman might write it or how Julie Powell might write it. How did it change? You can see what works. But if you change your style to attract particular readers it's going to come across as fake!
Ree: there;s a difference between content and material. You can change the focus of your blog and the material people respond to, but I can't write in another voice.
Audience: that's all very well and good if you are already successful but if you're still developing your voice then you have to figure out how to do that and work on it. I was overly chatty, then, i was basically a recipe provider, I'm not sure I'm happy with that. I don't want to tell my whole life story before I tell you how to make beans and franks, so I'm working on figuring that out. How to take steps to find a truer voice? Regardless of whether it's 15 readers or 13 million?
Ree: I don't have 13 million readers! I know this for a fact.
Dianne: Ree's being a little modest. I'd say, try different voices, but you are always still you. Your personality will still come through. Change the length of sentences, you still have your voice. I ask my friends for a list of adjectives of how they see me or what i wrote. That helps. As a journalist I'm writing for the reader, and who you are is second to who the reader is. Maybe for you that's a training thing.
Aud: Oh, definitely. The first time I wrote "I" I thought God was going to come strike me from Heaven.
*laughter from audience*
Garrett: you have to be comfortable with "I".
Susan: Sit down with a blank paper and cup of coffee and write about yourself. Who are you? What's special about you? Background, ethnicity, history? Ask other people to tell you about yourself and take that into consideration.
Ree: Do you love grammar, do you love to write?
Aud: Yes. I've been a copy editor, an editor, and so on,
Ree: I'm going to think about how to spin that into beans and franks. There has to be a fun angle on that! I'm going to get back to you on that!
Aud: How do you decide what to write?
Ree: What's going on in the world, in my house, in my mind. Stream of consciousness. I don't dig too much in the past except for my love stories.
Susan: I keep a list, I jot down ideas. Kernels I can develop. Everyday life. Things that happen. Then, seasonal things, I know I'm going to write about pomegranates. Those lists turn into stories.
Garrett: I keep a pad too. I do a lot, school, tutoring, work, go to bed. I lock myself in a conference room and take pictures for half an hour at work on a break. I run into crazy people at the store! If your child sneezes and wipes it on the grapes, you should do something. Don't leave! *whole room laughs* I jot it down right away. I speak into my phone's memo machine.
Dianne: Sometimes I'm in a panic because I need to write and there's no plan. I write what Anne Lamott calls the shitty first draft. I then fine the focus in there. I just don't post the first draft.
Jory: Garrett you write every day?
Garrett: I spend a half hour to an hour writing every day. Between classes, on my breaks at work, or between 12:30 and 1am in the middle of the night.
Alanna: Not having a monolithic reader. I think of them as two groups. Searchers. They want information right away. Then, regular readers. They invite my stuff into their email boxes. It's a real privilege for me to have that invitation. But, I want to turn my searchers into readers.
Aud question for Garrett: Most of what you write never sees the light of your blog.
Garrett: there's a graveyard.
Aud: how do you keep it?
Garrett: I file it and date it. I might put it in my blog but I put it as a draft in the far, far future in 2015.
(Wow! the secret draft diaries...!)
Aud: When do you feel that success for your blog means to you? how do you define success? when did you decide you are successful? A couple million readership?
Dianne: I"m so thrilled when someone comments. It makes my day. I'm really pathetic when someone does.
Garrett: Kalynn called that comment karma!
Dianne: if i'm having a conversation with someone, i'm happy.
Ree: connection and conversational connection mean the most to me. I'm with you.
Jory: If your voice is about your writing, how much do comments play a role?
Dianne: It's huge for me, I want to know people's experiences, reactions, I want to know if I'm off base. In print you're used to not having a conversation with anyone. I love that part. It's addictive.
Garrett: I love to get emails or tweets or comments. They have their own story to tell me. Sometimes there's some really popular post and i get happy with that reaction. But sometimes there's a piece of writing i like and that's successful for me too even if there's no response.
Aud: I'm not even a baby I'm more like a blogging fetus, i don't have a blog yet. But I'm wondering if, you find pressure to go a certain way, or if you keep it personal. Are you protective, what about my kids? I don't expect anyone to read it but it would freak me out to get Ree's readership because I have small children. Are there pressures or freaky things? Does that make sense?
Garrett: What would you tell someone you just met at a cocktail party? You have to figure out what your barriers are.
Ree; After how many drinks?
*everyone cracks up*
Jory: Ree, I'd love to hear you elaborate on that. When you realize there are a lot of people out there, does that affect you?
Aud: I imagine people get snobby and go "what, you used a store bought crust?"
Ree: Yes they do. I never got a negative comment before I wrote about recipes. People really CARE whether I'm using Lowry's seasoned salt. Why! We're just very passionate about food, it makes people respond. You can't be afraid of hearing or reading criticism. you can take it with a grain of salt.
Susan: It's good to use humor to defuse a situation. I wrote about how i didn't want people to know I bought Bisquick. People responded, oh, thank god you use Bisquick too. We all have those secrets in our pantry we don't admit to. But I'm a sensitive person and I get upset and call up my mom and go "I can't believe they're so mean!" But at least they took the time to make a hateful comment!
I'm not comfortable putting super personal stuff out about problems, arguments, my childhood, etc.
Garrett: There's something to be said on the other side and I've written things where I'm like my god, my parents are going to freak. Then I don't hear a peep and then I'm even more worried. But there's something to say for taking a risk.
Ree: Lasagna with cottage cheese, if you want a laugh go read my post on that. The comments! This guy ended his diatribe on lasagna in all caps going , HILLBILLY!
aud: how do you find time to write 6-8 posts a week! after kids go to bed? how long do you take on average to write a post?
Ree: in the midst of chaos. We're all sort of in one big room, my desk is in the middle of it, I homeschool my kids, I get up really early and i'm a morning person. If we're not working cattle, I have it to myself. I'm not structured about it. I do a lot in the morning and then the last couple hours of the night. Our life is weird in that my husband will take the kids to work cattle with him so I sometimes get 4-5 hours to myself.
As I write I find it gets so much easier. That's a good argument for writing, writing, writing! and then write some more. I got so much faster and more comfortable.
And my closet's a mess. I let a hundred things go a day. It helps not to be Type A.
Aud: Do you find controversy can be good for the blog?
Aud: I just read in Cook's Illustrated that cottage cheese is so much better than ricotta.
Audience cracks up.
Aud: I feel like the biggest loser when I don't get any comments! My readers are back in the fax era where they send me an email! Please, comment! I ask questions... how do I generate more comments? Cook4Seasons. If anyone wants to comment...!
Susan: Do you comment a lot on other blogs? That's what I do. I do ask questions at the end. That generates discussion.
TW: I don't get rude comments on my personal life or food blogging. Maybe because it's your grandma's recipes.
Aud: I delete comments if they're really rude. Do you?
Jory: You have the right, it's your blog! If someone corrects me or doesn't agree, I keep it. If it's a personal insult, I remove it. Up to you. The point is discourse.
Aud: Anything else you've learned...
Susan: double check the measurements on your recipes! You will make a mistake! Some people get really angry. I ruined some lady's Easter pie! It ruined her whole day. OMG.
Ree: Real fast, you said pie. I've learned that the hard way too! I got an email from a man who made my pecan pie 3 times. and it bombed. So my heart went out to him. I asked him if he had his oven calibrated. He made it a 4th time, it was like water! So he did it a 5th time! It bombed! I walked him through it! We emailed. He's like, I'm gonna give up. Then he was like, "I did use those Eggbeaters."
Audience: AWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!! no!!!!
Garrett: Spell checking is good. No one likes waking up to 8 comments saying by the way you spelled that wrong.
Dianne: Check your links. People notice if you link to them but how embarrassing to get it wrong!
(End of the panel)