Monday, July 10, 2006

[Writing] Tone and Voice

I've read a couple posts on here and elsewhere that stress that tone/voice is the #1 thing to keep in mind when writing any blog, especially a food blog. I completely agree.

For example:
I feel in love with the romantic, novelistic style of Orangette.
The way Clotilde colors in Paris and personifies food is perfect.
Cooking for Engineers always sounds just like an engineer and that's a good thing.

I would like to work on my tone and voice, but I realize this is something that can't be forced.

I think practicing by posting frequently and writing from an emotionally honest place are good ways to hone my own tone. I also think deliberate reading of many different food blogs, magazines and books helps.

How can I work on tone/voice on my food blog?

. . . thank you for such a great resource. I have been reading these posts for the past couple of months. This site is a great reference.

This Post was written by Chris from Electric Stove


Rachael said...

Frightening though it may be, I write exactly the way I speak...don't know if that helps, but good luck!

L said...

I'm not sure I'm one to be giving advice on this... but I know I find that the voice that comes through the most honest from any blogger is when they are telling some kind of personal story. Now, it's hard to come up with something like that for every post! But, if you can relate what you are talking about to something that has an emotional context for you, I'm betting it will strike that same cord with your readers.

Chris said...

L, I like to share personal stories writing about my family, my boyfriend R*, etc, but sometimes I think that it's too vain to write about youself like that and some people want you to "get out of the way" and just share the recipe or the experience.

Do you happen to have any specific examples of posts that have this kind of emotional approach?

Sam said...

Chris - at the end of the day, the reason you like Clotilde and Orangette I suspect, is because you like their personalities and the fact that they share their personal stuff, I think. They just happen to be two people who manage to put themselves across, each in an unique and eloquent manner and they bothe write well and in an engaging way.

The only way your voice is authentic is if you are being yourself and not trying to be someone else who you are not, unless you are acting out a persona or playing a character, which is perfectly possible, but I am not sure that is what you want to do?

Chris said...

Nope, I just want to be me. No persona for my blog.

Still, I think there is a skill to conveying yourself, your tone, your style in a blog. I think you do it pretty well too on your site as well, Sam, btw. I think it involves being loose, but it also takes practice. Over the weekend I read about a writer who made sure he added an off-the-cuff feeling in his fifth draft.

Sam said...

ha ha - fifth draft, eh?

I have to get everythink I can in the first draft else i would never get anything done, huh!

I guess 705 posts is a lot of practice. I think my blog definitely has improved over time and the practice part must have something to do with that.

Madeline said...

I try my best to write as if I am talking to a friend. The whole reason I started my blog was because I was so excited about the topic and my friends were, shall we say, not so excited?

In my day job as a lawyer, I never get to write with that "off the cuff" feeling (although I never make it to a fifth draft on my blog!). So, writing my blog allows me to use some creativity.

Bonnie said...

Have you read Little Women by Loisa May Alcott? I know, silly question as most people have - but one of the things I took from that book was the fact the Jo was learning to write from her heart, not from her brain and in the end, she wrote about what she knew. This is how LMA became successful - because Jo was in some cases herself.

I think my blog is the perfect place to practice my writing, as I explore different styles of story telling, and in some cases using a 'big fish' analogy - expanding the story to make it sound more dramatic - or to put it another way - stretching the truth. I have a very willing test audience in my boyfriend, and he has already chosen his favourite style of my writing.

David said...

Quite popular styles of writing now is the 'confessional', where people share personal parts of their lives. Writing about yourself and your life is tough work and good writers make it look easy, but most spend a huge amount crafting their words.

A great resource for food writers is the book Will Write For Food by Dianne Jacob. She talks about all the different styles of food writing, plus she interviews food writers about how they write, with their tips and suggestions.
(For those of you Blog S'cool students into homework, there are writing exercises as well.)

Plus there's lots of good information about selling your work, dealing with editors (!), etc...and all that stuff that many food bloggers might find interesting and worthwhile reading.

nika said...

I do not profess to being an expert on writing, only to humility because writing can beat your a$$ every time *winks*.

With that in mind, I would suggest that the best way to "get voice" is two fold - read ALOT and read with an attentive mind focused on the voice, and - write a hell lot and tear you stuff to pieces. These exercises... dont think of them as anything but. They are not your precious children. Think of them as the code that you may coax your voice from.

Authenticity is great but it can also be nothing more than a word! For a variety of reasons, I have lived my WHOLE life searching for my own authenticity.. cant say I am there yet. Perhaps its the key but it is illusive, mossy. You think you have put your finger on it and then it slips away. But if you try really hard you almost ensure you wont find it! Once you let that go and try to find what interests you (writing about plastic salt and pepper shakers or the proper way to grill seal blubber) your writing will be about that and not about writing.

These may be good friends if you let them be:

Elements of Style - Strunk and White
ISBN: 020530902X

Best Food Writing 2006 (or any recent year) (or any year) - Holly Hughes ISBN: 1569242879

There are many more!

culinary bookworm said...

Hi Chris,

I think everyone else's comments about being yourself and finding a way to share your personality with your readers are essential to good writing, especially in this medium.

That said, I teach writing to freshman college students, and when I say things like, "Find your voice," and "Be authentic," I get a lot of blank stares. As Nika pointed out, discovering what makes your voice authentic is often more complicated than it sounds. My students want practical advice about how to improve their writing now (when they're often still struggling to figure out who they are and how they fit into the world).

So, in case you're interested, here are some simple stylistic things I tell my students to help them commumicate their ideas in more engaging ways. These are definitely not hard and fast rules (we call them the fashion rules of writing), but if used well, they can liven up your prose a bit:

1. Use vivid verbs to describe instead of relying solely on adjectives. (Instead of: the chardonnay was rich and creamy with hints of citrus and spice, Try: The buttery chardonnay sparkled with undertones of spice and citrus.)

2. Simplicity and concision. Don't take 25 words to say something you could say in 10 if you aren't choosing to use each of those 25 words for stylistic reasons. Unnecessary wordiness makes the reader work too hard to get to the good parts.

3. Sentence variety. I know this sounds obvious, but I'm amazed at how often I read back over something I've written and realize that all of my sentences are about the same length with similar basic constructions. A few, well-placed really short or longer, more complex sentences can make a difference.

4. Minimize generic words that don't mean much (very, wonderful, really, good). Instead of very hungry, how about ravenous?

These all may be things that everyone knows intuitively; I hope I haven't bored you with a nerdy English lesson!

Elements of Style is a great resource, and is available online in full text.

Oh, and one of the best ways I've found to test my voice in a piece of writing is to read it out loud. I immediately pick up on what sounds off (and on!)

Good luck!

Chris said...

Thanks, everyone, for your generous advice. I ordered Will Write for Food. Also, I found many of the Best Food Writing collections for sale very inexpensively on This might be a good place for other food blog students to pick them up too.

I'm savoring the Vivid Verb Idea from CulinaryBookworm and, in my last few posts, I've been pushing myself to cut out words like "very" and "wonderful" and "excellent". Sounds like I might be on the right track there.

I used the Elements of Style in college and will have to put that back to work on my cookbook shelf.

Ed Charles said...

All the technical advice above is true. But the reality is that you just have to write what you feel and be true to that. And that's not as simply as it sounds.e

David said...

"2. Simplicity and concision. Don't take 25 words to say something you could say in 10 if you aren't choosing to use each of those 25 words for stylistic reasons. Unnecessary wordiness makes the reader work too hard to get to the good parts."

That's an excellent point.
Perfectly describing an apple in 3 words is a lot harder than doing it in 30. Writing is all about editing and cutting out that which isn't necessary. You'll notice wine people have a specific vocabulary of words which invite brevity since wine can be extremely complex to write about.

In general, I think that my blog readers should be able to read an entry in 3 minutes or less and get the gist of it. That's kind of the beauty (and the curse) of the internet; there's so much information floating around that to get reader's attention you need to be snappy and to-the-point.

(Although not food-related, I think a good example of this style is Gawker. The writing is funny, sharp, and brief. Adam also wrote a good post about food blogging a while back with good tips.)

Vanessa said...

not to dissent on general writing opinions... but i think describing an apple in 3 versus 30 words is a stylistic and personal thing. it's not preferred for one to be long winded, but if that's your nature, why fight it?

i tend to be a bit verbose, but that's a function of my personal style. i tend to do a lot of restaurant reviews/reports and use my own personal writing to try to draw in someone as if they were there sitting with me the entire way through. that stems from the idea that i dont' believe i can tell someone that a restaurant or food is fantastic using my own barometer. they should make the decision for themself by my being as descriptive as possible.

if you were to sit down and write a short story... what would your final draft look like, feel like? that's essentially how i see blogging.

Amy Sherman said...

I also try to write as I speak. But my advice is this: just keep at it. The more you do it, the more your voice will shine through. Don't beat yourself up if a post doesn't come out perfectly, just keep going...

L Vanel said...

Nika's words ring true with me. Read everything you can get your hands on. Once you find an author that has a voice that sparks your rhythm, read everything they've written. You'll see that the best authors are capable of changing their voice and it will give you courage to experiment. When something seems to have that special impact you like, stop and think about why you like it. Write down why you like it, and tell your friends why you like it. Pretty soon you'll see that writing is like singing - if you do it every day, your range, power and control over your own voice will increase.

jess said...

read, read, read. and then read some more.

also, an effective exercise i learned in journalism school is to try copying the style of a writer you admire. not that you should do this for your whole blog, but it's a good form of practice and helps you find your own voice.

Cate said...

You've received a bunch of good advice already, and I think you're on the right track.

I think being honest with yourself and your reader are key. As others have said, you want to write as you talk in everyday life, because that's what will come naturally to you. Anything else would be forced.

Welcome to the club!

Owen said...

it's funny - I have been a professional writer and editor for (ummm - let's see - first pay for writing was in 1980) 26 years, but all of that writing has been for news publications and magazines and mostly in a clear category with a pre-defined style (news stories are VERY formulaic). In those areas I am very tough and actually just won't deal with people who can't already write for those publication venues.

But in blogs I find I don't care. When I was putting Digital Dish together (compilation of best of 24 different food bloggers over 5 seasons), I deliberately left IN a lot of clear errors and only corrected spelling and even then only when it was obvious that the author had meant .to get it right. For me the personality is most of the charm. I strongly doubt that Dr B. over at Meathenge edits pedantically but I like the style of his blog more than almost anyone.

The bottom line is that it is a blog - it is your opinion, your ideas, your thoughts and you should express them i the way YOU choose

sarah said...

most definitely, write the way it comes out of your head.

of course, i would leave out the "um," "uh" and "you know," you know? ;)

i have NO CLUE about the technical aspects of writing but i would say that it is infinitely more interesting to read a blog where there is definite personality, even if you use "delicious" and "yummy" 10 times in a post.

it doesn't have to have big fancy schmancy words, nor does it have to be grammatically correct.

don't stress. everytime i stress about how i'm writing, my posts come out sounding like...someone else. when i write a post in 15 minutes right out of my head (with editing and censorship of all the expletives afterwards) it sounds much better.

good luck! good luck!

David said...

This weekend I was re-reading Richard Olney's 'The French Menu Cookbook'; his writing is always illuminating and his words are eloquent, personal, and frank. He chose words not for brevity, but for clarity and descriptiveness. And he interjects his opinions wisely and without hesitation.
Another great food writer was Roy Andres DeGroot. His book, 'The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth' is my favorite cookbook of all time.

I'd say it's very worthwhile checking out books by classic writers like these, as well as Jane Grigson, who chose their words wisely and wrote beautifully. Most of these authors don't get shelf space anymore (perhaps because they're not so telegenic) but anyone interested in good food writing would do well to pick up a copy of one of their books to find inspiration.

Jeanne said...

I also struggled with this initially. There was a definite trend early on in the foodblogging scene to be a serene, competent yet adorable kitchen goddess, and I'd subconsciously find myself trying to write in that style. However... anyone who knows me that this could not be further from the truth!! I am more like a small tornado in the kitchen (and out!) and I just decided to stop fooling about and write the way I speak (maybe without the Tourette's-like eruptions of expletives ;-)). Also, re. brevity v verbosity: go with your natural tendency - mine runs to the verbose, but hey, it's my blog and it makes me happy. I write as if I am writing a chatty, newsy letter to my friends - this is a blog, not an attempt to get a book deal.

Some people will like the way you write and some won't - you can never please all the people all of the time. But if you can read an old post of yours and it still makes you smile, then you know you're doing OK. Good luck and keep at it!

nika said...

Jeane: LOL - Tourettes, am totally there with you on that.

Being a food blogger gives even more occasion for Tourettes-in-the-kitchen as in "Dont even LOOK at those tomatoes and the cheese in the fridge dammmit!" or "Make some ramen like normal people, that lamb is for the photo shoot" or telling the 9 year old "Honest, sliced american cheese is LOTS yummier than that $12/lb chevre you have in your hands." and "Just step away from the chevre and no one gets hurt, I promise"

Ok, I am exagerating. We do eat what I shoot but I do have to be a momma bear with a nasty case of Tourettes to keep the tribe off the photogenic ingredients until done (meaning me exhausted on the couch and not even close to interested in eating it myself).