#VVC2013 Part Two: Writing Workshop and Dinner at Portobello
May 31, 2013

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When I left off my #VVC2013 posts, I was going to bed early after a fun filled Thursday that was nonetheless shadowed by a nasty ear infection. On Friday morning, I woke up refreshed and on the mend, which was perfect timing for me to lead my morning writing workshop.

The title of this workshop was “blog writing as writing.” What does that mean? Well, in spite of the fact that the blogosphere is increasingly recognized as a place where great writing happens, there’s still a tendency, I think, to be a little dismissive of the work created on blogs. I myself often think things like, “well, it doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s just a blog post” all the time. I do think it’s important that blogging retain its own style and conventions, but I also believe that we should hold our blog writing to some of the same general standards we apply to print work. My workshop was for those people who have come to regard their blogs as places where they actively work on the craft of writing, either for their own sake or perhaps with the ultimate intention of transitioning into book writing.

I used lessons I learned in my past life as a book editor as guiding principles for this chat. I identified eight qualities that I was taught to look for in narrative non-fiction, and translated them into the blogging realm, also identifying some of the associated blunders that stand in our way. The blunders I identified were the ones I’ve fallen into most frequently in my own life as a blogger. Of course, there are no hard and fast rules; what works for one writer (or even most writers) may not work for you. But these were the general tips I offered those at the workshop. Maybe you’ll find them useful, too.

Tip #1: Erect narrative scaffolding. 

This is just a fancy way of telling you to have a shape, a set of goals, and a thoughtful progression throughout your piece of work. Avoid “brain dumps,” which can capture meaningful emotion or show a thought process, but often leave readers feeling lost. Remember, you don’t have to say everything in one post.

Tip #2: Have a point of view

As you write, try to share your own unique perpective, rather than deferring to other peoples’ points of view. Of course it’s good to mention ideas or viewpoints that inspire you, but also try to show your readers who you are and what you think.

Tip #3: Polish

When I started my blog, I was meticulous about copyediting all of my posts. In the last two years, word repetition and grammatical mistakes have multiplied as I grew shorter on time. What I’ve learned is that if you need to wait a day or a night to post, wait. Better to put something polished out into the world than just say something quickly for the sake of saying it.

Tip #4: Be Original

The blogosphere is full of memes: recipe ideas that take off, little blogger expressions that end up as hashtags everywhere and on everything. But when you start to use other bloggers’ writing styles and formats as inspiration for your own posts, you can dilute your voice. Readers love an original perspective, and from your own point of view, it’s much more energizing to write as yourself than it is to worry about whether or not you should be writing like this person or that.

Tip #5: Be authentic, even as you grow your blogging business 

Many bloggers are trying, whether through ad networks, sidebar ads, or services offered, to make some money through blogging. It’s great to monetize our passions through blogging, but try not to overpromote or allow SEO catch phrases to dominate your writing style. One great tip I got from a fellow blogger this weekend is to edit for searchability after the fact (probably something a lot of bloggers do, but it was news to me!).

Tip #6: Have a Focus

Blogs are made richer by depth and diversity. But it is useful to hone in on a few things you’re going to blog about in detail, and learn to omit others. Sometimes trying to do everything often means doing each thing a little less precisely. Pick a focus, or a few. Be true to them. If you have very divergent interests, you may even consider having a seperate blog for one that stands alone.

Tip #7: Impart a  sense of self

Evolution is a part of life, so it’s also a part of blogging. It’s awesome to grow, and to chronicle your growth through blogging (I myself have changed a lot, personally and professionally, and CR has been an ongoing chronicle of the process). But readers are drawn to consistency, too, and a sense of self. When you do change your perspective on something major, take time to digest the shift before instantly blogging about from a new point of view. Don’t switch up your blog focus or tone the way you change your wardrobe. When something does change, take a moment to address that change, so that readers are clear on how and why you’re evolving.

Tip #8: Edit thyself

Rambling is the blogging faux pas to which I am most prone, so I’ve learned this lesson the hard way! Long, rambling, hazily focused blog posts, no matter how thoughtful, lose readers. Take an extra hour or two to edit your work. The resulting work, in my experience, is always a stronger.

Those were my tips–after that, I opened it up to questions! I got a lot of great ones, including questions about branding, about what to do when you have two very different focuses as a blogger, about whether it’s OK to write a follow up post to a particular juicy post, and about handling negative comments. I thought it was a great discussion. It was definitely a bit odd presenting on the topic of writing, because I learn something new about it every time I write a blog post, and I don’t really feel like an “expert.” But I hope that my own lessons were helpful to others.

What about you, CR readers? What are some of the blogging “traps” you fall into? Burning questions about finding/refining your voice? I’d love to hear your feedback!

After this panel, I could relax for the rest of the day and be a spectator! First, I saw the inimitable Ginny Messina give a presentation on presenting nutrition responsibly. This presentation reflected some of the themes that Ginny covers so eloquently on her blog: discouraging restrictive diets that put vegans at risk for deficiencies or being undernourished; relying on strong experimental data, rather than anecdote, to draw conclusions; and presenting a vision of veganism that both renders it accessible and also doesn’t disregard some of its potential risks. Ginny’s a great public speaker and had lively, often hilarious power point slides to back up her points. I also got to meet Kristy, who is one of my blog crushes! I was so excited to spot her in Ginny’s talk, and we connected right after. She’s every bit as sweet, smart, and wise in person as she is in words. Her husband, Chris (who is the photographer for the blog) is hilarious, observant, and warm.

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Later, I saw Jasmin and Marian give a great presentation on how to incorporate animal rights messaging into your blog. I’m always looking for inspiration on how I can speak up for animals on my blog, and Jasmin and Marian’s suggestions were practical, gentle, and galvanizing.

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After that, I needed a little solo breather–I tend to be extroverted and love social time, but I do thrive off of my alone time as well–so I headed to YogaPearl for a nice power vinyasa class before going home to change for dinner at Portobello with JL, her husband Dave, and Ginny.

The last time I went to Portobello, I enjoyed a lavish meal with friends from VegNews magazine. That dinner was one of the best I’ve ever had, so I had told myself that no subsequent meal at the restaurant could ever be quite so stunning. I was wrong. Every meal at Portobello, it seems, is a meal to remember — especially when one is in the company of friends!

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We started with the beet tartare, which was served over a layer of light, creamy cashew cheese. So good–and perfect atop the vegan baguette it was served with.

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Next, we split an order of vegan pizza with thinly sliced potatoes, crispy, sweet onions, and more cashew cheese. The crust was perfectly crispy on the outside, hot and chewy on the inside. It was absolutely dreamy.

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For my entree, I ordered Portobello’s cauliflower steak, which was drizzled with red and green chimichurri sauce and served with roasted fennel (one of my faves) and a delicious chickpea cake. Absolutely terrific, all of it.

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Finally, we decided to get two desserts. We were stuffed, but agreed that it’s not worth missing a bite to sample dessert at a restaurant so good as this one. We had the ice cream sundae and the strawberry rhubarb tart. I was partial to the tart–perfectly fresh, sweet, and delicate.

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One of the things I love most about Portobello is that it has a dedicated mocktail list. I got the “Ginger Rawgers,” which I was told resembled a Shirley Temple. Reminiscent of middle school or not, it hit the spot. 

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Such a great meal, in the company of friends whom I adore and admire. I’m lucky to have experienced this restaurant again.

With that, day two of VVC drew to a close. Saturday brought more panels, more greeting of friends, and more good food. But that is a story for my next recap!

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone.

xo

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    36 Comments
  1. #6 focus is al you need!!!! Thanks for sharing such wonderful recipies.. Looking to take charge of kitchen and cook some delicious food.

  2. OH Portabello!! That place is all about memories.
    When my husband and I got married we took our whole dinner party, which consisted of both of our families and a few close friends, there. With only one actual vegetarian, let alone vegan, in the group besides my husband and I, there were lots of nervous and doubtful remarks as we shared that we were going to a vegan trattoria for dinner. Once menus and then food came out, the doubts disappeared and there were smiles and food sharing all around. They all loved it and it felt so wonderful to share such a delicious, healthy meal with our families that subsist on self-limited, processed diets. Now, it’s become a place that we go to every anniversary and on any other special occasion where I can convince others that it’s the place to be.
    I’m so glad that you got to visit there again. It’s such an amazing place and the dedication and love for good food comes out in every dish. A wonderful rotation of beautiful foods and wonderful people.
    AND, it’s a bonus that they are cyclists there too!
    With love because one of my favorite bloggers went to one of my favorite places. Love all around!
    Kim
    ps. My anniversary is June 18th. We have that reservation and my mouth is already watering!

  3. I’m coming to Portland in August for a holiday and catch up with some old friends. On your recommendation i’m going to visit Portobellos – looks wonderful! What better place to catch up with friends i havn’t seen for 8 years! 🙂

  4. Thank you for sharing this, Gena!

    I think I struggle most with trying to determine to what extent I share my overtly left politics. In the “About Me” part of my blog, I share that I have strong political convictions, but that the blog, for the most part, “will be a bit more tame.” But I often wonder if mitigating my politics leads to what may come off as insincerity. When I type with excitement about my new probiotic from Whole Foods, that’s real, but it’s also real that I think the CEO of Whole Foods is a Libertarian monster and that the only reason I don’t boycott the store is because I don’t think a boycott will overthrow capitalism. Do I share that latter part? Not usually, and certainly not in such explicit terms. What’s the balance between not offending people and still being true to oneself?

  5. Thanks for this post. As a newer blogger, it’s really helpful to get pointers like this from someone who has been doing it for a while. From all that I’ve read and heard, VVC seemed so awesome. I wish I could’ve been there!

    I found 1 and 8 to be particularly helpful. I’m a rambler for sure. Writing so many papers in college has helped me with this somewhat. some things I ask myself: Which details are most relevant to the topic? Does the reader need to know this to understand what I’m trying to say?

    • It’s funny, Marissa: in some ways, my academic writing hindered me as a blog writer because I found myself speaking in such a formal tone (this was also an issue in my editorial life, since no author wants an editorial memo that’s stiff!). But yes, it does help you define an argument/goal and stick to it. I wish you’d been there, so that I could have met you. Next time!

    • It’s so cool to have met you, Jackie — even if we didn’t actually “meet”! Excited for next time, so that we can hang out more.

  6. I really enjoyed your session, and each tip you were going through about what NOT to do, I kept thinking “holy crap, I DO that!”. I’m hoping the tips I learned from you will help me be a better blogger – so thank you.

    • Ha! I chose the points I chose because we all do them. They’d be easy to avoid if they were less commonplace. I’m happy you found the talk helpful, Crissie 🙂

  7. THANK YOU for this – so incredibly useful! There were so many times where I had more than one panel I really wanted to attend – this one was missed for another, so I appreciate your thorough recap.

    I feel lucky to live in Portland – Portobello is one of our favorites, and it really does outdo itself every time!

  8. Loved your writing presentation and your other panels at VVC. It was just fabulous. SO gutted we couldn’t make the meet up in NYC work yesterday. Next time. Love to you goddess xx

  9. It was so wonderful to meet you too, Gena. Seriously- come to LA and soon!!! Please. And thank you for your recap on your writing class. It was painful for me not to go, but since Chris would have no idea what was going on in a food styling class, we decided to split up. At least with his notes, and your hand-out and now this recap, I feel like I’ve gotten all that I missed. 🙂

    • Aww, thanks Kristy! It was so hard to figure out how to attend all the panels one wanted to, wasn’t it? Glad I could give you a sense of what you missed.

  10. THANK YOU for this, Gena! I wish I could have been at your talk (next year!), but I’m so glad to see someone else concerned with high quality writing on blogs. As an academic writer by trade, I often find it difficult to translate my style into a more informal blogging setting, but I’m relieved to get validation that diligent editing of blog posts is actually valuable and appreciated.

  11. I attended and loved your session as did my husband, and you’re certainly following all your excellent advice in your VVC update! We didn’t get to Portobello on this trip but I still fondly remember the Ginger Rawgers from our last visit to Portland.

  12. Great blogging advice. I try to remind myself that I’m doing it as a creative outlet. Finding lovely people through my blog and connecting/inspiring is a wonderful side effect. I’ve made a promise to myself to only write what is true to me at the time. I feel like forced writing never rings true or comes across well. Thank you for sharing!

  13. 1. Your presentation was one of my favourites from the whole conference. Quite possible *the* favourite, and the most useful to me.
    2. So glad you chose the yoga class. 😉
    3. Portobello knocked my socks off. High five for the cauliflower heaven.
    4. I wish these recap posts could go on forever, because they make me feel like seeing you was only yesterday. xoxo

  14. Great recap, Gena! I’ve loved reading about VVC recaps from all the bloggers who attended.

    I’m curious about your 5th tip. Specifically – when you say to “edit searchability after the fact” – what does that mean? Thanks!

    • Tamar,

      You can make your posts more likely to show up on Google searches (or to rank higher on Google searches) by using certain keywords or phrases in certain places. Not a bad thing to do — I do it myself! — but sometimes it can sound a little artificial. So what one blogger told me was that she goes back to her posts a few weeks after she publishes them and inserts key phrases at that point. Nice tip.

      G

  15. So sorry I arrived so late to Portland and missed your talk! The notes are terrific, though–thank you. Your dinner sounds wonderful. I wasn’t able to make it to Portobello, but will certainly head there next time. Great recap. 🙂

  16. I’m so glad you posted the highlights from your class, Gena. It was so hard not to be able to go to every session at the conference, and I really appreciate your tips on blog-writing. The pictures from Portobello…scrumptious!!!

  17. Wow, the food looks spectacular. I’m already planning to head back down in 2-3 weeks to eat everything we missed out on!

  18. Wow, what an informative session you had. I missed it (I think I had a panel at same time), but even your notes here are really helpful and I’m absorbing some tips – at least I hope I am!

    I missed out getting to Portobello, and after seeing many pics, I’m rather bummed about it! Next time round… hopefully!

  19. yay! I really loved my meal at Portobello too – and that rhubarb tart was my favorite dessert. So fantastic! I was really sorry to miss your writing panel, thanks so much for sharing your tips here. 🙂

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