We’ve been blogging since 2007 and this post summarises what we’ve learned in that time.
We got the nerve to write it after asking subscribers to our email newsletter if they thought it was a good idea, and after our online communication award from the British Guild of Beer Writers in 2014.
If you’re thinking of starting a beer blog, reviving an old one, or are struggling to keep one going, we hope you’ll find it useful.
This is how we’d go about starting a beer blog from scratch today.
- Lay solid foundations. Write 5-10 good posts on a range of subjects in your area of interest of 200-800 words each, posting at least once a week. Hardly anyone will be reading them but it doesn’t matter – you’ll be finding a voice, getting into the groove, learning your blogging software, and preparing for the next stage. (And if you can’t manage five posts, then maybe blogging isn’t for you.) Don’t make your first post ‘So, I’ve decided to start a blog! Let’s hope this goes well!’ Just plunge in with proper content.
- Get a Twitter account and/or Facebook page. Include the term ‘beer blogger’ and a link to your blog (lots of people, oddly, don’t do this) in your bio. Then follow/like other beer bloggers. Hopefully, they’ll do what we do and check out your link, where they’ll find a month or two’s worth of decent content which suggests you’re worth keeping an eye on. By all means follow the big ones like Pete Brown – he’s always interesting – but you might get a more immediate response from others who are at a similar stage in the process to you. Don’t mither people: ‘I’ve just started a blog – please take a look and Retweet!’
- Interact. On social media, answer questions, share things you find genuinely interesting, and don’t be shy about re-tweeting or linking to others’ posts. When we started out, in the days before everyone was on Twitter, we made a concerted effort to join the conversation by commenting on other blogs. That can still be a good way to say hello but it’s important not to comment unless you’ve really got something to contribute, and don’t act like a doorstep salesman – avoid linking to your blog in your comments unless it’s really relevant, and certainly don’t use other people’s comment threads just to announce your arrival on the scene. We also took inspiration from what others were writing, sharing links to their posts on our blog and writing posts of our own responding to them. (We still do.) Though they’re a bit out of fashion, maintaining an active blog roll (a list of links) is another way of making connections with writers you find interesting.
- In summary, be genuine, generous and patient. If your only aim is to big yourself up and gain attention it will be obvious and unappealing. If, on the other hand, you do your best to really be a good citizen in the blogoshire, karma (sorry again) will eventually come your way.
Finding a Niche
If your blog is primarily a diary for your own benefit, that takes a lot of pressure off: if others read it, great, but if they don’t, that’s fine too. If you are in search of an audience — and be honest with yourself here — then you need to find an angle that sets you apart from all the other straight-up beer and pub review blogs. It might seem boring to you, but your town and local breweries are probably mysterious and interesting to everyone else, so consider making that your beat, rather than, say, the well-trodden Bermondsey Beer Mile.
There is also room to stand out stylistically. If you’re a particularly talented writer you could try writing in character. You might use poetry, photography or art to get your point across. Comic strips can work, too.
If your endgame is a book contract… well, everyone would like to know the secret to this, wouldn’t they? Our top suggestion, as in matters of the heart, would be don’t try too hard. A successful long-running blog can act as a calling card to publishers, establishing a tone of voice and a following, but it’s also important thing is to have a strong new idea. Drinking a different beer every day for a year has been done multiple times, Derek Dellinger spent a year eating only fermented foods, and there are already plenty of generic lists and beginner’s guides written by people with industry connections and years of experience. If you get frustrated when, after six posts, you haven’t been cold-called by a publisher, then blogging may not be the solution you are looking for: blog because you want to blog.
We sometimes describe our approach these days as attempting to contribute to the sum of human knowledge – sharing information that someone, somewhere will one day find useful when they stumble across it in a Google search, or that will prompt a conversation. This honestly doesn’t have to be hard work – it might just mean spending an hour at the library (on the way to the pub, of course). Most UK counties have publicly accessible heritage centres packed with local history books and boxes of old papers, and with access to local newspaper archives – they, or your town’s central library, are a good place to start. Alternatively, it could just be a matter of asking a question beyond the obvious one and then making a bit of effort to dig out the answer by, for example, emailing a brewer.
If you’re writing about home-brewing, unless it’s a diary for your own benefit, you might want to think about what you are offering that can’t be found in books from established authors. We enjoy reading inspiring and/or wacky original recipes, or accounts of painstaking experimentation. Practical advice for people in your part of the world, or in circumstances similar to yours – ‘How to Brew in a Windowless Twelfth Floor Flat’, for example, or ‘Making Gluten Free Beers at Home’ – might also find an audience.
An aside: Money & Perks
A while ago, an acquaintance told us he was planning to spend a redundancy cheque on setting up a new business – ‘A coffee shop, maybe, or perhaps a little real ale blog.’ How we laughed! Do not start a beer blog expecting to make money, or even with the expectation of receiving tons of free beer.
In fact, in our experience, blogging costs a lot more than you’ll ever make from it in terms of hard cash. This year, with eight years’ experience, for the first time, we managed to pay for the cost of hosting the blog with what we have earned indirectly from it, i.e. by writing articles.
Over the years, we’ve seen a few people launch blogs, blatantly scrounge freebies, and disappear, because no-one was interested in reading what they had to say. It’s just not cool.
Coming up With Content
Before you write anything, it’s probably a good idea to read what’s already out there. When we started our blog, there weren’t too many others in the UK, but we devoured all of Stonch’s early work, along with a few others, which helped us get a handle on which topics were already well-worn. Announcing with a flourish something that’s already been said a hundred times is one quick way to make yourself look daft. (We’ve done it…) That’s not to say you shouldn’t write about subjects others have already covered if you think you’ve got something new to say, or a new way to say it, or just want to get something off your chest.
We try always to carry a notepad with us, or at least a note-taking app on a smartphone, because we never know when an idea for a post will occur to us — that is, something we want to say. If we don’t write them down, we forget them. Try to take notes on every beer you have and every pub you visit, even if it’s only a couple of words. Sometimes, we sit on notes like that for months, and then, suddenly, find that they’re just what we need to finish a post with which we’re struggling.
The critical voice in your head can be helpful, but it can also hold you back. It’s easy to talk yourself out of posting something because you think it’s inconsequential but some of our most popular posts have been things that we’ve thrown out there after five minutes work. (And, of course, things we’ve laboured over have been met with complete indifference.) A 100-word post making a single point is fine, and that point doesn’t have to be profound. Remember, it’s just a blog post, not a doctoral thesis: you win some, you lose some, and if a post doesn’t work, it’s not the end of the world.
If you’re writing a beer review or an account of a pub trip, of which there are many already, and both of which can be a bit dull in their own right, use it to support a more general observation or at least reach some kind of conclusion: the beer tastes like this which tells us this about what’s going on in the beer scene today. (For examples of this technique in action see The Beer Nut.)
It can also be helpful to have have a project. Working on a series of inter-connected posts which tell a story can be highly motivating. It can give you the nudge you need to try a new beer or pub, or even force you out of the house when you might otherwise not bother. A good example is Will Ranner’s Taverns in Town series in which he aims to visit 48 London pubs recommended in a 1973 pub guide.
Bumps in the Road
Once people start to read your blog, you might well encounter trolls, bullies and grumps. We’ve been sad to hear from a couple of bloggers that they stopped writing because people were just downright rude to them. Remember, you don’t have to enable comments, especially nowadays when so much conversation actually occurs on Twitter; and also remember that it’s your blog and your rules so you can insist on a certain style or standard of conversation, delete any comments you don’t like, and ban anyone you want. Don’t let anyone’s ‘free speech’ whining ruin your fun.
Sometimes, criticism is fair: we all make mistakes. We try to avoid claiming authority unless we’ve really done our homework and can point to evidence for what we’re saying, and, in the early days, tried to make clear that we were students in the process of learning. If someone catches us out with a bona fide error, rather than a matter of opinion, after kicking the wastepaper basket, we tend to say, ‘Thanks for letting us know,’ and correct it as best we can.
But, yes, do your homework, especially on beer history and beer styles, and choose your teachers wisely — porter wasn’t named after railway station workers, IPA wasn’t brewed especially strong to survive the journey to India, and mild isn’t called mild because it’s weak and low in hops. Martyn Cornell’s Amber, Gold & Black is essential reading but, as a bare minimum, look at the ‘False Ale Quotes’ pages on his blog (linked at the top), and spend an hour or two browsing Ron Pattinson’s archives.
If you have a dry patch – nothing to say, or difficulty in getting what you want to say down in writing – don’t panic and quit, and don’t apologise. Blog posts about how you haven’t posted in a while are (a) boring and (b) harbingers of the imminent death of a blog. We’ve previously written some advice on how to re-ignite your enthusiasm but, to summarise:
- Take a break – set a fixed period of, say, a month, and write nothing.
- Get fresh input – read new books and blogs, perhaps about things other than beer, like food, music, film, or even true crime.
- Start a project. (See ‘Coming up with Content’ above.)
You could also consider getting a writing partner or two. The fact that there are two of us is what got us through our 2010 rough patch. We pick up most of each other’s mistakes before they go live, and can tell each other frankly, ‘That bit’s boring, and that’s bit’s too harsh.’ Even if you don’t write a blog together, it can be helpful to have a couple of blogger pals you can run ideas by, gossip with, or call on for reassurance.
Blogs that are well-written, with correct spelling, punctuation and grammar, are easier and more pleasant to read, so we would suggest that you spend time proofreading (reading things out loud is really helpful) and perhaps even consult a style guide to decide, for example, whether to write ‘an heroic’ or ‘a heroic’.
Structure is important, too. People have short attention spans so, as a rule of thumb:
- Start with a headline that tells them why they should care.
- Use the first paragraph to summarise what’s about to follow.
- Then tell the story without digression or repetition.
You can make your writing seem more professional, or less jarringly unprofessional, by avoiding cliches and repetition of particular words or phrases within the same sentence or paragraph. Half the fun of writing tasting notes is finding new ways to say ‘tastes like beer’ or ‘smells like elderflower’ but don’t worry about repeating fundamental tasting terms like hoppy and malty if that’s what makes sense to you. Reading articles by great journalists and writers and attempting to pastiche their styles can be a good way to pin down your own voice.
Having said all of that, if the information you’re sharing is interesting, and your personality shines through, a lot can be forgiven. You’re not charging for it, after all, and fear of getting the niceties wrong or annoying snobs, or inverse snobs, shouldn’t prevent people expressing themselves. And, anyway, the more you write, the better you get.
We’re no experts but here’s what we’ve learned.
- A post without at least one picture will probably get ignored — you don’t have to be David Bailey, but something is better than nothing.
- Being self-conscious leads to snatched and often un-useable photos: take your time and don’t feel embarrassed.
- Learn how your camera, or the camera on your phone, works, e.g. in terms of exposure.
- Avoid flash in almost every situation.
- Learn to use Photoshop, the free alternative GIMP, or similar — a quick adjustment of levels, contrast and saturation can often make a dodgy picture passable.
- If you don’t have a useable photo of your own, take one from Flickr’s Creative Commons archive, following the terms of the licence…
- or from an out-of-copyright book…
- or doodle something…
- or ask another blogger very nicely if you can use one of their pictures with a link and credit.
- Photograph everything beer- or pub-related — you never know when it might come in handy.
Please do start a blog – it’s fun – but don’t expect to become rich or famous off the back of it. Post interesting, original content on a regular basis, and promote the work of others as much as you promote your own, and you’ll do OK. If you want others to read what you write, by all means listen to constructive criticism, but remember it’s your blog, and your self-expression, and anyone that doesn’t like it can get bent.
Slightly updated in places in July 2016 — just a spring clean and a couple of new bullet points.
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Brew Britannia tells the story of how British beer got its mojo back between 1963 and the present day.
“…an exhilarating read…” Roger Protz
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