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Here’s a round-up of some recent (and some not recent, but relevant) articles about food blogging:
Sometimes it begins innocently. You get a message – “Hey! I made your recipe for ______ and wrote about it on my blog!” Then you go click over and yes, there is your recipe, cut-and-pasted word-for-word, along with your photograph. In other instances, you’re searching for a recipe online and, hmmm, that image in the search results looks awfully familiar. So you click through, and…hey – there you are, too!
If you have a food blog, you probably already know from experience that if you put stuff online, at some point, someone is going to probably try to swipe it. Even though I clearly recall all the way (way) back to my days in junior high school, when it was drilled into us that taking words from others is wrong, unfortunately it seems that common logic and courtesy – and the law – are often not enough to deter people from doing it.
The argument, “Don’t put it online if you don’t want people to take it” doesn’t hold true. If so, that logic would apply to movies, music, and newspapers that are published virtually. Most food blogs are copyrighted and if you don’t have a copyright logo or note on your site, make sure you have one. And while it’s impossible to eradicate all the mischievous people out there dipping their fingers into food blogs, it’s important to be pro-active since if it is tolerated, it will flourish.
As a cookbook author, I’m flattered and truly thrilled when people want to make my recipes – that’s why I write cookbooks. But it’s not flattery to see material taken verbatim from copyrighted works reproduced elsewhere. Beyoncé is happy to sing for us all, and she wants us to play her music and dance to it at our home parties. But she probably wouldn’t be flattered if I released an album of her singing her songs. And as much as I love Julia Child’s recipes, I think Julia might rise from the great beyond and beat me over the head with her rolling pin – deservedly – if I reprinted a book of her recipes using her words.
As cookbook author David Leite of Leite’s Culinaria notes,
If you’d like to use someone else’s work verbatim on your blog, drop them a note and ask if you can use it. Some advise making your contact information evident on your home page so people can get in touch. If you write to someone, they may say yes, others may say no. If you don’t hear back from someone, the answer is “No.”
Some folks, like Elise Bauer, sometimes allows people to use her photos with the express permission that you link to her original post if you do.
If you wish to use and share a recipe, it should be adapted using the guidelines at Recipe Attribution. (If you want the short answer, it should completely rewritten in your own words, describing how you made it.) If you want to use a photo, you should use a thumbnail (a picture that’s no larger than a large postage stamp) that is linked back to the original photo and post, which opens in a browser window back to the original site. However if you’re unsure if the photographer or blogger would allow this: ask first. (A court has ruled that thumbnails fall into the category of “fair use”, however that ruling applied to search engines.)
If you want to share something, simply link to another person’s site, post, recipe, or picture. You do not need to ask permission to link to content published elsewhere.
But let’s say you find yourself on the other side of the issue? Like, if during that Google search, or a tip, or a reader, led you to a blog that is pilfering your content. If you find your content used elsewhere, here are steps you can take, in order of how I think you should proceed:
1. Contact the owner of the blog or site. If possible, this should be your first course of action if you come across material on a personal food blog. In my experience, most people who are using your material think they are doing you a favor by reproducing your content on their site, and that you should be flattered. (A show of hands of how many of you out there are flattered when someone copies one of your posts…) Or they really didn’t know.
You could leave a public comment, however I like to give people the benefit of the doubt and contact them privately with a nice note before posting a public comment, just because I assume that most people acted in error and will happily correct it if it’s brought to their attention. Here’s a template that I use, which you’re welcome to crib:
If you are on the receiving a message like this, do not write back an angry note. Simply apologize and offer to modify the recipe, remove the image (if requested) or provide links to either. Make nice.
2. Shame them publicly. Some people will go on Twitter or Facebook and publicly call people out on content theft. I don’t do this because it brings traffic to their sites, which is often the objective of sites that lift and scrape content. Plus as I mentioned in the previous step, I like to believe a majority of people take content without understanding what they were doing.
If you decide to write to someone in a public forum, note that it’s very hard to win an argument in social media. And sometimes, people don’t like “whistle-blowers” (remember Linda Tripp?) even if you’re in the right. So be prepared for a little flak. If you do take this action, just be aware that what you say is public and make certain that you’re not saying although that could be libelous or accusatory unless you are sure you can back it up.
3. If you don’t get any response or action, contact the blog host. If the blog is on Blogger (Blogspot), there is a “Report Abuse” tab at the top of the page, or use can use this link to report copyright infringement. If the site is hosted on WordPress (which means the URL ends with wordpress.com), you can report it to WordPress. Note that they have no control over material on blogs that are not hosted on their server.
4. Contact Google AdSense. Many blogs that lift content make money by racking up impressions with AdSense. To report violations, click where it says “Ad Choices” next to the ads (do not click on the ads themselves), and follow the instructions to report a violation.
5. Contact the ad network. If there are ads on the site, they may be part of an advertising network and there should be a link somewhere next to the ad or on the site. Most responsible ad networks prohibit members of their network from republishing copyrighted content without express permission. Send them a message with examples (URLs) of any material you have as well as URL links to the content on the blog their ads are appearing on.
(If you do contact an ad network, most of those people get an avalanche of e-mails, so you don’t need to tell them your entire history; just keep it brief and to the point, and include links to the URLs so they can find them easily.)
6. Contact the server. In some cases, the server may remove material that violates their guidelines. To find out what server a site is using, you need to do a DNS (domain name server) lookup. Enter the URL into the search engine and hit the tab “Server Stats”, which will let you know the name of the server.
7. Contact other bloggers. If you find you stuff on another blog or site, often a quick scroll-through will show pictures of different qualities, and unrelated recipes. And you’re likely not the only one on there.
If you find suspicious material, do a Google image search for whatever you see, such as “Orange Pound Cake” which is a good way to find the original source of the material, and let the person whose content has been taken know about it via their site. It’s common courtesy and something we need to do as a community.
9. Hire an attorney. Gulp. I consider this a last-resort and would only do this if none of the other methods got results, and you feel the need to pursue it. A lawyer can send a cease-and-desist letter – for a fee, of course, which is generally enough to get results. (Although some of the larger “recipe” sites have in-house lawyers on retainer and are backed by big corporations.) So unless you want to proceed with expensive litigation, use this as a last-ditch effort and try the other options first.
Rarely however, do they tell you exactly what you need to do to find that voice, or even give a clear understanding of what it is. They treat it as though it's a mystical entity that you will only find after days of fasting and a good, long chat with a spirit bison or a ghost weasel. Why is that?
Because they're dead wrong. That's why.
Now, it's not that they're trying to deceive you. They're not. It's just that they don't quite get it, either. They have been misled, like the rest of us, from the beginning. In fact, this article was originally going to be yet another one of those articles about finding your voice and putting it to work for you.
Until the truth hit me right between the eyes…
You already have a voice, both a spoken and written one. You woke up with it this morning and you'll go to sleep with it tonight. It was with you when you read the last blogging superstar telling you that you needed to find “your voice” or heard it misrepresented by some well meaning author who doesn't quite get it either.
The term “voice” is misunderstood
Actually, it's terribly misunderstood, even by professional writers and bloggers. Here is the definition of voice, which sums it up pretty well:
To further define this, the definition of voice regarding grammar in a standard dictionary states:
So. By definition, “voice” is the manner or style in which you put words on a page or post. If you write in the same way you talk, you already have a distinctive voice. When fiction authors use the term, it is usually meant to be the voice of a fictional character in a story. Since 99% of bloggers don't invent a fictional blogging persona complete with back story and byline, it's a good bet that using the voice you already have is a good way to go.
(I'm not saying that a blog written by a completely made-up person wouldn't be a really fun project, it would. But that's a post for another day.)
It's all about tone
Most often when someone refers to finding a voice in blogging, they really mean “setting the tone.” The voice of an article can take two forms:
Or, if we think of this in terms of style, voice can be thought of as either:
The formal voice is authoritative and informative, while the informal voice is conversational and friendly, but that's about as far as “voice” goes in blogging. From there, it's all about the tone of your voice, not the voice itself.
The tone you set is what will get your reader's attention. It's what draws them in. While a voice has one or two states, the tone can convey any number of emotions, such as:
Of course this isn't a definitive list, but I'm sure you get what I'm saying. You already have a voice. What you need to focus on when writing is the tone you want to set, not in creating some new “you” with a different writing style to write your post in.
That just sounds like too much work to me.
Using your voice
As we've stated, you already have your own voice. You don't need to invent a new one. The things that do make up your writing voice are style, grammar and punctuation. If you write in your speaking voice, these things will come through quickly and naturally.
For instance, it doesn't seem at all out-of-place for Paula Deen to use the word Y'all. It's the way she speaks, and even in her writing, it comes across naturally. It would be quite odd however, if she were to use terms that didn't fit in, like “shizzle” or “OMG!” (OK… It's a good bet that almost nobody should ever use “shizzle” any more.) But for a 20-something writer who hails from somewhere other than the deep South, “OMG!” might not seem out-of-place at all.
This isn't to say that you should avoid proper grammar, spelling and punctuation in your writing. You shouldn't. But there are times when a run-on sentence or the use of a local term are more than acceptable. These things make your writing unique. It's that uniqueness that will help readers remember you.
In general, writing for the web should be short and to the point, but there are guides for that. The thing to remember is that you are not only allowed to just “be yourself”, but it's generally a good idea in the world of food blogging. If you write as though you were talking to a friend or a group of friends who are all sitting around the same table together, you're much more likely to connect to that invisible visitor on the other side of the screen, because they will feel like they belong there.
Voice and tone in harmony – Some examples
Now for the tricky part. You have your voice, but what tone should you use in your posts? The answer, unfortunately, is “It depends.” There is no right or wrong answer, but there are a few things to consider.
In my case, my voice doesn't change between the different blogs I write. I'm just “Jerry.” The tone at Cooking by the seat of our pants tends to be a bit light and off the cuff, where posts written for my namesake blog and guest posts, like this one, tend to have a more serious tone (but not too serious).
But this isn't about me, it's about you, so let's look at a few other bloggers. The first two I have met and spoken with at length on several occasions, so I am personally familiar with their voices, both spoken and written:
Elise Bauer: Elise writes in a fairly formal voice, but in a very relaxed tone. (Which is also how she talks in person.) Reading her blog is like sitting at her kitchen table, chatting and enjoying a moment of the day. Her posts tend to be short, but every single word fits and a complete story is told. You walk away from the experience feeling like you've just caught up with an old friend. Which is exactly what a visit to Simply Recipes should be.
Stephanie Stiavetti: The fabulous Stephanie Stiavetti takes the opposite approach in her posts on A Culinary Life. She uses an informal voice with an energetic and perky tone. (Again, she's like that in person. Or more accurately, she's a whirlwind in person.) Her writing is quirky and spunky. If you don't smile at some point when reading her work, you've missed something. Through it all though, her passion for food shines. She makes you want to try what she's describing, and try it now.
While I don't happen to know either of the following gentlemen personally, I have been a fan of their work for years. Both are passionate, but not in the same way. Both are experts in their respective fields, yet go about presenting that expertise in very different ways:
Matt Armendariz: Matt's voice is informal with a tone that is energetic, friendly and casual. Reading an installment on Matt-Bites is like taking a ride on a roller coaster. It's energizing and full of passion. You're sure that if you ever got to meet this man, there would be sunshine in your day, regardless of the weather. His ability to write positive, inspiring posts is nothing short of amazing.
David Lebovitz: David however, writes his posts in an equally informal voice as Matt, but with a more casual, less energetic tone. It's still just a conversation with a friend, but in his case it's a laid back conversation over coffee in Paris. The tone fits with what David is and where David is as much as Matt's, Stephanie's and Elise's tone fit who and where they are today.
All four of these bloggers got to the top of their field because people want to come back, read more and connect with the person behind the words. All four are masters at getting the reader involved in their story. Some of them might have been born with this skill, but more likely than not, it's one they have practiced and honed over time. It's one that you'll need to polish as well.
There are infinite examples of great bloggers out there, and you should find those who inspire you and read them often. Saul Bellow said, “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.” This is most definitely true. To continue to grow as a writer, you have to read, and read voraciously. You will never improve your craft unless you get inspired to do so by others in your field.
This is not to say that you should try to write like your favorite blogger! Remember, you woke up with your own voice this morning. Trying to be something that you aren't will make your writing fall flat or sound insincere.
And I'm not just saying that.
When I first delved into the world of food writing, I did my level best to write like those who inspired me. Those posts have never quite worked for me or my readers. They are on a short list of things that I need to rewrite from scratch, in my own voice and tone, because while the recipes in those posts are great, the words on those pages just aren't mine. They don't resonate. A great recipe should have a great story to go along with it, not a steaming pile of drivel as an accompaniment.
If you write in your own voice, with a tone that fits the “who, what and where” of your life, then your words will resonate with your readers. They may have found your blog while searching for a recipe or restaurant recommendation, but your voice and style are what brings them back.
It's OK to change your tone and style over time!
Times change. Situations change. Our life experiences are what makes us who we are. These are the things you need to let through in your writing. As a blogger, your readers expect to see you change and grow. It's very rare to see a writer who hasn't modified their style or tone over time. It's normal. It's a good thing. It means you're getting better!
Read, get inspired, then write.
Get out there and read. Find a blog that moves you and read 10 posts. Grab your all-time favorite cookbook and run through a few dozen pages. Crank up your MP3 player or home entertainment center, grab a cup of your favorite beverage and then write. Use the voice you woke up with. Be proud of it. Shout it out into the crowd. It's about time you did, because we've all been waiting to hear it.
Starting a food blog can be a rather intimidating process; there's just so much to learn! What should I name my blog? What aspect of food, cooking or dining should be my focus? Which blogging platform should I use? How do some food bloggers take such glorious food photos, and how can I do that too? Just for starters. And then after you start your blog, the learning curve seems to get even steeper. It does get easier after a while, but honestly, there's so much to learn and the technology and social media landscape changes so quickly that even those of us with years of experience doing this can find ourselves overwhelmed with everything we need to know or should be doing.
The good news is that Kelly Senyei has written an easy-to-understand, rather comprehensive book for the “Dummies” series on the nitty gritty of food blogging, Food Blogging For Dummies. The book is packed with useful advice and tips that even experienced food bloggers will find helpful. Photography, food styling, web design, writing, the food blogging community, marketing, monetization, they're all covered well, with plenty of detail but not so much that it's too much to take in. Kelly herself is a food blogger, which I think makes a world of difference. She blogs at Just a Taste, and is an associate editor for Gourmet Live. Several of us contributed ideas and feedback to Kelly as she wrote the book, so the book not only reflects Kelly's experience but knowledge from the greater food blogging community. Congrats to Kelly, and if you are interested in learning how to start a food blog or take your blog up a notch or two, I highly recommend Food Blogging for Dummies as a great place to start.
FOOD52's videographer Elena Parker shows her tricks for shooting and editing cooking videos quickly, with one camera and a $30 mic.
I happened upon this terrific video by Food52's videographer Elena Parker on simple tricks for making compelling cooking videos and thought you would all find it useful. Thank you to Food52 for letting us share the video here!
In a nutshell, Elena's points are:
She's got some great examples in her video. Check it out!
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