What’s it Like Receiving Free Stuff?

I had been writing for WeekendNotes for quite a while before I received my first freebie. I was offered a free lunch at a café in West Perth in return for a review. I was absolutely terrified, so I took my Mum as support. As you do.

But you remember that saying… there’s no such thing as a free lunch… well, this free lunch certainly changed the way I viewed reviewing.

Simply put, the café didn’t like my review. I had been ambivalent about the food and I said as much. In truth, I was kinder than I would have been in a normal review. Still, the owners read between the lines and they were disappointed. As I had been in their food. Not long afterwards, they asked another writer to do a review and the result was a sickeningly sweet love-fest, that undoubtedly made the owners happy, but was painful to read.

It was a great lesson and I decided at that point never to accept another freebie because I felt compromised.

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A knife through the centre of your free lunch isn’t terrifying at all!

Over time as I felt more confident as a writer, and my ability to write candidly and fairly, I began to accept other items in return for a review. Usually they were tickets to a new movie, occasionally a book or DVD. I found it easier to be completely honest about a massive Hollywood production than a husband and wife team, whose livelihood was being discussed. The value was never more than thirty dollars and WeekendNotes had a policy of putting a clear disclaimer on the published articles in red that the write had been a guest of the company. Readers were always aware of who got their goodies for free and who paid full price.

As I became a more senior writer, the freebies got bigger. An opening night to the summer outdoor cinema. A new exhibit at the state zoo. A $200 chef’s table dinner with wine matching. I wasn’t earning much money from my writing, so receiving these free tickets and items felt like a justifiable reward. I also felt that since they were contained within the mantle of my WeekendNotes writing, that it never impacted on my personal writing (my blog), and I had always been very strict about not doing any reviews or sponsored posts on Relentless.

Apart from the conflict that I inevitably felt when trying to write an honest and fair review by balancing my integrity with the needs of the business, one of the main reasons why I never did sponsored posts on Relentless was that my readers didn’t want to read them. Every time I even remotely hinted at some sort of commercial enterprise – mentioning a book written by a friend for example – my readers stayed away in droves. When they read Relentless they wanted a warts and all, farts in the bathtub description of parenting. They did not care whether I had tried a new dairy product or what my favourite washing powder was. My stats made that very clear to me.

And I respect that. I personally hate it when my favourite bloggers interrupt their normally hilarious or thoughtful posts to do reviews. I don’t read them. And even though I know blogging is a poorly paid (if at all) career, and writers need to earn their money somehow, if I see [review] or [sponsored] in the subject line of a post, I don’t tend to read it.

And all of this is made even more cringe-worthy because now I am working for a great online shopping company. I write posts on their blog about general parenting topics, often including links to their products, and yes, receiving the occasional freebie. But because I am asked to do shout outs on Relentless, I am asking my readers to read them.

Let’s be clear, I don’t have a problem with people (including myself) doing reviews. When I am researching a product or place I would much rather hear what a consumer has to say than whatever guff the marketing agency comes up with. This is why I not only write for WeekendNotes, but I also read other people’s articles when they’re relevant to me. I also google forums and even glance occasionally at sites like Urbanspoon because people tend to let loose when they’re writing anonymously. I have more readers over at WeekendNotes than at Relentless, precisely because they want to know what I think about a place and they know I am going to tell them.

What I am trying to do now, is balance the needs of readers who just want straight stories and no sponsored posts, with my own need to earn an income, with the needs of readers who would be interested in reviews and other articles if they deem it relevant, with the needs of the businesses who employ me. The key is transparency. I’m going to do it anyway, but I need to be able to flag to readers what I am writing about. Some other bloggers like to use hashtags in their post titles, but I would just feel silly doing that since I’m not on Twitter and I don’t really know what a hashtag is.

So I decided Relentless needed a disclaimer policy. Any post for which I received a product for free and have chosen to review it, I will now add [review] in the title, and if it is an article I wrote for Mamadoo (whether it contains product mentions or not) it will now include [Mamadoo] in the title. It’s messy, but it’s a lot fairer than waiting until the end of the post before mentioning that money exchanged hands. Awkward!

But I still haven’t answered the question have I? How does it feel receiving free stuff? The excitement is pretty similar to when you get a big package you paid for (or a small package, they’re cool too) but with the freebie comes a price. Perhaps some writers don’t experience this, but I admit I do. I want to like the product. I want to write positively about it, but I want it to be natural and genuine. Readers can tell when you’re lying through your teeth, and some of my readers are good at reading between the lines at what I am not saying.

And what happens when you have an issue or problem with the product? Do you go back to the supplier privately or do you fulfil your end of the contract and do a public review, warts and all. As a reader I want to say ‘write the review’, as a writer, I sometimes feel the area is more grey.

How well I manage this balance will become clear in time. My stats will tell me, my readers will tell me. It is a shift for me, a change in something I have always been clear about. No monetisation of my personal writing. If I had put AdSense on Relentless before I published ‘The Brutal Truth About the Third Child’… well, I don’t think I would be able to retire quite yet, but it does make we wonder…

 

How do you deal with sponsored posts? Do you find a difference in your readership when you publish a normal post versus a sponsored post? Do you think it puts some readers off?

So, You Want to be Restaurant Reviewer

This morning I sat down to read the final column by Perth food writer Gail Williams. I had the pleasure of meeting her once, for a story she wrote on the rise of the share food phenomenon, but after fifteen years at the Sunday Times, she is putting away her pencil, and hanging up her serviette.

I have always enjoyed reading Gail’s reviews as she presents a fair, yet engaging story of her meal. If she thinks something is truly atrocious she will say so, but she never skewers people with either her fork nor her wit, and she comes across as a genuinely nice person. I take a lot of inspiration from her style of writing: she both respects the people in the kitchen, and as such is respected by them.

I have been doing restaurant reviews in a much lesser capacity since 2010 when I started writing for WeekendNotes. I was looking for a paid writing job that I could do in my own time, and the advert to write about ‘things you could do on your weekend’ appealed to me. I was regularly eating out, so why not write about it and get paid at the same time?

Since then I have clocked up more than 300 articles and even though not all of them are restaurant reviews, I can easily say I have covered a fair bit of ground in the Perth culinary scene. Especially at breakfast time.

So what does it take to be a food writer?

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The most beautiful dish I have ever eaten, and it was all vegetarian

Know Your Limits

Are you a chef? A nutritionist? A sommelier? A molecular gastronomist? No? Then don’t pretend to be one. The first rule of all writing is ‘write what you know’, and writing about food is no different.

I am very upfront in my reviews that I am not a trained expert when it comes to food, wine or coffee. I don’t pretend to understand the intricate cooking techniques or care about food providence. I know exactly squat about coffee, except that I need at least two every morning.

What I am is a consumer. I write about my experience in visiting a restaurant. I can tell you if the menu is limited or breaks the mould. I can tell you if a restaurant is better suited to big noisy groups or intimate dinners. I can tell you how the service staff treat you. I can talk about price and value and serving sizes. I can describe the room. I will even talk about idiosyncrasies of a place such as access to toilets or parking issues.

By the end of the review I want you to feel like you have already been there, and that you have some ‘insider’ knowledge. Preferably, I want you to feel inspired to go and eat there yourself.

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There IS such a thing as too much chocolate in a kids milkshake

Know Your Niche

So you may not be a trained chef, but you might be a student on a budget. A vegetarian. A mother of small kids. You might be gluten intolerant, or particularly concerned with paddock to plate principles. You have a niche and you should exploit it. Whether you are writing for a blog or a website you will gather followers who also like to eat the same way you do.

I have three young children, so I often write about the child-friendly aspects of restaurants. And as parents will know, it takes more than a plate of chicken nuggets to be really child-friendly. Menu considerations such as price, portion size and child-appropriate meals are obviously important, but the way children (and parents) are treated by service staff is probably even more crucial.

Does the restaurant offer colouring in? Are they happy to rearrange chairs to fit a pram or high chair (do they even have a high chair?). Are they conscious about serving temperature and appropriate utensils. Do they have a play room or a baby change station in the toilets? How do they feel about breast feeding?

You can even write yourself a checklist of items you want to write about every time you do a review, a checklist specific to needs of your particular audience.

Do Your Research

One thing I always try to do in my reviews is to provide background information about a restaurant. Perhaps it might be mentioning the big name chef who run it, perhaps they recently won an important award. On the flip side, perhaps a place has previously been lambasted by the review sites but has now changed management and they deserve another go.

If you don’t understand what an ingredient or technique is, don’t just ignore it or write about it blindly, research it. If you are serious about your craft, you can always call the restaurant and ask for more information, otherwise Google will tend to give you answers for most things.

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The stunning lights over the bar at Nobu Perth

Take Photos of Everything

A well structured photograph of beautiful food will boost hit rates of an online article tenfold. People eat with their eyes, so when reading about food they want to see what their stomachs will enjoy. Not only do I take photos of my food and everyone else’s food (my friends now know not to start eating until I have taken a few images of their dinner), but I also photograph the menu so I can later write with authority about prices, ingredients and the range of dishes offered.

If there is something unusual or quirky about a place, perhaps they have unusual table decorations, a striking view or they use particularly beautiful dishes I always try and take a photo. If there is unusual wall art or overhead lighting, I make sure my readers are able to get a feel of the room.

It’s important to be judicious when taking photographs though. Other people might not want to be photographed, and constant flash lighting can be irritating to other diners. It also attracts attention to you.

Ask Your Companions What They Thought

If you are dining in a group of six, ask the others what they thought because their experience of a restaurant, not to mention their meal, might be very different to yours. Your steak may have been cooked to perfection but their fish might be badly overcooked, or their soufflé hard as a rock. If you have a friend who is vegetarians or gluten intolerant, ask them whether they thought there was sufficient options for them. Ask your wine snob buddy what they thought of the wine list.

If you don't take notes at the time, you will never remember what goes into most dishes

If you don’t take notes at the time, you will never remember what goes into most dishes

Be Specific

While there are certain things you can generalise about, you also can’t go making wild assumptions about a place. There are a number of restaurants these days who have a split personality, and while they are a cheery casual café during the day, at night they might become a fine dining establishment. If you visited a place at lunchtime when the menu is quiche and sandwiches, don’t make wild guesses about their 10 course degustation dinner.

I only write about the food I have personally eaten, unless someone dining with me has specifically commented on their dish and asked me to include it. I also make sure to mention if the specific time I visited might have affected the service or quality of the food, such as if they are in the midst of a major renovation and are operating on a limited menu, or if there was a huge football game on and the restaurant was packed to capacity.

Don’t Write Anything You Wouldn’t Say to a Person’s Face

This last one is just a personal thing. I don’t believe in lampooning people from behind my computer and I always put my name to my reviews and articles. I need to be able to back up everything I write, and yes, I have been contacted by restaurants and catering companies before who didn’t like what I wrote. The first time it happened, I received written letters and obsessive phonecalls from the owner. I briefly considered calling the police, until a quick check on Google showed me that hundreds of other customers were equally upset. The difference was that I put my name to my review, so I was easy to track down, and the others had vented their spleens anonymously online.

I take plenty of photographs, and in 99% of reviews, will take notes either in my phone or in a notepad, dated, so that if a query is raised I can go back to my notes and say ‘this is what happened’.

My basic principle is that if I have more negative things to say about a place than positive, I won’t write the review. There are a few places I haven’t bothered to write about because I had little to say that would be nice. I realise that it could be argued that people should be told if a place is dodgy or poor quality, but I think I will leave that up to the experts (and the State Hygiene Inspectors).

 

Finally, a restaurant review might be a functional piece of writing, and the primary goal is to supply information, but I do not believe that’s any reason not to make it beautiful as well. I try and tell a story with my reviews, so that even if you have no intention of visiting a restaurant I am writing about, you still enjoy reading about it.

Brown Eyes and Spaghetti (My Side of the Story)

The other day was Valentine’s Day.

The day before that was my 14th wedding anniversary.

And the day before that I spent an hour staring into the brown eyes of not one, but two lovely young men, neither of whom happened to be my husband.

I’ll explain.

In Perth, there are two main food critics. Rob Broadfield writes for the West Australian, while Gail Williams writes for the Sunday Times. I read both their work with interest, not only to find out about new places to visit (or avoid), but because I am interested in the craft of reviewing. That’s what I do.

In October last year Gail Williams finished a review lamenting the fact there needed to be an etiquette guide to sharing food. So I emailed her a link of my WeekendNotes article ‘Share Food Etiquette: Top Tips to Surviving the Share Plate Experience’.

Although she replied promptly, she indicated she was going away and she’d contact me when she returned. When I hadn’t heard from her a few weeks later, I sent a gentle reminder, asking her if she had enjoyed the article, but when nothing more was heard, I decided not to the be crazy stalker person, and let it go.

It felt like an opportunity had vanished, and I‘ll freely admit I was disappointed.

So three months later when the phone rang on a Tuesday morning, I was surprised when it was Gail asking to interview me about the share food experience, and to let me know she was going to use my etiquette rules for an article that would run in the Sunday Times. Was that ok, and by the way could I come in for a photo-shoot? Oh, and there would be food.

So this was how I came to be staring into the eyes of lovely young men, as four of us posed for a photograph to accompany the story. There was the ‘poor student’, the ‘big eater’, ‘the industry professional’, and me, ‘the expert food blogger’.

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We had met at Lallah Rookh in the city, a small bar and eating house I had heard of, but never visited before. At ten in the morning the staff were getting ready for the day, but when I walked in, the photographer was already there, table set, lights burning.

With a delicious spread in front of us, we were told to pose handing each other dishes, serving ourselves food, twirling forks in the pasta. I twirled my pasta so much, I couldn’t get it off the fork to eat. So much parmesan was served, it looked like a small beach, and all the while two lovely tall frosty glasses of beer stood untouched in front of us.

We were told to look each other in the eye and smile, something I normally don’t have an issue with. I like to look people in the eye, and I’m a bit of a smiler, but what I am not used to (I came to realise, while already hot and sweaty under the lights) is looking for an extended period of time directly into the eyes of men. I probably don’t look into my husband’s eyes for an extended period of time, unless we are trying to pass telepathic messages about the kids to each other. Maybe that’s something I need to work on.

I got a bit flustered looking at the owner of the bar that I ended up dropping the head of the prawn I was meant to be offering him, thus splattering smoked tomato salsa all over his hand. I’m hoping that won’t be the photo they end up using. Some expert.

*   *   *

The story was published today, and sure enough there is a picture of me staring through half-closed eyes at another man. I swear, it was the chicken pasta I was in love with.

It’s confronting seeing yourself in a picture someone else has taken. It’s even more confronting seeing what happens when someone else uses your words.

But as a writer I have done it myself. People offer you a story, usually full of pauses and gaps, backtracks and corrections, and as writers we smooth it over, alter it slightly to read better. But the words are no longer your own. You might have said it slightly differently, or focussed on something else. It is something I will need to remember for all future articles where I quote other people, to listen between the lines, and be sensitive to what they are trying to say. What I write might not be what they were trying to say.

I had hoped that a link to the original article I wrote would have been included in the article, but with a name like mine, I’m guessing people will find me if they really want to.

Just in case, here is a link to the original story I wrote.

And for the record, I really am in love with the roast chicken pasta we twirled.

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