It started with the cheese.
Last Saturday afternoon, my husband and I were feeling fancy. When we feel fancy, we like to fire up the Weber and treat ourselves to a nice a wine-and-cheese spread.
As fancy people do, we raided the $5 cheese bin at the grocery store where they sell remnants of the really expensive cheeses (sort of like a discount carpet store). We came home, opened the wine, and started to unwrap the Brie I’d picked out.
Immediately, I know something was wrong.
This Brie didn’t smell like the buttery goodness I’d sampled in 8th-grade French class. It smelled like sauerkraut and despair.
I Googled “how to tell if Brie is bad.”
In my heart of hearts, I knew the Brie was rotten. But like any good Millennial, I needed the Internet to tell me I’d been done wrong.
Food blog tips to look for an ammonia smell didn’t help, so I tried “brie + sauerkraut smell” next. What I found was the most glorious Vice article entitled: “We Should Learn to Love the Cabbage-Fart Aroma of the Best Brie-Style Cheeses.” (Props to Cody Reiss — Vice’s resident cheesemonger.)
In about ten minutes, I learned enough about Brie to make me feel like an honest-to-god expert. My Brie was not bad. In fact, I guess you could say it was a good Brie-style cheese — maybe as good as you can get in an American bargain bin.
While the article did not magically transform me from a backward hayseed to a refined stanky cheese–loving sophisticate, it did give me all the writerly swoons.
Here are some things Cody Reiss does well that all of us bloggers should take to heart:
1. Write the way you talk. This is probably the biggest reason why I freakin’ love Reiss’s cheese writing. Not only does he use phrases like “super dank cheeses” in his review; he also peppers his article with gems like this:
“If you like Moses Sleeper but have too many felonies to get to France and try true Brie, look for something similarly farty, like a ‘Brie fermier,’ or simply reply ‘broccoli’ to your cheesemonger’s questions. If you’re feeling naughty and looking for a decadent cream castle (no judgment), peep a double crème like Fromage D’Affinois or a triple crème like Crémeux de Bourgogne.”
Even if you can’t pull off Reiss’s stoner humor, you can write engaging prose while flipping the bird to your 6th-grade English teacher.
- Use “you” for more conversational writing.
- Don’t be afraid to throw in some slang (as long as your reader will understand your meaning).
- Don’t be afraid to start sentences with “and” or “but.”
- Remember that the em dash is your friend.
2. Use super-specific observations and examples. Okay — we all know that including strong sensory details is critical, and this is another area where Reiss’s writing shines. Behold:
“The truth is, real Brie smells like cabbage farts and tastes like a lukewarm bowl of steamed cauliflower mixed with Marie Callender’s potato-cheese soup.”
I don’t care if you’re an alien. All you need to do is read that passage, and you know the essence of that Brie. (Now do you understand why I prefer the chemical spill–orange goodness of Kraft American cheese?)
The more specific you can be with your descriptions, the more you’ll be able to engage your reader and communicate your true meaning.
3. Insert snippets of impactful dialog. I find this can work well even in blog posts, but you have to be choosy about what you include. A lengthy back-and-forth conversation doesn’t work well in short form, but a pithy line here and there does.
“When someone asks me to recommend a Brie, my first question is always: ‘Do you want it to taste like butter or broccoli?’
At this, most people twist up a sly smile, take a quick look around, lean in, and whisper, ‘Hehe, butter.’”
4. Don’t be afraid to be contrarian. For me personally, it’s a huge relief whenever someone gives voice to what I’ve been thinking — especially if I’m too embarrassed to admit it out loud. This is why I love comedians like Jim Gaffigan, Tina Fey, and Louis CK. (Yes, I know #MeToo means I’m not allowed to like Louis CK anymore, but the subhead of this point is “be contrarian,” so to hell with it.)
Being contrarian works best when it lets your reader off the hook for something or validates his or her true feelings. I know the echo chamber of the Internet means we’re all supposed to form angry mobs and toe the party line, but if it feels good, write it.
5. Go Gilmore. Readers are people, and all people like to feel smart. So every once and a while, bury a little nugget of comedy gold, and give your audience the benefit of the doubt.
This is the writerly equivalent of giving your reader a covert little wink or eyebrow waggle, and Reiss does this several times throughout his piece. These little winks are hard to catch, but they are there for the salty liberal intellectuals that make up Vice’s most loyal readership.
Still, nobody winks through writing better than Amy Sherman-Palladino with her fast-talking, impossibly literary Gilmore girls.
I’ll be honest: I’m not that well-read. Seventy-two percent of their references go straight over my head. That’s okay. Sherman-Palladino knows it’s okay. But for writers, letting these jokes go without knowing how they’ll be received can be very hard. Writers desperately want to be understood. This can lead us to cut obscure references or, worse, explain our own jokes.
Don’t. Be at peace knowing that someone somewhere is laughing her ass off.
You may be wondering why I chose to do a literary analysis of a cheese review this week. It’s to show you that it doesn’t matter what your subject matter is — you can write about it in a way that sparkles with personality. And sometimes we writers have to write about things we don’t love so we can pay the bills and focus on things we do love.
A good writer can polish a turd, call it “content,” and get paid. That’s the beauty of the Internet. I’ve been paid to create content geared at mattress salesmen, for crying out loud. I’ve written for insurance providers and software-as-a-service companies — also known as Satan’s proxies and The Most Boring Clients on the Planet, respectively.
If you’re doing the freelance grind, don’t despair. If you study interesting writers and work on your own writing, you can make the digital world a more interesting and funny place to be.
Photo by Dominik Vanyi