What We Write About When We Write About Beer
Over the past month, I have been part of a four-person team judging magazine articles for the North American Guild of Beer Writers' annual contest. We had 34 entries that were published in probably ten different publications, and they ranged from very short reviews to lengthy pieces on styles, equipment, or process. One entry on a bit of brewing history ran on for thirty pages. When you immerse yourself that deeply into something, you have a chance to see patterns and habit--not all of them good. (I've written a few articles this year, and I recognized my own culpability in this.) So as a public service, here are a few takeaways about how we can write more interesting, less repetitive stories.
- Vary the structure. This is how the vast majority of stories unfold: 1) anecdote about how a brewery does something, 2) expository about the subject of the article, 3) more brewery anecdotes that buttress the theme. This is a classic form, and it's going to be hard to break the habit, partly because we like stories. But so many of the anecdotes are repetitive--they start with a description of how some brewery does something, as if it's a wholly unprecedented. Craft brewing is no longer new and exciting--we need to seed our articles with something more unexpected.
- Vary the quotes. Gary Fish is doing something right. He was quoted in tons of the articles we reviewed. So were Ken Grossman, Jim Koch, and Sam Calagione. We really need to do a better job of finding different voices to speak for the brewers.
- Be more critical. Critics rightly fault writers for fawning over breweries, but we do it subtly and inadvertently. Many of the articles we write begin with the narrative as brewers would tell it, and then unfold from their point of view. We select a topic, go interview a bunch of people, and then write what they say. This is reportage, but it's not great reportage. As writers, we need to figure out a way to write about beer so that it's not just a kind of soft promotion.
- Find new ways to talk about beer. The extended world of beer has a nearly infinite number of subjects to discuss, and yet we tend to pull out the same tired templates to discuss things. I haven't quite figured out how to address this one, but it's a real issue. If we were to go back in time to before Michael Jackson wrote about beer and entirely reinvent the way we write and talk about beer, what would it look like?