op-ed: getting (politely) off the fence

As much as I appreciate a neutral review of an item/experience/etc, there’s something to be said for having an opinion and clearly stating it. It might be our Canadian politeness, or that the landscape of freelance writing (particularly in wine/food/travel) is so quickly changing, or a combination of both with a dash of something else. Whatever it is, we don’t say what we really mean.

Let’s look at that last sentence. Years ago I would have written “I don’t think we’re saying what we really mean.” As I’m the only contributor on my blog, the “I think” has less to do with ensuring you know it’s what I think and more to do with my hesitation as a writer. This qualifier isn’t what I’m referring to, as there’s an opinion stated regarding “saying what we really mean.”

There’s a lack of definitive opinion statements in experience writing – the wine/food/travel writing. We (the reader) generally expect to hear a personal opinion. It’s why I read such writing: I want to know what you think. Lately, I’m often disappointed.

The term op-ed comes from early newspaper days. Oxford Dictionaries defines op-ed as “a newspaper page opposite the editorial page, devoted to personal comment, feature articles, etc.”.  Wikipedia takes it further to explain that it “expresses the opinions of a named writer who is usually unaffiliated with the newspaper’s editorial board.” The part here that resonates with me is the personal comment / opinions bit. Increasingly, we’re missing that.

Freelance writers walk a tightrope of delivering compelling content and (hopefully) maintaining good relationships with their subjects. Vitriol-filled prose and mean-spirited writing aside, writers like to play nice. I do. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I don’t play the mean game. My mom taught me that, and she’d be very upset if I behaved in any other fashion. (love you, mom)

There’s a difference between providing an opinion and being a jerk-ass. If you read an opinion piece and get an icky feeling about it, there’s a good chance the writer is being the latter. Does that discount the negative experience? It does plant a few questions – particularly about the writer’s relationship with the subject. No one wants to get in the middle of a pissing contest – in the end, everyone smells bad.

I don’t review wine/food/travel locales, but I do write about my experiences. When I sit down to task, I ask myself one question: Why should anyone give a damn about what I’m writing? Yes, I want to encourage folks to ask questions rather than blindly consume or experience something. Really, though, writers want to persuade you to agree with our opinions. Or we should.

In a world of wishy-washy neutral prose and fear of pissing people off, I gravitate toward authors who push my buttons and get me thinking. I like to disagree with them as much as I like to shout “YES!” when alone in the yard, magazine on my lap. When it comes to wine, I’ll tell you what I like and what isn’t suited to my taste. Will I risk offending the producer? Maybe. However, the chances are good we’ve already had that conversation in person.

Meanwhile, I have a request for my fellow writers: please get off the fence and tell us what you really think. It’s why I’m reading.

~ Jeannette

(PS: feel free to tell me what you really think, too)

Winemaker Bradley Cooper sips my and my fella’s Bordeaux-style blend at Township7. We didn’t get the “dumb nose” feedback (see? clear opinion) others received, but neither did we win best blend.

 

writing naked: disclosing for your audience

Disclosure. It’s a vital component to building trust with an audience (that’s you) and not being a jerk-ass writer (potentially me). In an effort to not be a jerk-ass, I’ll disclose my biases and motivation(s) for writing this post.

  • I love the CBC. As a contract columnist, the CBC asks me to disclose any connection to, freebie from, or incentive by a winery. I like that.
  • I dislike advertorials. As a freelance writer I’m asked to pen all sorts of things – I (now) decline these. It’s a hard stand to take when the mortgage is due, but it’s where I planted my feet.
  • I don’t like to ask for free stuff. The result is that I’m invited to WAY fewer events/places/etc, but it means that when I write about something it’s because I genuinely want to.
  • Readers should have the straight goods. A writer/blogger/whatever that’s invited on a media trip (and is comped anything) should disclose it in her/his writing. Period.

Feel free to agree or disagree – but now you know where I stand before I get into the thick of things. This could be a messy one, so hang on.

I wanted to take a short trip with my fella; somewhere close by so we could maximize our Friday-to-Sunday time schedule. The goal: a weekend away, possibly playing double-duty as writing inspiration, and absolutely involving wine.

We were looking to stretch our dollars and a close acquaintance had once said “come stay with us if you’re ever in Chelan”. I contacted our new friend Katy and arranged an overnighter. Not wanting to outstay our welcome, I sought additional accommodation for a second night – but high season in a tourist destination meant spending significant coin. Damn. So I got in touch with the visitor’s centre and asked if any local accommodators could offer a discounted rate for “media”.

I rarely play the media card; I’d rather stay under the radar. But when it came to the only real away-time I’d have with my honey for the season, I caved. The nice people at Lake Chelan found a hotel willing to discount a one-night stay. While this was going on, I pitched a little something for online publication to legitimize the whole thing. My editor said yes, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

After dodging what I felt was a fraud-bullet, a writer colleague told me to get off my high-moral horse: I was providing a return benefit to the area – it wasn’t a handout – and other writers do this all the time. Ugh. Or as I’d tweet: #lesigh. I disclosed the freebies in the article where appropriate and when it didn’t sound like an infomercial.

What concerns me about I-give-you-something-and-you-give-us-something relationships between writers and those offering is a lack of disclosure on the part of the writer. It’s our responsibility to give it up. I disclose perks or gratis anything, yet I find it challenging to stay balanced on the narrow bridge between advertorial-ick and a glowing response to a well-hosted good time.

Do I feel my article stayed on course? Well, I didn’t omit the negative because I was given a few perks – we had a poor breakfast experience at a location I won’t name because if you know anything about me you know I don’t play that way. I felt encouraged to write positively about the area because we had a great visit.

Any good article or prose should leave the reader asking questions – if not about the content, then about what motivated the writer to tell that story. In an earlier post I mention how travel can often be on the dime of the writer seeking the experience, so I don’t begrudge anyone a complimentary anything. I’d love to take a sponsored trip and see how much that inner voice nags at me while I write. I’ll tell you all about it.

Meanwhile, I ask that the audience (that’s you) read with a critical eye – and I hope my fellow writers write nakedly. Perhaps not literally, because that could get weird.

~ Jeannette