I try to be a helpful sort of guy. Now that I have climbed the first few rungs of the wine writing ladder, I’m occasionally asked for advice about how to start out writing about wine. And unlike the last post I wrote on the topic – how to succeed as a wine writer by writing boring wine articles – this post is mostly serious and sincere. So here are my tips if you are thinking about becoming a wine writer, or if you are currently a loser wine writer and would like to be less loser-ish.
- Read widely and read often. Seriously, if you aren’t devouring a novel a week, then how do you hope to write fluently and well? ‘I haven’t got time to read,’ people respond. Well, I’m surprised you are busy if you are a lousy writer. Maybe I was right: producing boring, formulaic wine pieces is the way to stay too busy to read.
- Read. I’m repeating myself because you just ignored my first point, because you think you know better. Seriously, read more.
- Find a niche. Take a step back and look at yourself.What are you known for? When people mention your name, what is the immediate association? The only people who can afford to be generalist wine writers and not be total losers are the likes of Jancis and Hugh, the very top critics (perhaps one or two of them), and people who do top TV. To establish yourself you need one, two, or possibly three specialities. You need to be a big fish in a small pond, because in the large pond you are going to get eaten immediately and no one will notice.
- Develop your own writing style. And it’s so much easier if you are using a style that is YOU – that is authentic and represents the way you think and speak. Because then it will be effortless to maintain.
- Write fast. Think of yourself as a painter decorator, not a painter artist, but working with words not paint. You need to use a roller not a delicate paintbrush. Get those words up there, and fast. It’s the only way to make a living from this game.
- Practice writing different sorts of articles. Some of my colleagues are great writers, but they are one-trick ponies. All they can write is 1500-2000 word features, because that’s all they have ever done. There are different sorts of writing. Expand your toolkit.
- Don’t try to make wine writing your sole income, at least not at first. You’ll be under such pressure that you’ll end up taking crappy gigs, you’ll make compromises you never intended to make, and you’ll be sucked into turning out rushed articles that give you no joy and only just enough income to pay your rent. Being under financial pressure sucks, and it’s never a good place for a writer to be. Be realistic: how much do you need to live on, and how will you earn this as a freelancer? When I started as a freelancer I was the sole wage earner in the home with two kids to support. It was not a decision I took easily, but as a moonlighting wine writer I already had a newspaper column, a book deal and two Glenfiddich awards in the bag, so I reckoned I had a chance of success.
- Always be on the lookout for the story. Look behind the surface. Try to tell stories that no one else is telling.
- And when you begin to achieve a bit of success, be careful. Everyone is looking for new, fresh, young voices in the world of wine, and people will help you and celebrate you. There are two perils that then face you. The first is that you’ll begin to believe the hype, and think that you are something special. This will cause you to behave like a dick, and your work will suffer. Second album syndrome. The second is that those who helped you initially will begin to regard you as a potential threat, and will no longer be quite so helpful. Stay humble, be grounded, and keep your head. Now is not the time to take your foot off the pedal, it’s the time to work really hard. You won’t be new or young forever, so you’ll have lost that advantage. Now is the time to produce your best work, dude. Go for it!