20 years ago I picked up a copy of the Sunday Times and out fell the glossy magazine the newspaper uses as a vehicle to sell expensive advertising space. Along with all the other clutter that used to go straight in the bin. There should be a tax levied on distributing material that goes straight to recycling.
Buried amongst the celebrity interviews and foodie pages was a restaurant turned TV critic reviewing the week's Television. AA Gill was as heartless as a ravenous grizzly bear whether tearing apart badly done TV drama or savaging undercooked restaurant food. His eviscerate penmanship brooked no mercy as he sought to “unpick the thing” from which, having succeeded, he took enormous pleasure.
But equally, Gill was revered for his unique style which would reveal how well something was made, without being a sop to whatever it was he was reviewing.
To commemorate the upcoming anniversary of his death, I've dedicated this blog post to him.
AA Gill Was An Inspiration
AA Gill died on the 10th December 2016 at the age of 62 not long after being diagnosed with “A Full English” of cancer. (His words not mine). He had a controversial style that generated many complaints. Most notably calling the Welsh “loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls “ for which he was reported to the Commission for Racial Equality. They found he had no case to answer and to most observers, it was evident that he was playing to the gallery.
When pressed on the subject it was always "the other lot" he was disparaging, depending on whether you came from North or South Wales.
"The most depressing and uncongenial meal, in an anaemic, echoey building, made even more wrist-slashingly ghastly by the sad and silent ghosts of a century of culture and élan and bibulous brilliance. AA Gill
Reading the magazine all those years ago, I remember thinking Gill was a pompous twat. A hard-hearted and callous bastard who didn't care who he offended. But then more recently I read his autobiography “Pour Me”, and I entered the life of a dyslexic alcoholic who, having got sober in 1984 took his second chance at life by becoming an unswervingly honest critic.
Very few people are cut out to be critics or would care to be. Everyone has an opinion. Criticism isn't about having an opinion, it's having a value added opinion. Some opinions are worth more than others. Mine are worth more than most. AA Gill
That was when I had my “aha!” moment, and I realised that Gill had merely found his writing voice. Telling it like it is is much harder than it sounds. Writing reviews that hype the obvious good bits while omitting everything that stinks is the cowards way out. To become a better blogger and to write reviews that people wanted to read meant I had to become a better critic.
Criticism is like being able to unbake a cake. When people fatuously ask why I don't write constructive criticism I tell them there is no such thing. Critics do deconstructive criticism. If you want compliments, phone your mother. AA Gill
You can't call yourself a critic unless you are prepared to be completely honest with the subject matter and put it directly under the microscope, and most people won't do that. Look at any number of reviews across the web, and you'll quickly arrive at the conclusion that most are written for financial gain and the author never properly took the time to dissect the subject properly.
We live in a copy and paste world. In many cases, reviews are pre-written for affiliate marketers. Want to add a new casino listing to your gambling website? The affiliate program has a templated review for you. Want to add a protein shake to your weight loss website? You can find a pre-written review for that too. All you have to do is “rewrite it” so that it doesn't constitute “duplicate content” and most often that just means rearranging a sentence or two here and there. And in nearly all cases that's precisely what happens.
I'm not suggesting you suddenly start shredding your product reviews or write an outspoken blog just for the sake of it, but being original and taking the time to write something worthwhile will elevate you above the competition. It will give your readers something to look forward to, rather than being just another “me too” blog.
"When I’m asked if there are any good restaurants, I say, this one is OK, that one is nice if you’re in the vicinity. But this is the first one for a long time that I can genuinely recommend as the brilliant borzoi’s bollocks." AA Gill
Here are some tips to help you define your writing style and find your blogging voice:
Define Your Reader As Accurately As Possible
Conjure up a vision of the person for whom you are writing. Be as precise as you can in your imagining.
My ideal reader is someone who is 40-50 years old, a small business owner or someone about to take the plunge into starting a business. He or she probably has limited IT skills but knows enough to be able to find their way around the web and can manage their WIFI connections when visiting a Starbucks.
They'll have a budget to build their online store and are wondering if Shopify might be for them. Or should they choose a UK based solution like EKM or Shopwired and if they do which is best?
UK Readers Should Read My EKM Review
They'll have a family to look after and so getting set up quickly is essential to them because they don't have hours, days or weeks to spend endlessly researching. Equally the budget doesn't run into thousands so they won't be approaching a website design studio and they'd like to do as much as possible to help get the site launched.
They may well have a part-time job to supplement their income while they get their new project off the ground.
That's the person I'm writing for and who I imagine every time I sit down to write. Whenever I write a new blog post, I think to myself “how will this help my reader”.
Set a blogging schedule and stick to it. In the beginning, writing can seem alien and complicated, but this is true for every aspiring blogger. Particularly when in the early days you know that hardly anyone is going to be reading your words. Try starting out with one blog post a week, and within a couple of months, you'll notice an improvement as you gain confidence.
I try and publish a new blog post every Monday and Thursday, but that's a tight schedule for producing above average content.
You can always go back and improve your older posts and update them with new links to keep them fresh. I like to update the oldest post on the site every day even if it means just adding links to newer content. Sometimes I'll rewrite entire paragraphs because once the sentiment is there, it's easy to rephrase or express an idea differently. Also, this method ensures that until I get to 350+ posts, none of the content on the site will be more than a year old.
Read More Books
My writing has improved massively since I started reading more books. Incorporating different styles and injecting variety into your written work comes from observing how others put their words together.
My wife's barely used Kindle has now become my new best friend. Here are some of the books I've read over the past couple of months:
AA Gill: Pour Me
How an alcoholic, dyslexic and frustrated artist became a highly accomplished, feared and revered restaurant critic.
Cheryl Strayed: Wild
How about a hike across the Pacific Trail to go and find yourself?
Bruce Springsteen: Born To Run
Get this in audiobook format if you can as the Boss himself narrates it. It's one of the best rock and roll autobiographies ever written.
Guy Sajer: The Forgotten Soldier
A horrific tale of survival on the Russian front from a German soldiers point of view.
Steve Peters: The Chimp Paradox
Why we do what we do and how to change your thinking.
Robin Sharma: The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari
Reading this book felt like a chore I had to do. A bit like "The Alchemist" I read it because it's in everyone's top ten list. But I obviously missed the point.
Grant Cardone: The 10x Rule
How massive action can make the difference for you. Instead of plodding along like everyone else Cardone encourages you to take 10X action to get the results you want.
Keith Richards: Life
How is this guy still alive? I'm not a fan of the Stones, the early stuff was the best and the apocalyptic "Gimme Shelter" arguably their finest moment. If you ever wondered why the Stones' were never as good as they could have been it was because Richard's was permanently high through the seventies, rendering one half of the songwriting duo impotent.
Richards takes pride in once not sleeping for nine days straight. Funny how "Our Keef" always managed to find the hotel room that went up in flames due to "faulty wiring". Did you know Keef has not visited Mick Jagger's dressing room in over 20 years? This was brilliant if a bit rambling towards the end.
Leo Tolstoy: War And Peace
I managed about four pages before giving up. I may have missed something special but the BBC TV adaption made up for it.
Being different doesn't mean being outrageously funny or being Katie Hopkins. It means putting a new spin on the content. You can't hope to compete with 101 other blogs unless you have something to contribute to the conversation.
That can just mean presenting your material in a better way or finding a new angle to approach a subject. Trying to copy what has gone before will leave you despairingly at the bottom of Google's well while your customers ladle from the cream at the top.
The Grammarly add-on for Office or Chrome will help you avoid all those grammatical Faux Pas. It won't make you the next AA Gill, but it will stop you from making elementary grammar errors.