Judging The American Wine Blog Awards
After Tom Wark announced the finalists for the American Wine Blog Awards, there was a lot of grumbling about who made the cut and who didn’t. This is inevitable; I judge the relevance of any award by the amount of controversy it causes. Few people care that they didn’t get an award they didn’t know about. But as bloggers and their readers grouse, I thought I’d offer my perspective as a judge.
The judging process was straightforward: Anyone could nominate a blog in any of the categories, and when nominations closed, Tom sent each of the judges a spreadsheet with all the nominees. As far as I know, every nominated blog was on the spreadsheet, except for the ones written by the judges and the ones that didn’t meet Tom’s eligibility requirements. Each of the six judges ranked five finalists in each category, and then Tom combined all those to come up with the top four finalists he presented to readers.
Judges could use any criteria we wanted for deciding our top five. I gave 50 points for the “so what?” factor, which varied based on the category. For the Single Subject category, for instance, my “so what?” translated into a simple question: If I wanted to learn about your subject, would your blog be a good way to do it? Then I gave 40 points for writing ability: Can the blogger communicate in a logical way? Does s/he demonstrate good knowledge rather than knee-jerk, poorly considered opinions? Finally, I gave 10 points for mechanics: Does the blogger know that it’s and its are separate words? Does s/he drop words from sentences? I gave this little weight in the total because most blogs don’t have copy editors. (For the graphics awards, I just gave a single score.)
I read the front page of entries for each site, and then all the posts from last September — sometimes people beef up their posts at awards time. I took notes on each blog. Brutal notes, too: I summed up one site with “blah blah blah” and another with “who nominated this site?” It didn’t matter if the site’s author was a real-life friend, a social-networking “friend,” or a total stranger. I tried to be as objective as one can be in a subjective context.
Is This The Best We Can Do?
Tom wrote of the finalists, “The collection of finalists … is a stellar example of all the things that are outstanding about the wine blogosphere.” As someone who pored through all the nominees, I had the opposite view: Is this the best we can do? There were one or two categories where I wished I could submit just three finalists, not five. In my scheme, not one site scored above 90 points (though there was at least one 89).
I am guilty of many of the sins I noticed on other blogs. I’m not sure how I would grade OWF if I were looking at it through the objective lens I turned on the WBA nominees. So I used my Web-wide jaunt as a reminder about what I could do to improve this site.
Some of you may find these little discoveries interesting. Some of you may tell me to take a hike (or, you know, some other phrase). That’s fine, because I want to preface these comments with one bit of advice: Write your blog for yourself. Writing for rewards and recognition is a sucker’s game. I have felt the sting of being overlooked for awards, but I finally remembered that I write OWF for my own benefit; my readers seem to keep coming back, so who cares if I don’t have a little badge in my sidebar?
What I Learned From The AWBA Nominees
Context matters. If I want to read page after page of "berries-cherries-flowers" tasting notes and irrelevant scores, I’ll pick up one of the big wine magazines. If I want to read uneducated, fawning press about some new health effect of wine, I’ll turn to newspapers. As bloggers, we can tell our readers why a given wine matters (or doesn’t) and where it fits in the world. We have the ability to talk about how it moves us (or doesn’t). We can wrap news stories in our own opinions and research. We can take a reader farther than the magazines can. We can teach and inform.
Personality matters. As bloggers, we don’t have to adhere to a dry, third-person editorial voice. We can be ourselves. We can use the first-person perspective that few feature wells allow. Of course, too much personality can grate on the reader, but too much is better than none at all. When I read a blog post, I want to get a sense of the person who wrote it. I want to care enough to click on the “About” link at the top of your page. We should let ourselves shine through a bit more.
Writing matters. I’m not a prescriptivist about grammar, despite what you may think. But you don’t need to memorize Strunk & White to communicate ideas in a useful way. Writing is a craft before it’s an art, and almost anyone can learn the craft. Magazines and newspapers have hard-working editors who clean up a writer’s prose: We have to rely on ourselves. I gave some advice about this in an earlier post — and I would add A Writer’s Coach to my list of recommended books — but I think many blogs would benefit from a few hours between writing and posting and one last careful read before the author hits Publish.
We have the opportunity to transform the way people look at wine. Our readers bond with us, learn about our lives, and trust our recommendations in ways most wine writers can’t imagine. We can introduce our readers to something beyond the mass-market bottles and the everyday grapes. We can show them that high quality doesn’t only come from a big magazine.