In a few weeks, amidst the serene beer landscape that is Asheville, North Carolina, I’ll be presenting on a panel at the Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference. The panel itself, “Moving Beyond the Beer Review” promises to be a pretty awesome foray into moving ones blogging and writing into the fertile lands that exist past the walls of the basics, and I’ll be speaking with some very esteemed company (a description of the panel can be found here).
I’ve done a lot of presentations in my 29.7 years, either at work, or through school, or as part of some culminating social experience. I’m one of those people who doesn’t fear speaking publicly, and sometimes even really enjoy it (especially the “have energetic conversations with enthusiastic people” part). Call me loquacious. Call me loudmouthed. I like to speak.
But this presentation manifests in my brain differently; perhaps because it’s the first presentation I’ve ever done about this little laborious love I call a blog, or about beer, or about writing about beer. It means a lot more to me than some generic book presentation or SharePoint training, and as a result, I really want to make sure I get it right. Thus this post.
Moving Beyond the Beer Review
Note: This is not a copy of what I’m going to present at the conference, I just wanted to get my ideas down/logically oriented and simultaneously make a reference document to share with attendees. If you’re going to be at BBC15, there might be some overlap, but I promise I’m not giving everything away. Think of this as supplementary ramblings.
When I started writing about beer, I wrote beer reviews. Creating accurate expository descriptions of beer means taking the time to learn brands and smells and flavors, giving a writer a good basis for creating good prose. Basic beer reviews are Beer Writing 101; a prerequisite needed to ground your mind and palate in the proper context, before exploring more elaborate topics.
I quickly moved past the beer review in my own writing, and have, for a few years now, sort of looked back at them with irrational disdain. My default line is that the traditional appearance, smell, and flavor driven review is boring. But simply dismissing them as not interesting doesn’t capture my true sentiment. It’s not that they’re inherently bad or have no use (the popularity of sites like Beer Advocate and Rate Beer proves otherwise), it’s that they don’t offer a reader anything except flat, encyclopedia-like information. I wanted to dig deeper and figure out why the beer review turned me off so much.
To start, there are some inescapable flaws with the traditional review:
- They’re too subjective to be worth much
- Thousands upon thousands of people have already reviewed most beers
- Myriad sites already exist with this content, so reproducing it on a blog doesn’t offer anything new
- There are so many other things in beer culture to write about besides what the beer tastes like
But these still didn’t get to the beating heart of why I disliked reviews so much. After much soul searching, I came to this ultimate, writerly conclusion: a generic beer review offers no story, and as a result, has a very hard time engaging a reader who seeks anything beyond rote fact.
A quick, important grammar lesson before moving on. And don’t get me started on your “not liking grammar.” A writer who doesn’t like grammar is like a chef who doesn’t like spices or a soccer player who doesn’t like shoes. Learn how to use your tools or find another trade.
Annnnnyyyyyway, there are two kinds of verbs: transitive and intransitive. Transitive verbs take a direct object, while intransitive verbs take a subject compliment.
Transitive: Oliver writes about beer.
Intransitive: Oliver is a writer.
While both sentences are similar, the transitive sentence shows me more information and progresses the sentence by using a strong verb, as opposed simply telling me a fact about the subject. Whenever you see “is” or “was” substitute in an equals sign and you’ll see what I mean.
Oliver is a writer (Oliver = a writer)
The beer was an IPA (Beer = an IPA)
All you’re doing with “to be” verbs is creating a comparison, not actually moving the writing forward, or creating an engaging narrative.
Let’s look at a full (but simple) paragraph to get an even better sense:
Transitive: Oliver writes about beer. He spins stories about fermentation. He also enjoys teaching people about grammar.
Intransitive: Oliver is a writer who writes about beer. His stories are about fermentation. Teaching people grammar is something he enjoys.
See the difference? Notice the lack of flow and staccato rhythm of the intransitive sentences? You’re also sinking deeper into the mire of passive language when using intransitives, and are forced to adorn your sentences with even more grammatical embroidery to capture the same information.
The operative word and idea is that transitive verbs show the reader something. There’s an old adage that pops up in writing workshops everyday: “Show, don’t tell.” It’s the idea that you want to guide your reader through a narrative and let them experience it as they will, not hold their hand and point out every little detail that is suppose to be important. Even if you’re only writing a review, readers want a arc, a mini-plot, a point, not just a data dump. This concept isn’t scary or new, either, it’s part of storytelling (and fiction!) fundamentals.
Knowing this grammatical sleight of hand, we discover that the beer review is not in fact boring, it simply does not show the reader anything.
Instead, it tells them. Forces information through their eyes and into their brains with no elegance or flow. It tells them what it tastes like, what it looks like, what it smells like. Why, as a reader, would I want that? Why not just go out and experience that myself?
When you ground your writing in intransitive comparisons (I see a startling overuse of “to be” verbs in nearly every review I read), you’re subconsciously telling the reader you don’t trust them to properly read your writing, or understand what you’re trying to say.
Not cool beer writers, not cool. Trust your readers, assume they’re smart and that your writing is clear. Have as much faith in your product as you do in the products you review.
BBC15 TL;DR – The innate problem isn’t the idea of beer reviews themselves, but with how a vast majority are executed. I see the same problem is event recaps, brewery and brewer profiles, and release statements, too. If you want more readers, more conversation, more engagement on your blog, you need to learn to use verbs to tell a story, even if that story is of you sitting at home, tasting a beer.
For some examples of transitive, story-based beer reviews, check these out:
Grammarian’s note: I don’t mean to imply that intransitive verbs are incorrect and should never be used. Obviously that’s not true, as I used dozens of them in this post (including this sentence). Just be aware of when you’re using them, and if they’re the proper verb for the context of your sentence. Sometimes they are, but with newer writers, often times they’re not. For more information about verbs, read this.