How To Be A Perfume Writer

GerhardterBorchWomanwLetter

 – some thoughts on returning to the fray

All my life, I’ve always been considered a bit … strange. Whether caused by an early childhood playing alone with my teddy bear and a rusty tin can in a cemetery among the headstones, or evolving into the dreamy, geeky, bookworm teenager I later became, never mind the pint-sized over-the-hill irrelevance I am now, weird has always been my unofficial middle name.

Yet nothing – and I do mean nothing – shuts people up faster when they ask about what I do, and I tell them among other things that I’ve been writing about perfumes these 8+ years and counting. A l-o-n-g pause ensues. Next thing I know, the punch line arrives.

“Why?”

Well …

And if not why, they ask me how.

I’m never sure what to reply to that question, either.

I just do it.

Meanwhile, erudite seminars are held at EsXence in Milan on the language of perfume, hosted by none other than the eminent Michael Edwards. Also meanwhile, scores of people who have never attended any expensive seminars on perfume writing in their lives (or if they have, they’re very discreet!), are posting YouTube reviews or comments on those reviews, or writing reviews for perfume blogs, or perfume books, or writing about perfume on one or another of the many perfume groups on Facebook, sharing their experiences with perfume A, B or Z.

Perfume nutcases/people are strange. Strange for no other reason than they’re trying – and sometimes failing – to articulate what to all intents and purposes is a wordless art. Our sense of smell is one of the most rudimentary and in evolutionary terms one of the oldest of our sensorial input methods, and for that reason, olfactory impressions bypass the cerebral cortex – home to abstract thinking, logic and other hazards to our sanity – entirely and head straight for the hippocampus, the gateway to memory.

In less time than it takes to type this sentence, we are mid-memory and in the grip of an emotional response, and this, boys and girls, is the essence of the invisible, indelible art that is … perfume.

Back to the why

Why do I write about perfume? Once upon a time, I was so destitute, I had no perfume at all. By which I mean – no perfume. At all. For someone who throughout her adult life always had at least five in regular rotation, this was akin to torture. Soap and water are all fine and dandy thank you, but not being able to establish a presence (by which I’m not referring to sillage, but simply presence) when I already felt increasingly invisible, was a horror I couldn’t handle.

So as a cruel exercise in contemplation, I landed myself on Makeupalley one day by accident, ca. 2003. It blew my mind. People were discussing perfumes I had never heard of, from brands I’d never heard of, in ways I had never imagined.

Top notes? Heart notes? Drydown? Had someone been messing with the English language?

When the first perfume blogs arrived ca. 2006-2007, I set about educating myself with everything I didn’t know. Materials, evolution, perfumers, perfumes, perfume families (thank you, Michael Edwards!) – something in my own brain was coalescing as I read. But I wasn’t quite there yet.

‘There’ arrived on the night of August 5th, 2010, at about 2 AM. I was still reading perfume blogs. I was also fast approaching the finish line of my first finished novel, and I needed a break from my subject matter, something with an aesthetic dimension, something, well, girly.

That night, after the third glass of white zinfandel, or it could have been the fifth, I thought, well, I could always start a perfume blog. Just for me. As a writing exercise. Before I went to bed, I had emptied the wine bottle, signed up for Blogspot, created a blog called Scent Less Sensibilities and called it a day.

By that time, thanks to my then mother-in-law (and fellow Taurus), who got my desperation, bless her forever, I owned three perfumes. They were Balmain Ivoire, Lancôme’s Magie Noire, and Caron’s Bellodgia, all hunted down by me at online perfume discounters for bottom basement budget prices for several birthdays and Christmases in a row.

My first review was Ivoire. I tried to write a straight-up, non-interpretive review, really, I did. Except I didn’t.

For lo and behold, someone in the ether had found my writing exercise, liked what they read, and left a comment. (Those were the days when people commented!) A comment stating something about ‘my unique voice’.

Whaddaya know, I did become a better writer. I learned by observation from the best of the best: Ida Meister of Cafleurebon, Lucy of Indieperfume, Elena Vosnaki of Perfume Shrine, Angela, Beth and Donna of Now Smell This, and the beyond wonderful, irreverent Perfume Posse, all of whom brightened my far less than happy existence.

I learned about pacing, about writing things out, about trusting my instincts and my voice. I learned to edit and pare things down in ways that are still with me to this day.

More than anything else, above the writing exercise/girly outlet/aesthetic dimension, I wrote about perfume to give myself some micro-degree of success. From 2010-2013, my life went from not-great to smoking ruins. I was too “old” to be hired anywhere, too over-qualified for the jobs I could get, and likely just too outright weird. I had no social life, no friends, and very little family.

Suddenly, I found community, commonality, and dare I write this – virtual friendships, too. I could scarcely believe my luck.

In April of 2019 with The Alembicated Genie, I still can’t.

Listen up, padawan

That’s me. Maybe you’re the one who thinks this could be something you could do. While I can’t tell you anything about your particular ‘why/how’, I can tell you something about writing.

Writing is a skill like any other. The more you do it, the better you get. Anyone can learn to be more articulate and precise in their writing. Which, I hasten to add, is not at all the same as saying that if you do it long enough, you’ll turn into the F. Scott Fitzgerald of the perfume world.

Anyone can learn to write, yes, but not everyone will do so equally well. Some people are articulate in person, while others need to think things through. It follows that having a certain degree of eloquence helps, as well as access to a good thesaurus. I use the Oxford online thesaurus, but you may prefer something else.

Like any other creative human endeavor, talent also enters the equation. Everyone can write – or learn to do so – but some people have an aptitude for language, and some don’t. Yet talent matters not at all unless you keep at it. That’s what gets you noticed. Consistent effort over time. The End.

Nuts and bolts

Still there? Now, we’re at the part that separates the wannabes from the survivors. First that maxim stated above: consistent effort over time. I’m not kidding. Second, if not in terms of importance:

The prose.

Generally speaking, perfume writing tends to land in one of two categories. There are the straight-up reviews.

This is what perfume X, Y or Z smells like, these are the notes and how it develops, this is what I think.

In other words, the kind of reviews I wish I could write, but can’t. I know, because I’ve died numerous agonizing deaths trying to do just that, and my twisted brain has other ideas. My admiration for those who can is boundless.

Remember, experiencing a perfume is a wordless act. Here you are, tearing your hair out, trying to communicate a sensory experience in words. A bloody thankless task, if you ask me. As they say in book publishing: if everyone could write a novel, they would. Yet relatively few people do. By the same token, not everyone who writes about perfume will do so equally well.

Then, there are those other perfume writers. I count myself – vain as I am – in this second category. They are usually of a literary persuasion, meaning they read, they keep informed, and have a laser-sharp eye for the well-turned phrase, the polished metaphor, the rhythm and flow of words. They use their knowledge from other culture-vulture areas for their reviews; art, history, music, literature. Given that our vocabulary in describing perfumes is severely limited, we resort to metaphor and simile, tricks of rhetoric and semiotics to get the point across, provided we even succeed. You have to be aware that when you write about perfume, you won’t always get it right. Put another way, sometimes a review will state everything you wanted to say, and sometimes, it won’t matter what you do. You still feel as if you’re falling at the fences if not being catapulted straight across them (to use a show-jumping metaphor). That’s OK, too.

I became notorious for turning perfume reviews into literature. Instead of writing a review, I’ve written a short story, a whole, short, self-contained world, to better convey my impressions of a perfume. Sometimes, that approach worked. Sometimes, it didn’t, usually when I neglected to trust my own instincts, or simply tried to force a story when I should have settled for an ‘ordinary’ (my version) review. Don’t forget, I’m also a novelist, and everything and everyone is grist for that literary mill, even – or perhaps especially – perfume. Jean-Paul Guerlain, who once famously stated that perfume is liquid literature, would be thrilled. Those reviews are my personal favorites and among my best writing anywhere, and I’d give my eyeteeth for a chance to turn them into a book of their own. One day, I will.

The YouTube conundrum

What if you’re one of those people who don’t like to read? (And read. And read.) Or for whom the idea of banging out 2000 words on latest release A, B or Z causes a) bad memories of school assignments and b) severe orthographical and/or grammatical anxiety?

Perhaps your personality is so naturally gregarious, charming and extrovert, you could become a YouTube reviewer?

Well, you’re going to need to invest in a better camera than your laptop, some good ambient lighting and a proper microphone, to start. You’ll need to become familiar with video editing software. In television production, a rule of thumb is one minute on screen equals one hour of work. Put another way: a five minute video is five hours of work. In comparison, I usually spend between two to four hours on a review, but a few have taken me up to a calendar month to write.

And above all things else, it helps heaps to have some general ideas of what you’re going to say beforehand. So you’ll also have that to consider. There’s nothing wrong with ad-libbing or spontaneity, but you’ll likely soon discover that what looks easy, spontaneous or natural on screen in reality is anything but.

I have an exceedingly low opinion of most – but not all – YouTube perfume reviews. I find them repetitive, lacking in imagination and often redundant. Nine out of ten bore me to tears, but there are definite exceptions. Who knows? You yourself might even become one of them.

The Social in Media

Writing a post/uploading a video is just the first step. You’ll have to do research on the brand, on the perfumer (presuming one is named, and they aren’t always), on the inspirations behind the perfume. For a written review, you might need an illustration or photo. You might need to invest in your own unique domain name, web hosting, plug-ins. You should think about reading up on other reviews of the same perfume to check your impressions against others’. Not because it will influence your own review, but because other people will often have a perspective that might help your own.

Should you be so vainglorious you want hits or views – as indeed most of us do – then the single most important thing you can do for your blog/vlog is establish a presence. And for that, you’ll need social media, a terminal case of what I call the fuckits, and a complete lack of shyness in tooting your own horn without being obnoxious about it.

So from the top …

Comment on your favorite blogs/vlogs. Nothing delights a reviewer faster. I lurked on all my own favorites for years before I ventured to comment, and that didn’t happen until I realized no one is expecting you to be 100% brilliant. Just be yourself. State what you appreciated, what stokes your curiosity, where you disagree – or not. This is called engagement, and engagement is (also) how you get a reputation for your reviews.

Do not, no matter how desperate, bludgeon your audience over your head by promoting your blog all the time, or even half the time you’re interacting on social media. Most people usually get it the first time. Leave it at that.

Courtesy and civility pay and pay and pay. Negativity, over-sharing and bludgeoning people over the head with your unique take on perfume doesn’t.

It’s that simple.

Next, you’ll need Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Post links to your blog/vlog to your FB profile, tweet about it, post your illustration on Instagram, and tag everyone relevant to your post. (This is reputation building, step two) This means following brands on FB, Twitter and Instagram, interacting with them, and tagging/hashtagging everything you possibly can. Join a few perfume groups on FB, and participate in the discussions you find there. Have Twitter conversations with perfume people. Again: courtesy and civility pay and pay and pay. Negativity, over-sharing and bludgeoning people over the head with your unique take on perfume doesn’t.

You will guaranteed encounter a brand that ignores you, if it’s even aware you exist to begin with, no matter how frequently you tag/hashtag them. This could be caused by that brand being narrow-minded (you’re not influential enough/you don’t have a big enough presence, followers or enough engagement, say), but could also be caused by your particular review not being ‘right’ for that brand – they can’t use it for marketing purposes. That is their prerogative to choose, not yours. Don’t take it personally. It’s not you, it’s them. Move on.

The Good Ship Relation

My inbox, meaning my email/Messenger/DM, blows me away on a daily basis. Many of the most touted/celebrated/platinum-coated-with-pavé-pink-diamonds/award-winning names in perfumery can be found in it, not because I’m so bloody bleeping fabulous, but because I’m a fellow human being and relate to them as such.

In writing about perfume, you are building relationships with the brands you review whether you realize it or not. Again – courtesy, gratitude and civility pay and pay and pay. Negativity, over-sharing, and bludgeoning people over the head with your unique take on perfume doesn’t. Neither does indiscretion. You might be given access to privileged information, snark on other reviewers or super-juicy industry gossip. This will be a test of whether or not you can be trusted to be professional. So your reputation among brands – and trust me, if you keep it up, you’ll get there – will also be based on your ability to keep your mouth/keyboard shut when appropriate. Pick your battles wisely. Nurture your relationships with those people. You might be surprised at what you discover; friendships, common ground or interests, a shared sense of the ridiculous. Even a life-long friend or two. Or forty.

Brands are not the only place to establish relationships. Share your love of other blogs/vlogs. Send an email/comment/PM/DM to those colleagues you appreciate. Link to them. Social media is often predicated on the principle of mutual back-scratching. They might – and often do – the same for you.

Which brings me to …

The (not so) free lunch

If you’re venturing into perfume reviewing for ‘free’ bottles or samples – since many bloggers/vloggers review new releases – Stop. Right. There.

Walk away. This business is NOT for you.

First of all, there’s never, never, never ever any such thing as a free lunch. If a brand offers to send you samples or bottles (as opposed to you outright asking for them, or worse, demanding them), bet your vintage no. 5 extrait they want some bang for their buck. And no samples arrive without strings – a sliver of hope for a review at the least.

Those samples represent a substantial investment and cost, in terms of shipping, the man hours required for decanting, packaging, postage etc compounded to whatever costs the brand have in raw materials, research, marketing (when applicable), bottles (which are expensive) and perfume development. Should they offer you samples, it will be due to two things: a) they’re interested in your particular perspective, aka. The Best Case Scenario or b) they’re just shooting samples at any blogger/vlogger who moves because they have a new release and they need the PR. Option a) is something you will have earned by your consistency, your reliability, your discretion and your professionalism.

But it must be earned.

I’ve been alarmed by stories – yes, by perfume brands you know and love – of bloggers contacting brands and demanding full bottles for reviews. Should you be or become one of those, you will be ignored and deplored. The perfume industry is relatively small, the niche/indie part is even smaller, and word will and often does get around.

Think about it.

Likewise, bloggers attending industry events such as EsXence or Pitti Fragranze have been handing out price lists. Want a review? It will cost you XXX€.

If that’s your thing, by all means go for it. Just be aware that if you choose that option, in effect that brand is hiring you for PR. You may be fine with that.

call it corporate whoring.

Having said that, quite a few perfume bloggers have written copy for brands in other contexts and places. Even me. Yet when I have, I’ve done so under my real name and not as The Alembicated Genie. You’ll find not one sponsored post on this blog.

Not one.

One option is to buy your own samples. I’ve done this on a few occasions and never regretted it. For one, it demonstrates a definite interest in the brand and a commitment in cash. For another, it’s marvelous for keeping reviews honest. And lastly, it frees you from all commercial interests and agendas, to write what you choose.

Should I choose to review a perfume, you can be assured it’s for one reason only: to provide my own perspective. Period.

As an EU citizen, I’m not required to give disclosure for review samples, but a large part of my readership is international, so I always do.

On very rare occasions, I’ve been gifted with bottles. Notice the ‘gift’. Those bottles are considered and given in the spirit of appreciation and respect, and treasured accordingly. My entire current income is a student grant which is barely enough to live on, never mind buy perfume with. The irony of my perfume blog’s existence is that I can’t afford to buy what I review at all.

It happens I fall in love with something utterly beautiful, only to wail in despair once the sample goes. Two examples that come to mind are Palissandre d’Or and Sunshine Man. Notice they haven’t been reviewed, for no other reason than I’ve literally loved them to death, fumes and micro-droplets, and it was painful to see them go. Two hundred+  euros is my entire food budget for a (good) month, and I need to eat more than I need perfume, alas. So those ‘free’ bottles – which are actually earned the hard way, by writing and writing and writing about perfume – are treasures beyond rubies and emeralds. They shall never be sold, provide huge amounts of goodwill and heartfelt gratitude but will be drained to the last drop. While thinking fragrant, warm and fuzzy thoughts about the people who sent them. Because those incredibly kind and utterly generous people are worth it, and wonder of wonders, they thought I was, too.

Danger Zone

Some long time ago, a super-famous (and super-smart) feminist writer once wrote an essay about the dearth, comparatively speaking, of women artists. She had grown tired of all those who airily dismissed them as being afraid of failing. As she saw it, it wasn’t so much the fear of failing that held women back as artists, but the fear of judgment.

Things may have changed in countless ways since that essay was written in the 1970s. I’d say that they certainly have. Yet I would also say that she was right then, and right now.

Put your neck out, state your case, have an opinion, by all means. Just be prepared to be judged and found wanting. Since the advent of internet anonymity, any Jane or Joe Schmo can castigate anyone at all for any reason at all – real or perceived. They have nothing to contribute except their own negativity, and take it from me – that’s no way to live.

We call them trolls. They’re out there, and they are out to get you. Be prepared to stand your ground if you have to, and should you walk this perilous path of perfume reviewing, you will have to.

A few years ago, I received so much vitriol for my reviews I almost gave up writing. But that would mean they won.

Enter the terminal case of fuckits. Do it anyway if you dare, and this enormous post hasn’t completely discouraged you.

I see plenty of room in the perfume community for whatever type of reviews you choose. One form is no better than any other. Each has its own merits and drawbacks, and more to the point, each and every writer on this planet has his or her own unique voice. With just a little practice, that voice will out. Let it.

With super-special thanks to Margo and Liz for the spirited FB discussion that inspired this post.

Painting: Gerhard ter Borch, Woman Writing A Letter (1655)

18 thoughts on “How To Be A Perfume Writer

  1. You blow me away, Sheilalein😳
    If not for the insistent encouragement of Lucy, Maria Browning, Elena Vosnaki and (once upon a time) Victoria Frolova I would never have considered yipping about perfume publicly. There’s a great debt of gratitude there. We learn from one another if shen pa doesn’t get in the way.
    Love you.

    1. Paybacks are hell, Ida. 😉 Love is love, and gratitude is never over-rated. We do indeed learn from one another, and some among us are humble enough to admit to it, too! ❤

    1. Thank you, Portia. We can always dream that new reviewers may be inspired to bend the rules and experiment a little, if they dare! I, for one, hope they do. ❤

    1. Well, Val, they’re YOUR justly celebrated cookies, so there’s that. I could say something about unfair advantages, but that approach works for you. Stay tuned, darling, and thank YOU. For everything. ❤

  2. Thanks for taking the time to write out all of this. I appreciate the way you come at the topic of perfume, and I find similarity to the way I come at the topic of any topic. Nothing is linear, not even two-dimensional. Believing thus makes it hard for me to navigate the world, sometimes. Keep up the good work.

    1. I suspect you know there are far more than two dimensions, Deb. 😉 That knowledge may make it hard to navigate, but it does make for an interesting life! Thank you for commenting. ❤

  3. Thank you for this Sheila! You’ve managed to articulate thoughts that have been crashing around in my ever-busy “Monkey Mind” for a few months now. I SO appreciate your ability to keep it all real and authentic, and importantly in perspective. At the end of the day, for as much as I am passionate about fragrance, it all boils down to “Simmer down folks, it’s just scented liquid.” That REALLY pisses off the trolls. Bravo and three cheers for you this is a column for the ages, and once again I am in awe! 😘😘😘

  4. Such a great column dear Sheila! You’ve expressed perfectly and eloquently thoughts that have been banging around in my busy “Monkey Mind” for a while now. I so appreciate how you keep it real & authentic. Grazie!!😘😘😘

  5. Bravo dear Sheila, what a great column! You’ve given words to something that has been rattling around in my busy “Monkey Brain” for quite some time now. As always your clarity, wit, knowledge and authenticity are spot on. You are quite simply, a wonder. xoxo

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