How to Become a Great (Food) Writer: The Big Secret

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My first handwritten brainstorm for The 4-Hour Chef, here in a signed copy of The Art of Simple Food by the inimitable Alice Waters.

—-

“Don’t be intimidated by the red. You’re all good writers.”

I remember Professor John McPhee saying this when he handed back our first weekly writing assignment.  We were 12 or so college seniors in “The Literature of Fact,” his once-in-a-blue-moon seminar at Princeton University.  The red was Pulitzer Prize-winning McPhee’s edits and deletions.

Each of us looked down in shock.  In some cases, his suggestions exceeded our own black text.

Over the subsequent weeks, our writing tightened.  Oddly, as the red shrank, as the flowery adjectives and filler disappeared, my grades in every other class shot skyward.

What I learned: writing is the fastest way to improve your thinking.  This carry-over is enough reason to put pen to paper, even if you never intend to publish. Just a week or two of writing for friends can work wonders and produce breakthroughs.

The author of the following article is Jeannette Ferrary. I wanted to include this piece in The 4-Hour Chef but, alas, I had to remove more than 250 pages due to space constraints, including gems like this, a nutritional profile of UFC champion GSP, interviews with the incredible Chef Wylie Dufresne, and more.

But you’re in for a treat.

Jeannette is a food writer for The New York Times who has contributed to everything from Bon Appetit to Gastronomica, reviewing restaurants and penning features. She is the author of eight books related to food, including biographies, memoirs, and cookbooks.  She also teaches writing courses at Stanford University. Last but not least, Jeannette studied cooking with Simone Beck and Julia Child in Châteauneuf de Grasse, France.

In other words, she knows both food and writing inside and out. Here are her lessons learned…

Enter Jeanette

I like to begin my food writing courses with a quote about eating an apple that makes everyone’s mouth water. It also often generates a nostalgic tear in the eye because, well, read for yourself:

“I know the look of an apple that is roasting and sizzling on a hearth on a winter’s evening, and I know the comfort that comes of eating it hot, along with some sugar and a drench of cream. I know the delicate art and mystery of so cracking hickory-nuts and walnuts on a flatiron with a hammer that the kernels will be delivered whole, and I know how the nuts, taken in conjunction with winter apples, cider and doughnuts, make old people’s tales and old jokes sound fresh and crisp and enchanting…”

The fun begins as people try to guess the words’ author: a culinary memoirist perhaps, one of those journalist-chefs we read only on Wednesdays; the blogger du jour? Whoever it is, one thing is clear: the person knows how to write. So maybe you love food and your great aunt has left a bunch of yellowing recipe cards that you want to transform into a cookbook spiced with family stories and heritage. Or maybe you’re obsessed with those Hatch chiles from New Mexico and you want to expose their specialness and wonders to the wider world. Or your dream is to become the restaurant reviewer for The New York Times.

You might begin by starting a blog of your own, investigating writing assignments in publications you respect, taking a writing course or a cooking class, getting involved with a culinary organization where you can interact with food-world people on a peer level. But there’s something more basic that you have to do: you have to write what you love. What are you interested in? What fascinates you? It’s a good idea to become obsessed with whatever it is so you can happily lose yourself in your subject and maybe drive everyone around you crazy with your enthusiasm. When you’re writing what you care about, it shows. There’s an energy and vibrancy and sensuousness to your work that you can’t fake. It will sound like you and nobody else, which makes it valuable and unique. I know, I know: you want to know how to become a great food writer. So here’s a little story:

On my first trip to France almost 30 years ago, I went to a restaurant in Cannes called Lyonnaise Provençal which offered a four-course meal for eighteen francs, or about four dollars. Because this was my first real meal in France, I allowed myself the splurge of an extra two-and-a-half francs for a quarter liter of wine. The squid arrived in a boat-shaped dish under a dark tomatoey sauce rich with herbs and with something deeper to say, something more profound than a tomato’s usual discourse. Carrot Provençal was just strips of sweet carrot with orange zest and lots of small but important olives. Salade appeared as a simple bunch of leaves with a surprising message: lettuce can have taste. The cheese course was accurately if too audibly described by an unmistakably American guy a few tables away: “The camembert,” he repeatedly informed his dining partner and everyone else in the room, “is dynamite.”

So why should you care? Because here’s the point of all this: Take notes. These events led directly to the publication of the first article of my food writing career. More recently I used specifics such as these in many chapters of my memoir, Out of the Kitchen: Adventures of a Food Writer. If you want to be a writer whose work is lit up and energized by the telling detail and the palpable freshness of the moment, get yourself a nice, little easy-to-carry notebook. And don’t leave home without it.

Oh, and read as much excellent food writing as you can find, like that in the first paragraph. That would be Mark Twain, by the way. In other words, great food writing is…great writing. Simple as that.

[About the Author: For more on and by Jeannette, please visit her site.]

Books/Resources For Writing

TIM: It’s me again.  I have a lot of thoughts on writing, perhaps because I find it so damn hard.  Here are a few things I’ve loved and learned since 2005.

Bird by Bird: Some Lessons on Writing and Life – If you spend a lot of time working alone, this book is required reading.  It has saved my sanity countless times, and it has done the same for several friends who’ve gone from the deadline hell of “I want to quit” to the New York Times bestseller list.

Out of the Kitchen: Adventures of a Food Writer  – This memoir, by the author of this post, traces her journey from youthful ambivalence about food (“women’s work”) to food writer for The New York Times. In the process, a number of legendary cooks and personalities make guest appearances, including Simone Beck, Craig Claiborne, Alice Waters, Judy Rodgers, Julia Child, and Jacques Pepin.

The Stanford d. School “Show Don’t Tell” Design Thinking Bootcamp – How do you create the most powerful story arc, whether written or visual?  These fascinating (and free) presentations will kick your creativity into high gear for unique and compelling story structure.

Professor Jennifer Aaker’s “How to Tell a Story” Class – At the very least, try the six-word story exercise. Hemingway made it famous with what he called his best work: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”  Hat tip to Avi Solomon for pointing me to this.

Writing Online And For Magazines

From First TV to Dr. Oz: How to Get Local and National Media – This post includes the actual query (pitch) I emailed to Wired Magazine that landed a 4-page-plus feature piece.

How to Build a High-Traffic Blog Without Killing Yourself This article explains how I went from 1 blog reader (Thanks, mom!) to more than 1,000,000 monthly readers by doing the unconventional (e.g., posting once every 3-4 weeks instead of daily).  In the accompanying keynote from the annual WordCamp conference, and using my own blog as a case study, I explain best practices, debunk blogging myths, and cover how to harness data for better results.  For the record, I suggest first-time bloggers use WordPress.com as a blogging platform.  It’s the most Google-friendly (search rankings) out-of-the-box, and I’ve found it easiest to use.

David Lebovitz – Food blogging tips from David Lebovitz, former pastry chef at Chez Panisse and author of six books.

Food Blog Alliance – How-to examples for food bloggers (recipe attribution, shooting food videos, etc.).

Selling Books, Hitting Bestseller Lists

12 Lessons Learned Marketing The 4-Hour Body – This is a step-by-step explanation of everything behind the launch of The 4-Hour Body, which ended up hitting #1 New York Times and outselling The 4-Hour Workweek 5-to-1. If you’re curious about what it takes to keep a book on the bestseller lists for more than four years unbroken, this will give you a rare behind-the-scenes picture.  As of this writing, I’m also the only author besides Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games) to have two books in the top-10 of the Kindle “most-highlighted books of all-time.”

Publishers Lunch – The publishing industry’s daily email digest of deals.  Learn about books up to a year before they hit the shelves: what sold to which publishers, which agents sold them, and <gasp> how big the advances were.  If you’re hoping to sell a book (non-fiction is best sold before it’s written), this is where to find agents who rep your genre of book, and to discover who is good at creating bidding wars for the big bucks.

Good Food Writing – Exemplars

By no means an exhaustive list, here are a few short stories and books that have inspired me.  Each represents a different genre. Consider them a starting point:

Brigade de Cuisine is a New Yorker short story and profile by John McPhee. If you want a taste of why McPhee’s writing makes me cry into a pillow about my own, try this or Coming into the Country.

Heat: An Amateur Cook in a Professional Kitchen is a narrative autobiography by Bill Buford. I quote this book like mad.  It’s absolutely hysterical and one of my all-time favorites.  The style is reminiscent of George Plimpton, another of my idols.

How to Cook a Wolf is a Depression-era autobiography with interspersed recipes, both by M.F.K. Fisher.  Yes, I’ve now recommended this book twice.  Go get it.

Like Water for Chocolate (Como Agua Para Chocolate) is award-winning fiction by Laura Esquivel. If you like this and want more foodie fiction, try Mistress of Spices next.

Best Food Writing 2005, 2006, etc.  This is an annual anthology of good food writing compiled by Holly Hughes, who pulls from newspapers, books, magazines, blogs, and more. Contributors range from Ruth Reichl and Anthony Bourdain to Jonathan Safran Foer and J. Kenji Lopez-Alt.  There’s something for everyone and the pieces are, ahem, bite-sized for easy consumption.

 

Posted on: December 1, 2012.

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49 comments on “How to Become a Great (Food) Writer: The Big Secret

  1. Wow, thanks for all the great links– I’ll be bookmarking this. This also brought back memories of creative writing classes in high school and college with the red marks galore. It reminds me there’s always room for improvement in everything I write, even today.

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  2. “What I learned: writing is the fastest way to improve your thinking.” – Agreed. Your timing works out perfectly. Jumping into writing just recently. Thanks for the additional push!

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  3. Great post. In the intro, you mentioned you did a nutritional profile of GSP. I can only imagine. The guy’s a machine! I’d love to see it. Will we be able to find that anywhere?

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  4. Tim,

    In the notes above you mention BPA and microwaves. I can’t find any reference to this bisphenol-A in the Four Hour Chef or The Four Hour Body. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the preliminary data on BPA.

    Thanks,
    -JD

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  5. Great post Tim! I enjoyed this post so much. I need to get Jeanette’s book asap. I really enjoyed her perspective on writing whether on food or about anything else that you are passionate about. I love her quote, “great food writing is…great writing. Simple as that.” BTW, I am so impressed that you are an Annie Lamott fan. I always loved her writing especially Operating Instructions and Bird by Bird. You are truly a renaissance man!

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  6. “What I learned: writing is the fastest way to improve your thinking.” So true, and also to lose your fear of writing.

    As a high school slacker and having written a grand total of one paper in those four years, yes really, (and I did graduate, barely), I wrote my first book just to see if I could actually write 200 pages of anything. It was a horrible grueling intimidating process. Editing is worse, by the way.
    But, now I have no fear what so ever of writing the next one. Marketing it, that still scares me! Always look toward the next hurdle.
    Cheers.

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  7. Finding words to describe food and the food experience is mind expanding because you’re taking the sense of taste, and finding words to match that experience.

    Teaching kids to appreciate and describe food from an early age is a wonderful gift parents can give to enrich the lives of their children.

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  8. I’ve done ghostwriting work in just about every niche besides food writing, but this makes me want to give it a try. That paragraph on French food alone is making me hungry!

    Thanks for the interesting insight :)

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  9. Tim,

    thanks for sharing Jeannette’s work. I so value the point of sharing your passion because it shows in your writing! I have that in the forefront of everything I do now. Many thanks.

    bon appetit

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