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

49 Comments


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.

 

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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.

  2. I’m new to your blog, and this post is a great start for me.
    As I begin to go through these links, I thank you for this post!

  3. “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!

  4. 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?

  5. 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

  6. 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!

  7. “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.

  8. 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.

  9. Yay! Mark Twain was my guess. BTW, got 4HC on my X-mas wish list and translating it to German on my 2013 work wish list.

  10. 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 :)

  11. 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

  12. First of all Tim and Jeannette, thanks for the words of wisdom. As a food and nutrition blogger, it’s posts like these help the learning curve to not be quite so steep.

    Tim, please, please, pretty please, post George St. Pierre’s nutritional profile at some point. I’m sorry it didn’t make the cut, but it will make for a great post!

  13. It would be great to see the extra 250 pages as a digital supplement to the 4-Hour Chef. Perhaps you could release them as (a) Kindle single(s). I would be very interested in the GSP article.

  14. Tim Ferris, as soon as you finish promoting The 4-Hour Chef, you got to start writing The 4-Hour Marketing! There are so many genius ideas and spectacular resoults that you simply cant keep us stripped of all this knowledge! Fantastic work!

  15. I read bird by bird on your suggestion, it’s not until you mention it now that I realised writing was improving the way I think. Cheers.

    One of your plugins is detecting duplicate comments, though this is my first post!

  16. Hi Tim,

    I can’t wait to get my hands on the new book! (have both previous)

    Ordered on Amazon.ca Nov 27th, got an update today that it won’t be shipped until Jan 8th to Feb 4th! lol…. wish I could have it as my xmas gift!

    Cheers,
    All the best

    P.S Sincere congrats on the NYT bestseller achievement! You deserve it!

  17. Jeannette,

    I like the admonition for writers to never leave home without a good notebook. I need to start doing that. We’re much more likely to be able to capture the colorful details of an (expected and unexpected) important event or place or person if we take down notes in the moment than we are if we’re recalling it from memory days later.

    Since this post contains lots of writing tips from both Jeannette and Tim, I thought I’d share a couple that I’ve found helpful in my six years of writing professionally.

    This quote from Anton Checkhov colorfully demonstrates the “show, don’t tell” approach: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

    The best book on writing that I’ve read is “Style: Toward Clarity and Grace,” by Joseph Williams. It can get pretty technical (not in terms of its prose, but rather its content), but it’s well worth forging through. He analyzes what makes a good sentence and then what combination of sentences make a good paragraph, for example.

    Also, Tim, good list of writing resources. I will have to study them further.

  18. Tim -
    As I look to find my voice/vocation/my craft I find myself going from zealous motivation to deep discouragement and self-loathing (as far as writing is concerned). I don’t want to marginalize the journey of linking passion to craft, talent to skill. Any suggestions/best practices on how to sustain the peaks of motivation and mitigate the valleys of feeling hopeless on writing this journey?

    Thanks for all the resources and killer content brudda.

    Dan: Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic :: 12.5.2012

  19. Not at all on point, but I would like to reiterate the hope of seeing the GSP information online. Still working my way through the book …

  20. Hey Tim,

    I am reading 4 Hour Chef; and I wanted to answer one of the questions you had; about salt. Salted water “cleans” vegetables etc.. better because; most particulates are positively charged; that is why a negative ionizer cleans the air. That holds true for particulates that are attached to fruits and vegetables; when you submerge them in water with a little bit of salt; you are submerging them in an ionized environment; and so electromagnetically, dirt is coming off by itself without harsh scrubbing.

    Taking this knowledge one step further; if you have tupperware or glass containers that was holding something strong (like garlic) for a while and you can’t get the smell out no matter how many times you wash it; dissolve a fairly large amount of salt into hot water; pour the hot water in the container; and let it stand for a day or two. The ionized state of the salt water will pull all the aroma out of the plastic/glass and you will have a scent free vessel in a day or two. Hope that helps!

  21. Thanks for sharing, Jeannette and Tim!

    And thanks for all the resources! I am especially interested in the Design-Thinking Bootcamp, which is free–awesome!

    Also Tim, are we going to see the GSP nutritional profile on this blog?

  22. I’m re-inspired to sit down and write it out, old school.
    Tell a story with pen and paper, not just sitting in front of the screen trying to bust out the facts and motivate my reader…but share a story.
    Thanks Tim – great piece!

  23. Bonjour Tim, congrats on hitting your 1000 mark on Amazon ratings. I saw also that you were number 26 on hard cover and 5ooish on the ebook. I often wonder if they had an over all sales for the book how things would change. I obviously look a lot for my own books.

    I am also a polyglot and jack of many trades, but only in the top 20%, you have inspired me to become part of the World Class top 5%.

    All the best and thanks for the great meta-learning tips in the 4HC, (by the way I shot a banana opening video a couple years ago opening the it from the same side as the guy in the video, but you hold it like a joy stick – then nstead of pinching … you press down on the black part and there is a natural air pocket that makes a little POP and the seam splits making it easy to then peal away. The cool part though is the POP. Type Lucralover and ReThink bAnAnAs, if you want to see it on youtube.

    Peace, love and a brilliant 2013 to you!
    Greg

    ps Did you like my email address?

  24. I am starting your slow carb diet and there doesn’t seem anywhere to ask questions so this is the best area I can find.
    Can you eat the following foods?
    corn
    Kidney beans
    cheese for Mexican food
    Sour Cream

  25. So I am admittedly a bit behind on this one…

    One quick comment I had though: Tim, you are fantastic at writing about food. I have trouble putting the Four Hour Chef down, not even because of the content itself, but because of how you bring the ideas to life, whether it is a recipe, a method for building a fire, or a guide to learning a language.

    You inject your experience into the learning process. That’s what makes a great teacher or instructor.

    Cheers!

  26. Everything is very open with a very clear explanation of
    the challenges. It was truly informative. Your website is very
    helpful. Many thanks for sharing!

  27. I just wanted to say a big thank you. I found this site very inspiring. I have always been a prolific writer, and love the sensory world of writing. It has only been in the last year however that my love of cooking and food became part of my daily job where I create recipes for a Global company and in the process have been compiling various cook books. But because I’m your everyday woman and not a celebrity, I was finding it difficult thinking about how I could bring these books to life. I can’t believe how dappy I’ve been not to realise my passion for creative writing and my love of food and cooking could marry so well. I have a lot to learn and to read! But thanks to your site I know which direction to take and where to come if I need inspiration. Thank you :)