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Q&A -- How to be a better food writer


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#1 eGCI Team

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Posted 22 August 2003 - 07:30 PM

Please post your questions here

#2 David Leite

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Posted 22 August 2003 - 10:15 PM

Now, before anyone says a word, I'll admit there are a few typos in my lecture. (That's why it's never good to edit yourself.) Yes, I do believe that everything you write should be letter perfect. But do as I say, not as I do.

David

P.S. Now bring on the questions!
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#3 Fat Guy

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 05:35 AM

David, how did you go about building your Web site and how would you recommend that an aspiring writer with no technical knowledge and a limited budget go about creating a respectable personal-presence site?

By the way, thanks for an excellent lecture, I hope people realize how much information they're getting here that they'd normally have to get by flying to a writers' conference and listening to six different panel discussions, and also I'm pissed at you for not being there to give me all this advice when I was starting out. Thanks also for teaching me some new things and reminding me of a few things I knew but had stupidly forgotten. I'm feeling inspired right now. Maybe I'll even write something.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
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Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#4 Chad

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 06:58 AM

David, nice piece. Thank you.

Fat Guy, I hope David doesn't mind, but I can offer a tip on the web design. When I left my ad agency one of the designers left at the same time. He's a great designer and specializes in nifty websites, but he can't write for shit. We worked a tradeout. He's designing a website for me and I'm writing a brochure for one of his clients. He gets to offer a full package -- writing, design, et al -- to his client and I get a cool website. It's a good deal.

So one option is to seek out an independent designer or small web design shop and offer your services as a writer in trade for a small website. There's rarely any call for food writing, but if you can competently string together information about, say, a furniture store, then you've got something valuable to offer.

David, I made my living as a freelance writer many years ago but have been out of the game for a while. One of the ideas I've been toying with is having my clips, articles, TV commercials and ad pieces compiled into a CD. Do you think editors would be open to recieving something like this or is the standard packet of copied clips still the way to go?

Thank you,
Chad
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William Morrow Cookbooks
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#5 maggiethecat

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 07:57 AM

I hope people realize how much information they're getting here that they'd normally have to get by flying to a writers' conference and listening to six different panel discussions, and also I'm pissed at you for not being there to give me all this advice when I was starting out.

David, I am eternally grateful to you for being here to give me this advice, because I am that tyro.

I'm lucky to possess a daughter who's an aspiring writer with a day job. As my unemployment drags on, she applies the ever-useful kick in the maternal ass. "What are you working on, Mom? If you're not working, you'd better be writing. I'd give anything for a good four hour stretch every day in front of my laptop."

Margaret McArthur

"Take it easy, but take it."
Studs Terkel

1912-2008

A sensational tennis blog from freakyfrites

margaretmcarthur.com


#6 David Leite

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 08:53 AM

Steve,

Thanks for the kind words; I'm glad you got something out of the lecture. And I’m really glad I took copious notes when I attended those conferences. They have kept me, and now hopefully eGulleteers, in good stead.

Regarding building a Web site, I like Chad's idea of an exchange. I know of another writer who did the very same thing and is quite happy. Of course, you can go the traditional—and expensive—route of hiring a Web designer/master, but I find that unnecessary and counterproductive. Many designers understandably want to show off their talents, and often times the result is a Web site that’s way over designed, with lots of bells, whistles, and Flash elements all over the place. As a writer, you need a simple, clean site that’s accessible to everyone. I learned this the hard way. For awhile there I was feeling that my site was stodgy and flat. So I added all kinds of neat things, and I got a backlash from readers. I had forgotten there’s a whole world of people out there who don’t have cable connections or even 55k modems. So I removed the fluff and I now keep it simple.

That being said, most anyone can create their own text-driven site. I used Dreamweaver software, which is manufactured by Macromedia. I didn’t and don’t know a thing about coding and HTML, but the software is so intuitive, and the tutorial so clear, that I had a site designed in no time. One tip: Make sure you have you entire site laid out on paper first. I was so eager to get my site up and running that I decided I was too gifted and fabulous to bother with a paper layout. Hubris, thy name is David. Well, I ended up having to redesign my site three times. That’s a freaking lot of wasted time.

If people don’t want to bother with a software package, many Internet service providers (Earthlink, AOL, etc.) offer simple-to-use Web templates that are perfect for writers. All you have to do is plop in some text, upload it, and you’re in business. I’m familiar with
Earthlink (it’s my provider), and they have some pretty impressive templates, And best of all, their tech support is outstanding and free.

Some important things to include on your site:

1. An e-mail link on every page. Readers tend to be impulsive, and if they find something they like—or hate—on your site, they want immediate access to you. Supplying an e-mail link on every page eliminates the frustration of their having to hunt for an address.

2. A guest book. Granted, you want your site to be a cyberportfolio so that editors can read your work. This is especially helpful when you have few published clips. But you also want to make sure you attract as many readers as possible. By building a large database of readers’ e-mail addresses, you’re also building a platform for yourself. A platform is nothing more that a vehicle to reach an audience. When book editors are considering you proposal, they always look for a platform. Some lucky bastards have TV shows, à la Bourdain. Others have radio programs, such as The Splendid Table with Lynne Rossetto Kasper on MPR. While still others have a library’s worth of books they’ve written. We poor suckers who are just starting out have nothing. Building a following on your Web site is a powerful negotiating tool when you’re dealing with book editors. Plus, it’s always fun to have fans. CAUTION: Never harvest e-mail addresses from other sites or anywhere on the Internet. It’s poor form to so that, plus you’re creating SPAM. Every one of my 8,000 subscribers came via my guest book.

3. An easy-to-find and easy-to-use index of your work. I recently judged the writer’s Web competition for Writer’s Digest. I was last year’s winner, so I was asked to take a look at this year’s finalists. Many of them made it nearly impossible to find their work. They got trapped in bells-and-whistles hell, and style won out over substance. Visit my index. It’s clear, easy to find (the navigation bar on top is on every page), and offers up a description of each article so that editors and readers can easily find something that interests them.

Well, that’s it in a nutshell.

David
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#7 David Leite

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 09:01 AM

David, I made my living as a freelance writer many years ago but have been out of the game for a while. One of the ideas I've been toying with is having my clips, articles, TV commercials and ad pieces compiled into a CD. Do you think editors would be open to recieving something like this or is the standard packet of copied clips still the way to go?

Chad,

I'd stick with the tried and true. Although the CD is great idea, you run the risk of an editor not having a CD drive. Also, most editors are so harried that the last thing they want is to have to open a package, pop a CD in their computer, and hunt for the work. Remember, make it as easy as possible for an editor to read your work. Lastly, viruses abound, and an editor might be leery of the CD.

That being said, it might be worth your while to burn a few, and when you talk to an editor, ask her or him which format they prefer. Some like e-mail, others only want snail mail. You just might find a forward-thinking editor who would prefer a CD.

David
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#8 David Leite

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 09:06 AM

Maggiethecat,

Glad you found the information helpful. I know it's a bitch to find time, but if you wrote just one page a day, you'd have 365 pages in a year. That's novel length. One thing that has proven useful is to make a pact with another writer. Call her and tell her your sitting down for 30 minutes of unadulterated torture. When your done, call her and tell her you accomplished your mission. Or better yet, send her the work. This is what I did to get through two particularly loathsome articles. It worked.

David
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#9 FoodMan

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 09:14 AM

David-
Thank you for your time and for an informative class. It is very inspiring even for a person like myself who is not planning on writing for a living anytime soon (I should update my website though :smile: ).
Throughout your career what is the single most exciting/fun food writing assingment you experienced? Were there any unexciting/boring asingments?

Thanks again
Elie

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contact: enassar(AT)gmail(DOT)com


#10 fifi

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 09:16 AM

Thank you for an informative lesson.

First... I enjoy your writing. I remember reading your piece on the stove when it came out. My reaction was "I'm going to watch for articles from this guy. I like the way he puts words together." There are writers in that category that I re-read again and again because of the words.

I am not an aspiring writer and don't intend to be. I do write some, recreationally for myself or family. Professionally, I have written technical specifications and papers for many years. I am currently acting more as an editor and coach. Believe it or not, engineers get really snippy when someone messes with their precious prose. Could you expound a bit on the relationship between writer and editor?

Thanks again.
Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

#11 Chad

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 10:25 AM

I'd stick with the tried and true. Although the CD is great idea, you run the risk of an editor not having a CD drive. Also, most editors are so harried that the last thing they want is to have to open a package, pop a CD in their computer, and hunt for the work. Remember, make it as easy as possible for an editor to read your work. Lastly, viruses abound, and an editor might be leery of the CD.

That being said, it might be worth your while to burn a few, and when you talk to an editor, ask her or him which format they prefer. Some like e-mail, others only want snail mail. You just might find a forward-thinking editor who would prefer a CD.

David

Thanks, David! I'd suspected that the CD idea might put an unneccessary extra step in getting an editor to take a look at my stuff.

On the other hand, it's easier to load things like TV commercials and radio spots from a CD than from a website. I might just take the website & burn it to disc so navigating the CD is just like going to the site but without the download times. I'll save 'em for my ad agency clients, though, who are more used to that sort of thing.

Appreciate the advice.

Chad
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William Morrow Cookbooks
www.chadwrites.com

#12 Suzanne F

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 11:21 AM

David, as you can imagine, I'm also interested in your thoughts on the relationship between writer and editor :wink: No, I really mean that. As a copyeditor, I sometimes find it hard to figure out the writer's voice, so that I can make corrections without turning the piece into mine. And while I'm more than willing to correct factual errors, I'm wary doing it in a way that pisses off the writer. Can your ego speak for the wider world out there? :unsure:


For the record, David and I re-met in a copyediting class, and I looked over his Amanda interview for him. Believe me, this man knows what he's talking about; he's a very, very, VERY good writer.

#13 Diabolo Menthe

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 11:32 AM

David,

Thank you very much for the informative lecture. I have read a couple of interviews in which you mentioned you went from advertising to freelance writing. How did you cope financially? Can you really survive as a freelance food writer? Do you have any tips for those of us who want to ditch well-paid, but dull jobs for food writing?

Clueless Diabolo :blink:

#14 David Leite

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 12:03 PM

Throughout your career what is the single most exciting/fun food writing assingment you experienced? Were there any unexciting/boring asingments?

Elie,

I've had many exciting assignments. But I’d have to say the most exciting was the piece for Bon Appétit, "A Man and His Stove." It was my first essay for a national, well-respected food magazine. For whatever reason the piece just pour out in one draft—which is rare. There was no rewriting or editing. The only thing I changed was the name of Chihuahua Lady. I had originally called her Miss Chihuahua. A friend read the piece and was emphatic that Chihuahua Lady was funnier. I agree.

I also really enjoyed interviewing Amanda Hesser. It was a new form for me, and, as usually, I threw myself into the project without an iota of sense or how to do it.

The hardest and least pleasant piece I wrote was about the difference between French and American butter for Pastry Art & Design. I had no problem with the editors or the publication. What made it so unexciting was that it was a reported piece, which I had never done before. I had to call about two dozen people, interview them, transcribe the interviews, then piece the article together. There was little room for style. And my voice would have been very inappropriate for the publication. So I was bored by the reported and felt stymied because I couldn't write the way I like to.

David

Edited by David Leite, 23 August 2003 - 08:08 PM.

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#15 David Leite

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 12:50 PM

fifi and Suzanne,

Editors and writers. Usually they’re considered enemies. I have to admit, just about every relationship I have with an editor is a pleasant one. I think it has a lot to do with “The Rules.” I’m pretty meticulous with queries and copy. I make sure that everything is in order, that the piece is written well and flows nicely. Because I’m so neurotic, and I always believe an editor will hate my work, I tend to go overboard. But working the piece until it says what I want it to say, making sure the grammar is correct and the structure is sound, and delivering it a day before it’s due, makes for good relationships.

Recently, I was asked to breakfast by the executive editor ofBon Appétit to discuss a story I have in the upcoming Christmas issue. I was so certain that I was going to be fired that I e-mailed her about whether this was going to be a good discussion or a bad discussion. Good, she said. And in fact, it was. There was only a small transition that had to be fix, and I was given another assignment. I write this for two reason: 1.) If you follow “The Rules” and make sure you dot your I’s and cross your T’s, you’ll be in good shape, and your editor will love you. 2.) That it’s totally normal to freak out grande-style every time an editors calls you. It’s part of the game.

Now, I have been privy to copy of established “star” writers before it was sent to editors. With one, I was in awe; her copy was amazing. With another, I was shocked to see how poor his piece was. It’s as if he dashed it off and expected the editor to make it work. That’s when strain and tension seeps in, and that’s when a writer feels her copy is butchered and when an editor feels grizzled because she has to do all the work. You’re the writer, and it’s your job to write well and fulfill the assignment—from tone, style, manner, even word count.

But the most important thing is to find editors who get your work. You have a style that’s all your own, and if you’re true to it, you’ll be limited in where your work can appear. Not every publication will want your writing, and that’s okay. Cultivate relationships with editors and publications that can do your work justice. Also, ask editors out to lunch. I’ve been surprised by how many editors took me up on my offers. And then at lunch you can ask any question you wish about how they see their publication (or publishing house), how you can break in, how they see your work fitting in. It’s worth a try. All they can say is no.

Suzanne, regarding copyediting a writer’s work, it’s a tough call. As you know, I’ve had my brush with copyediting a manuscript, and you walk a fine line between augmenting a writer’s voice and completely obliterating it “in the name of correct grammar.” One think you can do, and it is very time consuming, is to read previous works by the author. This can clue you into her style and voice. Also, the stronger the voice, the easier it is to shepherd it though the process of copyediting. It would be pretty damn hard to mess up a piece by Steingarten or Trillin. Their voices are so distinct and so strong that you naturally fall into their rhythms, cadences, and word choices as you edit.

Unfortunately, many writers rely on the copyeditor to give shape, style, and voice to a piece. My advice is after your first cursory read through, decide then and there if you can be faithful to the writer’s voice. If you can’t, return it. I think any editor would respect your decision. Better to back out early than to screw up a manuscript.

I hope this answers your questions.

David

Suzanne mentioned that she “looked over” my interview with Amanda Hesser before it was published. What she’s not saying is that she fixed some grammar problems and inconsistencies—in record time. She copyedited the entire piece faster than I could look it over myself. I mentioned in my lecture that early in my career I hired an editor to help me get my copy in shape. Well, I suggest that anyone who needs help, hire Suzanne. She’s an excellent copyeditor and line editor, and she can help you if the only thing you remember about grammar is that “it’s ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’.”
David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

#16 David Leite

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 01:11 PM

I have read a couple of interviews in which you mentioned you went from advertising to freelance writing. How did you cope financially? Can you really survive as a freelance food writer? Do you have any tips for those of us who want to ditch well-paid, but dull jobs for food writing?


Diabolo,

I’ll admit I had a bitch of a time making the transition. I didn’t actually leave advertising, it left me. In early 2001 I finished a freelance job and expected to get a call in a few days for another. That’s how it was for seven years: You go from job to job and ask for an obscene amount of money. Later that year, I had major surgery and I was out of commission for the rest of the year. In the meantime, the economy tanked. I couldn’t find work anywhere. The Pollyanna-Shirley Maclaine part of me thought this must be the universe’s way of pushing me into food writing fulltime. I would have been content to do both for a few more years.

To be honest, making it financially was hard. I went though all my (substantial) savings while recuperating and while trying to find other advertising work. I even started pulling from my IRA. But now things have gotten better. I’m getting steady work (actually more than I can handle), and I’m making more money per article. But to really make it in the field, you have to be a multi-tasker. Some food writers teach cooking classes. I teach writing classes. I coach some people in how to make the writing business work for them, I even help people build Web sites. I got a great freaking agent, David Black, and I’m working on a book proposal. I work my Web site six was to Sunday in order to build a bigger platform for myself. I attend every food event possible, talk to as many people as I can without getting hoarse, and I’ve broken the bank taking editors to lunch. But the moral is all this is starting to pay off.

My advice to you: Keep your day job and work the hell out of your night job (aka food writing). If you keep plugging away and learn the craft, it will pay off. I believe you’ll eventual be able to make the transition. But I would say make sure you have enough money to support you and your family for one year. And during that year make all those relationships you cultivated while doing the grueling 9 to 5 grind work for you. In short, set it up so that when you do fly solo, you have resources, support, and contacts.

Best,

David
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Leite's Culinaria

#17 Fat Guy

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 01:48 PM

David, for the author starting out with few or no clips, what's your position on the question of queries versus completed manuscripts? Does a total unknown stand much of a chance of getting an acceptance based on a query, or is it better to write the piece, send it in, and stick it on a personal Web site if it gets rejected?

Also, what do you think about writing for free? How much of that can and should an author be doing? There are of course some authors who have absolute personal prohibitions against writing for free -- they just won't do it. Then there are others who believe that a mix of free, low-paying, and high-paying work is the best way to maintain a high profile while being able to write what you want. Also, assuming you are in favor of a mix (which I assume you are, given that you've so charitably donated your time to make a presentation here), what are some of the best unpaid and low-paying outlets for aspiring food writers? You mentioned University newspapers. I can think of two other sources: personal Web sites and the Webzine we publish here on eGullet. What else comes to mind?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#18 Suzanne F

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 03:56 PM

:blush: :blush: :blush: (= blush X 3, for those who don't use extra smilies).

Edited by Suzanne F, 23 August 2003 - 03:57 PM.


#19 David Leite

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 04:33 PM

Steven,

You ought be an interviewer with the questions you ask.

Regarding queries vs. manuscripts, I think it’s a toss up. I know some editors who don’t mind getting a full manuscript if it has a laser-like focus and is right for their publications. Editors know that new writers are in a catch-22: They need clips to get into a magazine, but they can’t get clips unless they're in a magazine. Other editors hate manuscripts.

But before eGulleteers go off and start banging away at their computers, I’d suggest calling or e-mailing an editor and asking if he minds a full manuscript. Or request writer’s guidelines. Lots of magazines have them, although not as many as before. I also recommend joining mediabistro.com. The site has a section called “How to Pitch,” which is filled with interviews with editors from all kinds of magazines. A new writer can get a head start by going there first.

Here's the upside of submitting a manuscript, albeit in an unusual setting: I was speaking to Ruth Reichl at a party a few years back, and she told me of a man who approached her in Barnes and Noble. He simply handed her a manuscript. (Why he was walking around with a manuscript at the ready, I’ll never know.) She was a bit dumbfounded, but accepted it. She liked it so much, she published it. I think it was about mangoes, or some such fruit. So, hey, you never know.

I think writing for free is a viable option for a new writer. Sometimes a publication has no money, but it’s an opportunity to get a clip. I know some writers balk at the idea, but I find it’s usually the ones who aren’t getting too much high-paying work. I’m all in favor of mixing paid and unpaid work. It gets an authors name out there. Hell, about one-third of my site is unpaid writing. (Someday I’ll get around to paying myself. :hmmm:) As I said in my lecture, one of my columns written directly for my site got into Best Food Writing 2001. That pays a small honorarium, which was a pleasant surprise. But more importantly it gets my name and the name of my Web site out there—a crucial thing when you’re trying to build a career. And even when a writer is established, I think it’s important to give back. All of us have benefited from the generosity of others, and it’s only fair to pass that on to newcomers.

As far as outlets for unpaid work, good question. I know no big publication will take unpaid work. I asked Margo True, deputy editor of Saveur, if she would accept a free article. She said that if an article is good enough to be in the magazine, the author will get paid. That aside, I think smaller publications, neighborhood newspapers, college newspapers, newsletters, and, as you said, Web sites and Webzines are good venues. eGullet and the Daily Gullet are perfect places for a writer to start out. What many eGulleteers may not know is that editors from major publications lurk on the site. So a writer’s work does get read by influential people. Another place a writer can get published, and get paid a small sum, is the essay sections of newspapers and some magazines. My very first essay, which had nothing to do with food, was submitted to The Providence Journal. I was thrilled when it ran, and I received something like $25. But what’s interesting is several people actually tracked me down and called to say they enjoyed the piece. (This was before e-mail. Yes, I’m that old.) So if a writer has a keen eye, she can find places everywhere to write for free or for a small recompense.

David

Edited by David Leite, 23 August 2003 - 04:50 PM.

David Leite

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#20 tanabutler

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 05:12 PM

Of course, you can go the traditional—and expensive—route of hiring a Web designer/master, but I find that unnecessary and counterproductive. Many designers understandably want to show off their talents, and often times the result is a Web site that’s way over designed, with lots of bells, whistles, and Flash elements all over the place. As a writer, you need a simple, clean site that’s accessible to everyone. I learned this the hard way. For awhile there I was feeling that my site was stodgy and flat. So I added all kinds of neat things, and I got a backlash from readers. I had forgotten there’s a whole world of people out there who don’t have cable connections or even 55k modems. So I removed the fluff and I now keep it simple.

That being said, most anyone can create their own text-driven site. I used Dreamweaver software, which is manufactured by Macromedia. I didn’t and don’t know a thing about coding and HTML, but the software is so intuitive, and the tutorial so clear, that I had a site designed in no time. One tip: Make sure you have you entire site laid out on paper first. I was so eager to get my site up and running that I decided I was too gifted and fabulous to bother with a paper layout. Hubris, thy name is David. Well, I ended up having to redesign my site three times. That’s a freaking lot of wasted time.

If people don’t want to bother with a software package, many Internet service providers (Earthlink, AOL, etc.) offer simple-to-use Web templates that are perfect for writers. All you have to do is plop in some text, upload it, and you’re in business. I’m familiar with Earthlink (it’s my provider), and they have some pretty impressive templates, And best of all, their tech support is outstanding and free. 


David, I'm one of your 8000 subscribers, and I would like to say that your web design is uncommonly lovely—especially since you say you did it yourself. As a website designer (and a copywriter myself), I can tell you that, unfortunately, I don't recommend that everyone do it themselves. The large majority of self-made websites I see are, well, embarrassing.

One well-known food site, while full of information and articles that are compelling, is so cluttered and ugly (bad colors, bad nav, HTML-based text, no style sheets) that I can't bear to go there. I subscribe to their newsletter, but I can't visit the website. I don't mean to be a snob, but the screamingly bad colors and the junky looking graphics just shriek "unprofessional." I can't take them seriously. My brain doesn't want to take in information if it's presented in an appealing way—just as my mouth doesn't want to eat something, no matter how healthy, unless it tastes good.

Websites shouldn't be terribly expensive, and I agree that bells and whistles are just a big ol' turn-off. Save them for the high-end ad agencies. I strive for designs that look like gallery walls or good magazines: lots of white framing with clean, elegantly-formatted text and graphics. I start in Photoshop and do the layout there, from the design I'd started on graph paper. For those new to the process, there are certain basics you decide beforehand like "800x600 or 640x480 or ______?", etcetera. I think your suggestion for using templates is probably a good one, given the choice between that and do-it-yourself if, say, you're a better writer than graphic designer.

Is it really your experience that designers just want to show off? I hope that's not true. I never ever want to "show off my talents" unless it is in the service of finding and highlighting the essence of my client's work. I won't take a job unless I feel I can do justice to their products or services—it's just not enjoyable. I have gotten several jobs just from approaching artists whose work I admired and got enthusiastic about. Those are the ones I can say, "This is going to be beautiful."

I recently judged the writer’s Web competition for Writer’s Digest. I was last year’s winner, so I was asked to take a look at this year’s finalists. Many of them made it nearly impossible to find their work. They got trapped in bells-and-whistles hell, and style won out over substance. 


Darn it, I wish you'd post links to the winners and others. I'm such a voyeur.

Finally, you said this:

eGullet is a great place to cozy up to a favorite writer.


I just want it known that I do not aspire to write for the LA Times. You know who you are, Mr. "I Have Your Cookbook." :biggrin:

David, I really like your instructive post—I'll be reading it again. Many thanks for the time and the visit. And congratulations on your tasty website. You shot, you scored!

#21 fifi

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 05:30 PM

David, I am not a professional like tanabutler but I just want to second what she said about your web site. It is um... lovely. That is the best word I can come up with. It is now in my favorites. I am glad that this came up because I fear that many folks with web sites don't realize how those things project the personality and substance of the host. I do a lot of document (and web site) analysis by putting myself in the end user's shoes and it is sometimes a difficult thing to do. I am sometimes (well... most times) appalled at how the incredibly vast IT department, that is supposed to meet my needs, just doesn't get it. You did well.
Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

#22 David Leite

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 06:46 PM

Tanabutler and fifi,

I'm genuinely touched. It’s so gratifying to know that my site and all that goes into it has an effect on people. As both of you know, when you're sitting alone at a desk day in and day out, you lose perspective. You have no idea if what you’re doing makes sense to a visitor.

You both bring up a very good point, and it’s one that I think all people who are about to embark upon designing a Web site should heed: Remember the end users. Put yourself in their shoes; imagine how they, visiting for the first time, would react. Is the site easy to navigate? Is it appealing to the eye? Does it have a cohesive graphic point of view? And most importantly, does it, as fifi said, reflect the personality of the owner?

Tanabutler, you also touched upon a topic that I neglected to mention: design. Having been in the arts all my life, I kind of take it for granted that everyone has a good eye. Yes, poor design is a real problem with so many sites. I have to chuckle at some of the sites that lead the list on Chef2Chef’s 100 Top Culinary Sites. They’re appalling.

I don’t want people to get discouraged, though. DreamWeaver has some built-in templates that are beautiful and have good color palettes. All a newbie has to do is drop in text and upload it. I think the big problem is when people decide to create a site from scratch. That’s when you see the really awful designs and blaring neon colors. And I agree that if a writer isn't comfortable with design, the templates offered in DreamWeaver and by some ISPs are the way to go.

About the runners up in last year's Web site competition, you can see their sites here. This year's winner and runners up haven't been published yet. (Speaking of user-friendly sites, I spent twenty minutes trying to find this link using Writer’s Digest own search engine. Nothing. I went to Google, and it found the link in seconds.)

>>“You know who you are, Mr. "I Have Your Cookbook."<< Tanabutler, you have peaked my interest! Is this meant for me?

Best,

David

Edited by David Leite, 23 August 2003 - 06:49 PM.

David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

#23 kmania

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Posted 23 August 2003 - 10:35 PM

David,

Thanks for a great introduction to the field. I'm a freelance pet writer and former magazine editor, and your advice is perfect on all counts. It's my goal to do some food writing (other than "Raw Diets for Dogs" and "Understanding Pet Food Labels"), so I was really happy to see this topic announced.

I attended a writers group about a year ago that had a panel of three editors. One of them was Katie O'Kennedy, managing editor of Bon Appetit. Her advice was to try to break in with short, newsy pieces. The rules for BA: introduce yourself in a letter, send clips, don't send articles on spec, and send queries to the executive editor (who at the time was Victoria Von Biel--I don't have a current issue handy to make sure she's still there). Another thing to remember when sending a query is that most magazines, including Bon Appetit, are planned a year in advance, so you really have to think ahead.

Kim

#24 David Leite

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Posted 24 August 2003 - 05:54 AM

Kim,

Your post reads like Bon Appétit's writer's guidelines. Everything is as you said. Bon App’s goal, from what I can gather, is to find good writers they can cultivate relationships with and whom they can turn to when they need stories those writers write. For instance, I don’t think any editor there is going to turn to me for a feature with ten recipes; it’s not what I do well.

Victoria von Biel is still the executive editor. And she's the person clips should be sent to, unless a writer makes a connection with another editor.

The best place to break into Bon Appétit, or any big publication, is the front of the book: "Saveur Fare" in Saveur; "News & Notes" in Food & Wine; "Starters" in Bon Appétit; and "Good Living" in Gourmet. It's very hard to break into Cook's Illustrated, unless you're an amazing cook and intrepid scientist. I'm interviewing Chris Kimball, founder and editor-in-chief, for my Web site, and I'll be curious to hear what he has to say about breaking in. Taunton's Fine Cooking requires a similar kind of writer, and from what I gather many of the people in this forum are of the writerly rather than the cookery persuasion.

Writers shouldn't forget about Sunday supplement magazines such as Parade, which has one of the largest circulations around. But you have to have a very targeted idea. I can't help out here because I don't know what they're looking for. Men's magazines often have a column devoted to food, and women's magazines are bursting with food articles, but they're light on the writing and heavy on the recipes.

I think that pretty much covers the gamut of publications. If you've never written for a specific magazine, you should call or write for the writer's guidelines. They can save you a lot of time and pain from slamming your head against the wall.

One last thing: Every writer who's serious about his or her career should bookmark Sauté Wednesday. It's without a doubt the most comprehensive food directory around. It lists all the sites of newspaper sections, international newspaper sections, sustainable cusine, food professionals, chefs, food writers, food magazines, food science, food sites, dining out, food blogs, wine, and recipes. It's a must for anyone who needs to ramp up quickly on what's out there.

David

Edited by David Leite, 24 August 2003 - 06:26 AM.

David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

#25 Fat Guy

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Posted 24 August 2003 - 08:46 AM

David, I guess the question that arises from all this talk of what editors want is when to comply and when to think outside the box. If the mission is to distinguish oneself from the pack, one way to do that is, obviously, to do exactly what editors say they want you to do. That will leave behind the 99% of the people who can't even focus enough to follow the clearly stated rules. But there isn't even enough work for that remaining 1%, is there? So what do you do, once you've followed the rules, to put yourself into the elite inner circle? You've mentioned developing a unique voice. Anything else? And do you think there are times when, to get through to editors, you actually need to break some rules?

Another question is magazines versus newspapers versus online writing, from the perspective of a budding author. Given the ridiculously (and unnecessarily) long lead times of so many magazines, does it make sense for a writer who is trying to build clips to focus resources in that area, or should newspapers and online be prioritized in the clip-generation phase?

You've mentioned queries. I think a lot of people reading along might know what the word means but not have a good idea of what a query really involves. So, how to write one? Or, how to learn how to write one?

And the larger issue: how does one learn to write well? Can it be taught?

Finally, will you share with us some of your most disastrous gaffes as a writer? This will help us all (except you) to feel good about ourselves.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#26 plax

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Posted 24 August 2003 - 10:33 AM

David,

Thanks for all your great advice. Knowing how you try to promote your website, I feel a little less guilty for using one of your essays in my college writing class-- Lights, Camera, Recipes -- with very clear attribution and a link to the site for further info. It's a great way for students to see that they can connect to their families through their ethnic cuisines, and I've had students come up to me afterward and say that they want to do something similar with their relatives.

Along those lines, I'd like to add a possible market for food writers in college alumni magazines. If you find somebody with an interesting story, always ask about their education, and perhaps their college magazine will be interested.

Neil
Author of the Mahu series of mystery novels set in Hawaii.

#27 jersey13

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Posted 24 August 2003 - 05:08 PM

Hi David,
I had forgotten when this course was supposed to start, but I'm glad I'm not too far behind. :smile:

I wanted to ask: Does your food writing repertoire include recipe writing? We had exchanged PMs on the subject before the start of this course (nice job BTW) and I am thinking that if one gets into recipe writing then the article that goes along with it usually consists of the background on the recipe and the pitfalls, etc..much like what is seen in Fine Cooking, etc. Any info/thoughts on that?

About the web site/free writing: I've done some freebies on web sites, etc,. and it is a good way to build a portfolio. One thing though: be sure and save the HTML files of your work because if the site goes under, your work is gone and your MS Word documents won't look nearly as impressive as proof that you actually did appear on a web site. Also the HTML files can be placed on your own web site down the line. But I am not a big fan of providing too much free content as it takes the same amount of time to produce as ther paid stuff. :wink:

Also, on having your own site, try and get your own domain name as being on a freebie server with a www that is 3 lines long doesn't look too professional. There is alot of competetion out there for hosting so it can be found very cheaply. And, since the sites will be content driven and low on glitz, you won't need a super fancy hosting package. :smile:

As for Dreamweaver, you can download copies from macromedia.com. The actual software does not come cheap. If you have a buddy in graphic design, offer to cook a gourmet dinner in exchange for some lessons. :smile: But, if you have MS office, Front Page comes loaded. Personally I use D4, but I do have Front Page. I am assuming it has a tutorial.

P.S. I can't guarantee anything but If any of my "classmates" need a bit of advice while building their sites, I'm glad to answer whatever questions I can. :smile:

Edited by jersey13, 24 August 2003 - 05:08 PM.


#28 Bruce Cole

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Posted 24 August 2003 - 08:57 PM

David - thanks for the tremendous essay on how to break into food writing (and for the kind words about my site), now I'm inspired to quit procrastinating...I think your advice in regards to grammar and turning in a perfectly done and edited piece is right on. My grammar is terrible (as anyone who may visit my site has probably noticed), but I have never really considered doing anything about it. Thanks for the enlightenment.

Another way to get your work on the web is to go to Blogger.com and start your own "blog". You instantly have your own website, and can publish your writings on the web in minutes. I use Moveable Type, which is also a "blog" type publishing software, but it requires a bit of html saavy. Although I haven't used it, the folks at Moveable Type have recently launched Typepad, which seems to be a very user-friendly version of MT (Arianna Huffington is using it to chronicle her campaign journal in the California recall election).

Websites really do work, I got a freelance gig when an editor read my site, and I get lots of emails from big-time writers, like that David Leite guy...which turn into valuable contacts.

#29 David Leite

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Posted 24 August 2003 - 10:12 PM

David, I guess the question that arises from all this talk of what editors want is when to comply and when to think outside the box. If the mission is to distinguish oneself from the pack, one way to do that is, obviously, to do exactly what editors say they want you to do. That will leave behind the 99% of the people who can't even focus enough to follow the clearly stated rules. But there isn't even enough work for that remaining 1%, is there? So what do you do, once you've followed the rules, to put yourself into the elite inner circle? You've mentioned developing a unique voice. Anything else? And do you think there are times when, to get through to editors, you actually need to break some rules?


Steve,

No, there certainly isn’t enough good work to go around, and, yes, a writer has to really stand out. Editors of major publications and of important publishing houses are always searching for the next M. F. K. Fischer, Jeffrey Steingarten, Elizabeth David, Amanda Hesser, etc. Moral: Being a great writer is always the easiest way to gain entrée into the inner circle.

To be a good writer, though, a person has to know his subject, his craft, and the business of getting work. This can’t be stressed enough. You can be a great writer, but if you know diddly about food, you ain’t going to get published. Likewise, you can be a walking encyclopedia of food knowledge, but if you can’t string together compelling sentences, you won’t see your name between the covers of major publications. And if you’re a wonderful writer who knows a lot about her subject but doesn’t have a business head, ditto on getting published. So it’s a trinity of elements that makes for an outstanding writer: Skill, knowledge, and business acumen.

One thing that can help a writer stand out from the rest is to find a niche and work like hell to master it. That was the first piece of advice given to me. Melanie Barnard, a writer for Bon Appétit and a prolific cookbook author, led a panel about breaking into the business: Finding a niche was the point she hammered home. I took it to heart and began a one-man crusade for Portuguese cooking. Soon I was getting into publications with pieces about Azorean cuisine. Being an expert is a sure way of getting work. And when editors know that you’re the “Portuguese guy” or the “chocolate woman,” they seek you out, instead of the other way around.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Develop relationships with editors. When you speak to an editor at a party, conference, food event, etc., you make an impression. Your personality, charm, intelligence, and knowledge come through (for better or worse). Editors are smart people. They’re skilled at sizing up a writer, and they’ll be evaluating whether you’d be a good fit for their publications. So be prepared and know what you want to say.

One thing they teach at business conferences is the “elevator speech.” Imagine you have only 20 floors worth of time with the editor of your dreams. What would you say that would sum up who you are, what you do, and what you can do for her? I thought this was a bunch of bull until I tried it. I gave myself 30 seconds to sum me up, and I couldn’t do it. It took time to craft “my speech.” It may be a simplistic exercise, but it does point up the fact that most of us have diarrhea of the mouth, and we blather on when we should be making every second count.

Also, if you’re going to an event and you know an editor or writer you admire will be there, do your homework. Look over the previous few issues of the editor’s publication or do some digging into the writer’s career. It will give you something to talk about, and it will show the editor you know how to do a bit of research—a sign of a good writer. It’s all about being prepared all the time.

A writer should spend as much time promoting herself as she does writing. And I don’t mean beating a drum or wearing a sandwich board. What I mean by self-promotion is anything that keeps you visible. My day is divided in half. The mornings are when I turn outward and spend my time e-mailing editors and publishers, working on my site, sending out queries and notes, posting on eGullet, inviting editors to lunch, writing my e-newsletter, and so on. The afternoon is my writing time. It’s when I turn inward and focus on my assignments. The next day, it’s the same thing. This combination of external and internal work, of spreading the “gospel according of you” and doing the work at hand, keeps your career and your business moving along. Eventually, you’ll get noticed.

Lastly, you can break the rules to get to an editor as long as you know the rules you’re breaking. Sure it’s okay to toss a three-sentence query at an editor over his private cell phone while he’s running to his cardiologist. But you better be sure you know what you’re doing. You better know whether that editor takes verbal queries. You better make sure you know your stuff inside out so that if the editor is intrigued you can capsulize your idea in those all-important 30 seconds. And you better pray you have a kickass funny answer when he asks you how in hell you got his private cell-phone number. Again, it’s all in the preparation. And although I think of myself as an outrageous kind of guy, I wouldn’t risk breaking the rules with a new editor unless I knew her threshold for improvisation.


Another question is magazines versus newspapers versus online writing, from the perspective of a budding author. Given the ridiculously (and unnecessarily) long lead times of so many magazines, does it make sense for a writer who is trying to build clips to focus resources in that area, or should newspapers and online be prioritized in the clip-generation phase?


Newspapers are supposedly easier to get into, and that’s how I started. Lead times are very short, sometimes almost nonexistent, so a writer could in theory send in a query in August about truffle season. And because the turn-around time is shorter with newspapers, a writer can get paid faster (usually), as well as build up a clip file more quickly. Of course, online writing is even more immediate. Web sites can turn around a story in the time it takes the writer to write it. That’s the upside. The downside is most sites don’t pay well, if they pay at all. But clips accumulate very fast when you write for the Web. So, the short answer: If it’s clips you’re after in a hurry, online and newspapers are you’re best bet.


You've mentioned queries. I think a lot of people reading along might know what the word means but not have a good idea of what a query really involves. So, how to write one? Or, how to learn how to write one?


A query letter is a writer’s greatest tool. A well-written one can open a lot of doors; a poorly crafted one can end up as joke fodder at the next staff meeting.

There are lots of books out there about how to write the perfect query letter. I remember reading a good book by Lisa Collier Cool. I think it was titled “How to Write a Perfect Query Letter.” There’s a formula to follow that’s pretty standard:

1. Greeting. Make sure you correctly spelled the name of the editor. And make sure you have her right title. If you don’t know it, call the receptionist at the publication.

2. Grab them. The first paragraph is where you entice the editor. I prefer to treat this as if it were the lead to the actual story. And in some cases, I’ve used the beginning of a query for the opening of the article. Make this paragraph compelling, startling, interesting—anything to make sure the editor will read your second paragraph.

3. Lay it all out. Once you’ve grab the editor’s attention, you have to explain your idea. Be clear and concise. Show by how you present your idea that you know the voice and point-of-view of the publication. Outline the whole article in just a few sentences. This includes who you’ll interview, where you’ll go, and most importantly: Why you? Why are you the perfect person to write this story? Do you have some connection to the topic (as I do with Portuguese food)? Do you have contacts that other writers don’t? Do you have an expertise that makes you uniquely qualified?

4. Boast a bit. Close the letter, which should be no more than one page, by telling something about yourself. This isn’t the place to dredge up childhood traumas but rather to summarize your writing career. If you’re new, don’t try to hide it. List related experience, if you have any. If not, just say that you’re starting out and you appreciate the editor’s time and consideration.

5.Contact. Funny enough, writers will angst over a query letter then forget to give contact information. Make sure you list your telephone number, e-mail and snail-mail addresses.


And the larger issue: how does one learn to write well? Can it be taught?


To be blunt, some of us have a way with words, some of us ain’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn to write well. I’m confessing this for the first time in public: I sucked at writing until I was in my early thirties. When I entered college and took the English placement test (the one that determines whether or not you can skip freshman English), I got a C+. And when I had to write all those stupid papers for English class, I never got an A. Or even an A-. I simply sucked. I think it was all my journaling that helped improve my writing. It certainly wasn’t reading, because I hated to read until I was an adult.

But, of course, becoming a skilled writer doesn’t mean you’re a good writer. One of the best ways to learn to write well (not just technically well) is to attend a writing class or group. By reading other people’s work, as well as writing your own and getting feedback, you learn what makes a good essay, or article, or book. The different elements are broken down—exposition, plot, narrative arc, dialogue, character, etc.—so that you get a better understanding of what makes a piece of writing work. And I suggest you take classes in fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, and in any and all forms and genres because it will inform your work.

Finally, will you share with us some of your most disastrous gaffes as a writer? This will help us all (except you) to feel good about ourselves.


My most disastrous gaffes? Hmmm. Well, in one of my first articles, which was about tea, I must have gotten a bit creative with geography because I made it plain and clear that China was not a part of Asia.

In a piece about champagne, I let my spellchecker do my work for me, and I ended up spelling Veuve Clicquot as Verve Clicquot, and it was published as such.

At a writer’s conference, while chasing after an editor, I fell down a short flight of stairs. (Damn those new shoes!) When introducing myself to the group at the same conference, I forgot the name of my Web site.

For one article, I had to interview this very important person, and I never turned on the tape recorder. So I had no record of our one-hour interview. I had to call under the guise of checking quotes (something you NEVER do), and I re-asked some of the questions.

Shall I go on?

David
David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

#30 TPO

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Posted 25 August 2003 - 06:11 AM

David,

Thanks so much for all of this great advice! I first found your website after the Writer's Digest award, and have enjoyed it ever since. And thanks for the gaffes!

I have a couple of questions about approaching editors. First, there are lots of sample query letters out there to see, but I have never seen an example of an introductory letter sent with clips. What should this type of letter include?

Also, I have done food writing for years in various weekly newspapers, but now I'd like to move up and try to get into weekly food sections in the daily newspapers in my region. I have read conflicting information on this. You just mentioned sending queries while others say the only way to get in is sending a completed manuscript. What do you think is the best way to approach daily newspapers?

Thanks,
Tammy
Tammy Olson aka "TPO"

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