WELCOME to “How to Be A Better Food Writer,” aka “How to Break Into Food Writing.” I hope this lecture answers some of your questions and helps you as you embark on a food writing career.
I‘ve spent a long time figuring out the best way to present this information. I contemplated giving an “advanced” lecture, whatever that means, but I kept remembering the classes that I’ve taught and the mistakes students made over and over again. So I decided to start with the basics. Groan, I know. But the truth is ninety-nine percent of out-of-work writers don’t follow the ground rules. Also I know that all of you aren’t at the same point in your careers, so a primer is in order. For those who have heard all of this before, it doesn’t hurt to hear it again. We can touch upon specific and advanced topics in our after-school time, which is from today until Saturday, August 30th.
There’s an unfortunate inverse relationship between the number of assignments out there and the number of people who want to write them. Accept it because it’s never going to change. The only thing you can change is yourself, by learning as much as you can about the field, the craft of writing, and the business of getting work. My goal is to offer up pertinent information that can help give you the edge over other writers vying for the same assignments.
People always ask me how they can become food writers. My answer: write. It’s that simple, yet I’m amused and amazed at how many people who want to be food writers never sit theirs asses in a chair and write. The desire to write is enough for them. Dilettantes abound, I guess. But I can’t stress this enough: If you want to be a writer, then write. Set aside time everyday and never let anything get in the way. Not you wife, lover, partner, day job, the lottery, paroxysms of despair or loneliness. Nothing. It’s the only way you’ll be able to see your strengths and weakness, and it’s the only way you’ll improve. And don’t think you corner the market on procrastination. I suffer from it everyday. In fact, my apartment is never cleaner than when I have a looming deadline. The solution: Get over it. See a shrink; join a group; make a commitment to your spouse, your dog, your high power—I don’t care who; or just sit down at your computer, take a breath, and start. And remember what Ann Lamott says in Bird By Bird, Everyone writes a shitty first draft. That’s what they’re for. Once you get it out of your system, you can move onto you less shitty second draft, and so on.
THE RULES (or how to make an editor love you)
The underpinnings of a successful food career are ridiculous simply, and they are the same things you’ve heard a million times. Yet they bear repeating. At every food conference, editors keep hammering home the same “rules," because most writers never bother to follow them. Below are the same points, which if you memorize them and make them part of your work ethic, you’ll be way ahead of plenty of wanabee writers. These are the points I followed, and they helped me to break in to the field very quickly.
1. Learn to write a grammatically correct sentence. Basic, sure. Almost insulting, I know. But I’ve sat with editors at lunch, and I can’t believe the horror stories I heard. These editors even showed me query letters that are so poorly written and weakly constructed that they end up in the wastebasket or, worse, pinned to a bulletin board so that staffers can crack up at the idiocy of the writers. If you don’t know how to write or are unsure of your skill, take a class. It will hold you in good stead. Editors love nothing more than to read a query letter that’s well thought out, well written, and makes its point clearly and effectively. The same goes for copy. When you send in an article, make sure it’s letter perfect.
I thought I was a skilled writer, after all I spent fifteen years as an advertising copywriter and kept a journal for two decades. But when I sat down to write my first article, I froze. It was utterly painful, and I couldn’t remember ninth grade grammar for anything. Thankfully I found and paid for a freelance editor to check my work before I sent it in. I was shocked at how many mistakes I had made in grammar and structure. I worked with that editor on quite a few articles until I knew I could fly solo. Even now, I take classes in grammar, copyediting, editing, proofreading, etc. It all adds up.
2. Start at the bottom. This is almost an edict from on high. And it’s a good one to heed. If you’re new, you need to start somewhere. But that somewhere doesn’t have to be a local penny saver, thank you very much. Think creatively. Perhaps a local newspaper would be open to a new voice in their food pages, or a college publication could benefit from your point of view. (Taking a writing course at a local college allows you to write for the school newspaper. The clips you’ll get are more than worth the cost of tuition.) Or maybe a travel guide needs someone to write brief reviews of local restaurants. Hell, write about your favorite place and send it in to Zagat’s. It’s a start.
Of course, if you enjoy breaking rules, you just might luck out. For my first article, I decided to hell with starting at the bottom. I was thirty-eight and I didn’t feel like banging out anonymous pieces for neighborhood rag sheets, so I started at the top. I queried only three newspapers: The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Sun-Times. New York and LA blew me off, but to my great surprise, the Sun-Times bit. Two months later my story filled almost the entire front page of the food section. From there I had a happy two-year run with the paper.
3. Know your market. At those same lunches, editors ranted about idiot writers who submitted queries that had absolutely nothing to do with their publications. Nothing pisses off editors more than this. I think an editor would rather have a doltish writer who nails the right kind of story for her magazine—after all, she can always work with him to jumpstart his writing—than a great writer who just doesn’t get it. (This doesn’t give you permission to go out there and be your doltish best. Writers who are sharp and can deliver the right story with the right slant are the ones who are asked back.)
How do you study a market? Read the past twelve issues, as well as glancing at the tables of contents for the preceding two or three years. Yes, it’s a lot of work but imagine how embarrassed you’d be if you submitted to Saveur a kickass query about truffle foragers in the Périgord only to discover it did the same story two years ago. A move like that shows ignorance and/or laziness and kills any chance for future articles. Also, publication styles and points-of-view change. The best example of this is Gourmet. Editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl made sweeping changes—some good some bad—but the magazine today isn’t what it was five years ago.
4. Have patience. Okay, you’ve spent hours, sometimes even days, writing the perfect query, and you’ve e-mailed it to an editor. Chances are you’re going to want a response RIGHT NOW. Unfortunately, that editor receives tons of queries each month. Margo True, deputy editor of Saveur told me that she gets more than two hundred queries each month. (And about only ten are well written enough and follow the above guidelines to merit attention. Out of those ten only two or three make it into the magazine.) Every editor I’ve ever spoken to says to give them time and the benefit of the doubt. Calling or writing too soon or too much only assures you’ll be branded annoying. What’s a reasonable amount of time to contact the editor if you’ve heard nothing? About three to four weeks. A simple e-mail or phone call is in order. But make it short. When I first started out and editors didn’t know me, I wrote exactly out what I would say over the phone. No chitchat, just in and out. Remember you’re not trying to make a best friend; you’re trying to get your work published.
5. Develop a distinctive voice. This is easier said than done. In fact, I’ve never heard a sufficient definition, but, hell, I’ll give it a try. Voice is the unmistakable sound, rhythm, and point-of-view that unequivocally evokes the writer. You know it when you read it. As an exercise, read passages written by Jeffery Steingarten, Calvin Trillin, Tony Bourdain, M.F.K. Fischer, and Ruth Reichl. When you’re reading them you can hear the authors' voicees in your head. And more importantly, you can never confuse or interchange them. Bourdain is NOT Steingarten, who is NOT Trillin, who is NOT Reichl. But voice is not simply writing the way you speak. That’s transcription. That being said, I meet Jeffrey Steingarten, and he does speak the way he writes. Talk to Bourdain, and you instantly recognize his voice in his writing. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t inherently interesting enough or big enough personalities to pull it off, as these masters do. Most of us have to work at finding and developing our voice. But when you succeed, editors will use you again and again.
Granted there are plenty more rules that a writer should follow, but they tend to be peccadilloes of an editor rather than hard-and-fast rules. The above guidelines are pretty much industry wide. Follow them, and you’ll increase your chances of getting your foot in the door.
New writers are always asking for tips on breaking into their favorite magazines. Sometimes, though, it has nothing to do with writing the world’s greatest query. Although talent is all important, as I said, developing relationships with editors can help you figure out what they’re looking for.
1. Group Grope. One of the best ways to meet the editor of your dreams is to attend conferences. I know of a lot of writers who think these gatherings are a bunch of boloney, but I’m living proof that they work. Last year I attended the Symposium for Professional Food Writers at the Greenbrier. Barbara Fairchild, editor-in-chief of Bon Appétit, was one of the speakers. After she spoke, I lunged for the microphone and asked how could I work for her and the magazine. She was very gracious and said to send in my clips. (Where have I heard that before?) Determined to get into the pages of the Bon Appétit, I approached Barbara afterwards. We chatted, and she asked would ever consider moving to LA. Hardly. I’m too earthquake-phobic. She offered to meet me for drinks the next time she was in New York. (Right, like that would ever happen.) When I got home, I sent off my clips and forgot all about it. Several weeks later she e-mailed me and asked me to meet drinks. To make a long story short, I got a call several weeks later from the managing editor asking if I would be interested in writing a piece. Since then, I’ve written three articles for them. Without having met Barbara, chances are I wouldn’t have gotten into the magazine. At the time I had a handful of clips, only one of which really showed off my ability as a writer. Moral of the story: Sometime the way into a publication is the backdoor.
CAUTION: Never descend upon an editor, she won’t appreciate it. Be thoughtful and sensitive to her situation and realize that every other writer in the room will be gunning for her. Tact always wins out. Also DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT send anything to Barbara. She’s the editor-in-chief, and her time is taken up with chiefly duties. Call the magazine and ask to whom you should send your clips. Depending on your experience and interests, you’ll be instructed to send your work to the appropriate editor. Also don’t bother querying them. Their writer's guidelines clearly state to send only clips. Of course, if you meet any of the editors at a conference, all's fair in love and writing.
2. Flattery gets you everywhere. I read this tip in a book, and I’ve recommended it to my students ever since. Whenever you read a piece that you really like, think about writing a note to the author. Every writer likes knowing that his work affects readers. Think of the note as an introduction. It’s not tacky to mention that you’re a writer and hope to write for [insert name of publication here] someday. But easy does it; don’t be obsequious. The writer will sniff out your insincerity a mile away.
eGullet is a great place to cozy up to a favorite writer. Several months ago I wrote to a Q&A subject to tell her I admire her writing. We e-mailed back and forth for a while, discussing the business, editors, agents, etc. Two weeks ago, I got an e-mail from her announcing her new position as an editor of the food pages of a prestigious newspaper. She then asked me to submit some queries to her. In short, develop a relationship with a writer, and you may make an ally and perhaps even a mentor.
3. Mix it up. Attend every food event in your area; it’s a great place to meet important people in the industry. For example, I belong to the Culinary Historians of New York. I enjoy the programs, and I’m always impressed with the culinary luminaries who attend. I went to a talk led by William Grimes. I started chatting up Anne, the woman next to me, and she in turn introduced me to her friend Stephen. Later a friend pulled me into a corner and asked if I knew who I was speaking to. I said no. She told me I was chatting with Anne Mendelson, author of Stand Facing the Stove, the biography of the creators of The Joy of Cooking. Her friend was Stephen Schmidt, food writer and author of tons of cookbooks. Moral: You never sit next to your friends at any food event. Remember you’re at work.
4. Think locally, write globally. If you live in east of nowhere and are particularly intrepid, take a look around. Is there some trend happening in your town in Iowa or Colorado or South Carolina that might seem like yesterday’s news to you but might prick up the ears of a New York City editor? The only time I’m envious of people living in rural areas is when it comes to food writing. Major publications, which are usually in big cities, are always on the prowl for stories like the local farmer in Virginia who makes incomparable raw-milk cheeses or the ninety-year-old ex-madam in Arkansas who makes the best lavender jelly. Here in New York, every square foot of sidewalk has been pounded by hundreds of writers looking for a story, and that’s frustrating. Find the right topic in your own backyard and you might see your name at the bottom of a front-of-the-book piece, those short (100 word) stories typically found right after the table of contents in a magazine.
5. Create your own Web site. Yes, this is a shameless plug for my site, Leite's Culinaria, but the truth is Web sites work. Before I had relationships with editors, I would query them via e-mail and include links to several articles on my site. Nine out of ten times, I got the assignment. Also, my column “Abstinence Makes the Taste Buds Grow Fonder,” which was written for my site, was chosen to appear in Best Food Writing 2001. Until I had enough clips from publications, I used the site as a way to show editors what I could do. In addition, it allows me to try out different kinds of writing, most notably my interview with Amanda Hesser. The piece has proven so popular that this week I secured an interview with Chris Kimball, founder and editor of Cook’s Illustrated. Behind those glasses and prim bowtie lies the heart of a ‘60s radical, and I look forward to finding out more. In addition, I’ve been wooed by many publishers who are interested in my interviewing their authors. In short, the site offers me entrée to authors and publishers who might never give me the time of day. On top of that, I get the chance to pick the brains of writers whom I admire, which only enriches me and my writing. And that’s cool.
I know this barely scratches the surface, but I think it’s time to open up the floor to questions. Please ask anything about breaking into the field or being a better food writer, and I’ll do my best to help. I purposely didn’t answer the questions some of you have posed to me earlier because I thought it would be most useful if you ask them again here, where everyone can participate.
I look forward to chatting.
Please post your questions here -->> Q&A
Edited by JAZ, 05 October 2004 - 11:59 AM.