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

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Taillevent

Um, I don't know what that is. :smile:

But see what I mean?

Now, if the person looks at you with slitty eyes and fairly screams, "Darling, what do you mean you don't know all the dishes that were served on opening night of Taillevent," you have my permission to accidentally spill your glass of wine on him. And you get extra points if the wine is red. Double points if you try to mop up the stain with you napkin, which just happened to have the remains of a greasy mini crabcake topped with red-pepper coulis.

hehhehhehhehhehhehhehheh

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Thanks for sharing your experience. I've been poring over your text and everyone's questions and I'm sure I'll refer to them in the future. I've got a good amount of clips and some small but steady food writing jobs. Now I'm charged up to give my website some attention.

Do you have any tips on how to get people to visit your site? Also, are there copyright or other legal issues in posting articles I've written that have been published elsewhere? Do I have to ask the newspaper's or mag's permission to reprint my stuff? I'd do it in my format, say where it first appeared, and provide a link to mag or newspaper site.

Thanks,

Claudia

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Taillevent

Um, I don't know what that is. :smile:

But see what I mean?

Point made.

I didn't know what it is was, either. I had to interview ten esteemed James Beard award-winning restaurateurs, and all of them mentioned Taillevent (a classic restaurant in Paris). I was clueless. I finally got up the nerve to ask one of them, and she gracious told me all about it. So one down, ten million to go. That's the only way to look at it, otherwise you freak yourself out and you'll never get anything done!

David


David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

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Thanks for sharing your experience. I've been poring over your text and everyone's questions and I'm sure I'll refer to them in the future. I've got a good amount of clips and some small but steady food writing jobs. Now I'm charged up to give my website some attention.

Do you have any tips on how to get people to visit your site? Also, are there copyright or other legal issues in posting articles I've written that have been published elsewhere? Do I have to ask the newspaper's or mag's permission to reprint my stuff? I'd do it in my format, say where it first appeared, and provide a link to mag or newspaper site.

Thanks,

Claudia

Hi Claudia,

In an earlier post, I mentioned several important elements that can drive traffic to your site. Also visit the homepage of you Web hosting service. Most have pretty sophisticated support pages that offer formatted HTML elements, such as guest books, bulletin boards, etc.

Regarding the rights to your articles, it depends on your contracts. Most publications offer First North American Serial Rights, which gives them the right to publish your article first. After a set period of time, the rights revert to you. (Some top newspapers retain all rights. That means they can publish your piece in any form, in any place, as often as they wish, and you won’t make a cent. It sucks, I know. So make sure you’re willing to sign away all claims to your work before signing on the dotted line.) If you don't have a contract, you can do anything you want with your story.

On my site, I always post the date and publication of every article and provide a link to the publication. It makes for good relationships.

David


David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

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David:

It seems to me that a majority of food articles and restaurant critiques that appear nationally are written in a positive vain. Sometimes the author goes over-the-top in enthusiasm for the subject and while my initial reaction would be to hop on a plane and find that farm to indulge in the best peach ever (for example) my lasting impression is that all of the accolades couldn't possibly be sincere. I appreciate reading an article more that has some criticism and some realism which I don't find in most food writing.

Do you feel a pressure to be positive in your writing? What do you feel the ramifications are if someone were to submit a negative review or piece to a publication?

On a side note: Thanks for an enjoyable and enlightening discussion!

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Another question more along the line of Monica's, do you have any tips on conveying the overall sensory experience of food without sounding trite? I am not a food writer by any stretch of imagination, but this has been a nagging question for years.


Ya-Roo Yang aka "Bond Girl"

The Adventures of Bond Girl

I don't ask for much, but whatever you do give me, make it of the highest quality.

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David-

In terms of reviewing drafts, how do you do it? I am thinking I need an outside source, but people I've showed stuff to (including my husband) have not been critical- they just say "it's great". I need more than that.

How, if you do, do you go about soliciting criticism before you submit something to an editor?

Thanks!

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David:

It seems to me that a majority of food articles and restaurant critiques that appear nationally are written in a positive vain.  Sometimes the author goes over-the-top in enthusiasm for the subject and while my initial reaction would be to hop on a plane and find that farm to indulge in the best peach ever (for example) my lasting impression is that all of the accolades couldn't possibly be sincere.  I appreciate reading an article more that has some criticism and some realism which I don't find in most food writing.

Do you feel a pressure to be positive in your writing?  What do you feel the ramifications are if someone were to submit a negative review or piece to a publication?

On a side note: Thanks for an enjoyable and enlightening discussion!

Raynickben

I appreciate your point. This is how I see it: A publication’s main goal is to make money. It would certainly go belly up if it ran a five-page, including recipes, about the mealy apple crop in upstate New York. Or a lead feature about a big restaurant town in Texas that serves up some of the worst food in the state. I think you get my drift. To stay alive and to interest readers, a publication and its editors have to choose stories that are evocative, engrossing, and, cliché as it is, appetizing. Readers rely on publications to find the best, greatest, the most flavorful out there. No one would subscribe toa magazine devoted to the merely mundane and mediocre.

I think you’re taking issue with the effusiveness of writers, the over-the-topness of their prose. And you have a very valid point. Too many superlatives ruin a story, and eventually, the reputation of the publication. So editors have to walk a fine line: Present lively, interesting stories without alienating readers with fulsome writing.

Food news and restaurant criticism is where you’ll find a goodly number of negative/balanced stories/reviews. It’s the nature of the beast: Some restaurants will be winners, others will be duds.

I’ve never be forced to write something positive. I’ve always been able to write the way I want, from my point of view. But none of my work is criticism. It’s mostly essay. (Granted you can dump in an essay.)

I don’t think any self-respecting, ethical editor would refuse to include a negative review in her publication. But I’m sure she would refuse a negative review that was badly written. Contrary to what all the ranters out there may think, writing a well-written pan is hard. No one wants to read more than a few lines of awful prose about an awful restaurant. It’s all in the craft. There was a review (by a famous critic whose name I forget) of the Broadway play “I Am a Camera” by Christopher Isherwood. (This is the play that “Cabaret” is based on.) The review, which was the proverbial shot heard round the world, simply read, “No Leica.” While it’s pithy, it does show that you can trash anything using good form.

I hope this answers your question. I’m sure there are editors lurking out there who can answer this far better than I.

Best,

David


David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

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David, I am really enjoying this class. A question for you -- do you ever get writers block.. what do you do about it? Help!!

Monica,

I don't usually suffer from writer's block. My big problem is procrastination, which you can call a block to writing.

Those few times that I did have writer’s block, it became clear that there was something wrong with the story. I was being too ambitious or trying to force fit a piece of my “loveliest prose” into a place that it doesn’t belong, and so on. If the block is due to a structural problem in the piece (and it isn’t always easy to figure out why you’re blocked), I start over. I get out a pencil and paper and I outline the story; this usually give me a new take on the piece and I can see where I went sadly astray. If a block is more entrenched, sometimes you have to walk away from the work for a while. (This is why it’s always a good thing to start an assignment the day you get it. The last thing you want is to be blocked two days before the piece is due and you’ve barely started.)

Of course, there are those writers who have made careers of being blocked. In fact, they’re more well known for their block than for their work, which makes me wonder if they’re really stuck or are just really good marketers. Fran Liebowitz has been on more talk shows talking about her monumental case of writer’s block than she has been for talking about her writing. (Great work if you can get it.)

There were a book I read years ago for psychology class that I enjoyed. It’s called On Writer’s Block. I’m not sure it’s still in print, but it put forth some good ideas.

A writers group is always helpful. It’s always comforting to know that other people are as screwed up as you!

Best,

David


David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

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David-

I am still trying to understand the how the relationship of writer/magazine/editor really works when it comes to publishing a story.

Where does a food writer get most of his work exactly??

Does he or she normally find their own story or is it assigned to them?? for example your article "A Man and His Stove" was very entertaining, but why did you write it ??was Bon appetit looking for such a story to publish?

Please let me know if my question(s) do not make sense and I will try to re-phrase.

Thanks

Elie


E. Nassar
Houston, TX

My Blog
contact: enassar(AT)gmail(DOT)com

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David-

In terms of reviewing drafts, how do you do it? I am thinking I need an outside source, but people I've showed stuff to (including my husband) have not been critical- they just say "it's great". I need more than that.

How, if you do, do you go about soliciting criticism before you submit something to an editor?

Thanks!

pattimw,

I read the draft over a few times, make changes, and print out a new draft. This continues until I'm satisfied. If I need feedback, I have a few people I go to for different things: food content, voice, humor, accessibility, and grammar.

Husbands and wives aren't always the best choice. After all, we've spent our entire marriages training them to tell us how wonderful we are. Does this sound familiar: "Can't you find one @&^%!%! good thing to say about my [insert hot topic here]?!?!?" Asking your husband what he thinks of your writing is like asking him, "Honey, do I look fat in these pants?" Don't go there!

Like with Monica, I'd suggest a writer's group. There you’ll find people who you can trust with your work and who will be fair and critical. Also the teacher can help you in ways the students can't. I’d suggest hiring an editor, but that would be more appropriate for the final draft, not earlier versions.

David


David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

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Elie,

Your questions make perfect sense. Some stories are assigned, usually after you have a relationship with a publication, many others are queried.

My story “A Man and His Stove” was kind of a hybrid. The managing editor called and said that Bon Appétit would like me to write something for its “People & Places” column. (The editors had read my clips and like my style and voice.) She then asked me to submit some ideas. My next two articles for them were assigned and had very specific topics.

For other publications, especially newspapers, I continue to query. Just last week an editor from a newspaper e-mailed me and asked for queries. I’ve never been assigned a story from a newspaper editor.

Now that I know many editors, a query may be only a five-sentence paragraph, but the idea is still generated by me. I think you never get to the point where all your articles are assigned. I think it’s always a mixture of both.

Best,

David


David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

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This is a truly amazing experience - so much incredible info and how to. Reminds me of a Kurt Vonnegut reply when asked what, in his opinion, was the 'art of writing". Vonnegut: "The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one's pants to the seat of the chair." David, you have said that, albeit with greater diplomacy, and it is so true. Thanks.

Aside from writing articles, I am also a translator. I am currently editing a book on chiles, and preparing it for review by the author, and then prospective pubishers. (Don't ask at this point about the relative positions of cart and horse!) There appears to be a big limbo area in this market: pubs wanting different and 'authentic' perspectives, and people out there producing them - in something other than English. This, I have learned, is not the province of the typical translator working today (books or technical/commercial/legal documents). So, does one query pubs in the US w/sample of the trans plus a thumbnail bio of its author? Any thoughts?

Thx

Theabroma


Sharon Peters aka "theabroma"

The lunatics have overtaken the asylum

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I'm going to cut in here with a brief message from eGullet management. We didn't want to announce this prematurely, and it's still a couple of months away from actually happening, but Jason, Ellen (Shapiro, Adventures in Eating coordinator), and I have been working with Web designer S. Fred Golden (who did the original eGullet site design, the Fat-Guy.com site design, and the "Gully" character) and a couple of technical people to create what we think will be an excellent, low-cost, professional-looking template for authors' personal presence Web sites.

The design will be built around the MovableType software, which we believe is one of the best tools for single-author content management. This software provides a Web-based interface whereby the author can add content every week, day, or minute, and the new "articles" (which can be actual articles, or just updates of any kind, or even photographs) are automatically placed at the top of a list of headlines and excerpts, with clickable links to the full articles. The software also provides indexing, search capabilities, and a newsletter mailing list manager. In addition, the design will support static pages such as "About the Author." Right now we're in the process of having Fred create an author site for Ellen. Once that design is complete and we have debugged the site, we are going to offer the same service at a favorable rate to our Daily Gullet contributors and moderators. The idea will be that, having done all the hard work on Ellen's site, Fred can offer a deep discount to anybody who wants a similar design but with different colors, patterns, and cosmetic elements -- the basic structure will remain the same but it will be easy for Fred to create infinite variation on the front end. And with our powerful new server, which should be online in a couple of weeks, we will have the capacity to host 50-100 small author personal sites at very little additional cost to us. We will have the ability to host top-level domain names and we have our own e-mail server, as well as 24/7 server support in a secure facility. We have not set the price yet, but it will probably be a hundred bucks to Fred for a design plus a nominal yearly fee to us for hosting. We are not in this for personal gain -- the fee will be to cover our server costs, plus a little extra to help towards the costs of the eGullet site. And we think it's a necessary service. There doesn't seem to be anyone out there designing a basic infosite template for freelance writers. The Author's Guild has done a nice job providing a basic template for book authors, but it's not useful for journalists -- we also hope to provide a larger range of options in terms of site appearance.

If you're interested in receiving an update about this service, send me an e-mail steven@fat-guy.com and I'll keep your name on a list. When Ellen's site is ready for public viewing, you can take a look at it. Fred will also prepare a couple of hypothetical illustrations of the types of customization that can be done. We are most likely looking at late September for this.

Thanks David, and sorry for the interruption. It's just that I've received several e-mails saying in essence, "David says to do a Web site, do you have any hints?" So I thought I'd go public with this here.


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)

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David;

I can't thank you enough for all of this -- I've been an aspiring writer for some time and have a few, small published articles but have a book within me that has been languishing. Thank you for kicking my complacency in the butt. There is so much here to take in and I am thrilled.

Interestingly enough, here in Napa there has been several attempts at a $180 seminar at Copia being taught through U.C. Davis on food writing. I say attempts because I have registered and had my tuition refunded every time. They are going to try it again in late September but I think this time, I'll forego the money and spend more time reading through all your answers and looking into the books you have referenced.

There is more I want to say -- but ironically, words escape me at the moment. I just need you to know that you have touched the lives of many people and I am looking forward to having your name as an acknowledgement when my book gets published.

With my hand over my heart, bowing...

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David, do you have any advice specifically for aspiring book authors? I think much of the discussion until now has assumed newspaper-magazine-Internet journalism.


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)

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BondGirl,

This is a very tough topic and merits its own thread. But I’ll give it a shot.

Clichés abound in culinary description, as do superlatives and overwrought metaphors. (My favorite: “The corn tasted like the sun.”) In the kind of writing I do, sensory description doesn’t play as big a part as it does, say, in the work of a restaurant reviewer. But nonetheless, a food writer should be adept at conveying her experience without relying on the crutch of clichés.

What I do is start out with the ordinary, trite description. Somehow just getting the “shitty first draft,” as Ann Lamott calls it, on paper, I’m freed up. I don’t have to worry about being a hack, because I just did my hacky best. From there, I try to zero in on the senses that are most engaged. Sometimes hearing predominates (thanks to the sharp crack of peanut brittle), or smell will lead the way (because of the musty, clay scent of truffles). Then I try to find every association I can. For example, the floury, eggy taste of raw batter hurtles me back to my childhood when I used stand on a chair at the stove making raisin muffins with my grandmother. I then play around with the associations and see if they can best convey what I’m tasting.

Simply stringing together a run of adjectives or adverbs will leave you short. To me the best sensory descriptions are evocative not only of the food or drink at hand, but of the person experiencing it. Memory and voice play a big part in that. The food is almost a jumping off point for a larger, more personal experience. Of course, a reviewer must stick to what’s on the plate, and that’s difficult. His experience is limited to the dishes at hand. Somehow many publications think that there’s no room for the personal in reviews, which is sad. I want to savor the writer and the writing as much as I want to savor the dish being dissected.

I wish I could offer you more of a comprehensive answer, but this is the best I can do at this point. Let’s talk in ten years, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say!

Best,

David


David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

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So, does one query pubs in the US w/sample of the trans plus a thumbnail bio of its author?  Any thoughts?

Theabroma,

This is a good question, and one I can't answer. I don't know the in-and-outs of translation and foreign-language books. I do know there are several editors who post on eGullet and who might be able to help. Why not post a question on the “Food Media” section?

One suggestion: Write or call publishing houses that have published English-version of foreign books and ask what the procedure is. Also, check out the International Association of Culinary Professionals. They may be able to steer you in the right direction.

I hope this helps.

Best,

David


David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

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Carolyn,

Thank you for your heartfelt post. I glad that the lecture and Q&A have helped you. And I look forward to being acknowledged in your book!

If you have a chance to take a class with Tori Ritchie, do. She often teaches in Napa, and she's quite good.

Best,

David


David Leite

Leite's Culinaria

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I'd like to ask a very direct question-one that many may consider a little rash and materialistic, but- How much can one expect to make as a food writer? I, personally, have written a number of reviews on establishments here in Paris for a few minor magazines, and have never made a fortune, but have done ok. I hear that the Holy Grail of publishing would be writing for a Conde Nast publication, which pay upwards of $2-$3 per word. Is this true? A decent magazine normally apparently pays $1 per word +, but I wouldn't know, I've only worked for the small fries! I only know what I read in the Writer's Guide, and from fellow freelancers..


Edited by fresh_a (log)

Anti-alcoholics are unfortunates in the grip of water, that terrible poison, so corrosive that out of all substances it has been chosen for washing and scouring, and a drop of water added to a clear liquid like Absinthe, muddles it." ALFRED JARRY

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I'd expand on that and ask, David, if you've noticed a correlation between how much money a magazine pays and how much work you're expected to do? For example, assuming glossy magazine X pays three times as much for a story as newspaper Y, do you find you have to spend three times as long to write, edit, revise, etc., the story for the higher-paying outlet? When you get into the lucky situation where you have to say no to work, do you make the cut based on a per-word or per-project compensation basis alone, and if not which other factors do you take into consideration when creating your hierarchy of preferred work? Perks? How pleasant the editors are? Exposure? Possibility of repeat assignments?


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)

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Thanks, FG, I think it's an important subject, and one that people are sometimes afraid to broach...

I'd also be interested in knowing (very) general pay scales.

For example:

Newspapers: $1 per word

Magazines: $1-$4 per word

Small reviews/blurbs: 50 cts-$1 per word

Websites, etc,etc

Or does it depend wildly on each and every publication?


Edited by fresh_a (log)

Anti-alcoholics are unfortunates in the grip of water, that terrible poison, so corrosive that out of all substances it has been chosen for washing and scouring, and a drop of water added to a clear liquid like Absinthe, muddles it." ALFRED JARRY

blog

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If you have a chance to take a class with Tori Ritchie, do. She often teaches in Napa, and she's quite good.

Tori Ritchie has a cookbook writing seminar starting Sept. 9th, in conjunction with Tante Marie Cooking School.

www.tantemarie.com

I didn't see a specific mention of it on the schedule, but you might call the school and ask. I wish I could attend, but I'm stuck in So. CA on Tuesday nights.

Also, I completely and wholeheartedly second the grateful comments above---I have learned a tremendous amount from this course, and truly appreciate the time, trouble and thought you've taken to participate, David. Thanks so much!


"Laughter is brightest where food is best."

www.chezcherie.com

Author of The I Love Trader Joe's Cookbook ,The I Love Trader Joe's Party Cookbook and The I Love Trader Joe's Around the World Cookbook

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