Chef Michael Symon and I working a few summers back on his book, Live to Cook. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman

Michael is taking a break from the blog for 10 days. He remains, he says, “very grateful to the readers and especially to the commenters who have offered so much great thought, information, skepticism, and humor.” He hopes to be back a week from Wednesday, provided he does not lose his way, and until then is reposting some of the posts other readers have found useful.


Emilia 

 

On Food Writing

Originally Posted April 3, 2009

One of the most frequent questions I get is “I want to write about food, I want to be a food writer—how do I begin? What do I do?” And my least favorite question, “Do you have any tips?” (As if that were all one needed.)

There are no tips or pointers or anything that I know that you can’t figure out on your own. I wouldn’t call my urging you to 1) write every day and 2) read a lot of other good writers a “tip,” though it’s certainly the place to begin if you don’t already do these things.

My advice for those who want to pursue writing about food professionally is simply to teach yourself to write about anything well, and then apply those muscles to food. It shouldn’t matter what the subject is, only that you are passionate about it, and that you are able to convey that passion directly to your reader. Doing this gracefully is what good writing is.

Perhaps the best general advice I got about writing was to always ask myself, “Why should a stranger be interested in what I have to say?” I think you should always be asking yourself this, whether you’re querying a magazine editor or blogging (though the blog is a new and unusual beast).

Teaching yourself to write is simply a matter of practice, generating words and words and words until you figure out how they really fit together. I don’t believe the ability to write is a gift.  I believe that anyone can write if they are willing to put in the work, and I believe that those who have tried to write but have failed have failed only in their ability to sit down long enough and produce enough apprentice words.

I’ve described my personal convictions about the nature of the work of writing and how I organize my schedule in my book House: A Memoir. My fundamental conviction is that to be a successful writer of fiction or imaginative nonfiction, you will be best served by your body and mind if you sit down at the same time of day for the same amount of time to produce approximately the same amount of words at least four days and as many as six every week. That’s all there is to it. Easy to say, difficult to do.

I would also advise that you do your legwork. Find out what’s already been written on the subjects you may want to write about. Seek out experts, ask questions. Don’t expect people to be interested in your opinions—gather information. Writing is not about the “me,” it’s about the “not me.” This is always true, even in personal essay and memoir.

As far as the nuts and bolts of finding places to sell your work, again, it’s mainly common sense. Get others to publish your work and develop a clip file that future editors can read to get a sense of your writing. This will likely mean that you must write for virtually nothing at first.

To write books about food, the common and expected route is to begin by writing a proposal of the book you hope to write. A proposal is just that—your plan. You need to convey to an agent, then an editor, what your finished book will be, with a couple of opening chapters so that your style, as well as the content of the book, is clear.

Regarding cookbooks: except on two occasions, I’ve always discouraged people from writing them. It’s my belief  that there are too many cookbooks out there already and the unnecessary ones prevent the good ones from being seen. So before you even begin, you need to answer the question, “What will my book add that other cookbooks have not already said?” If you have an answer to this, then that is the beginning of your proposal. Again, a proposal is a description of what your book will contain, and the description must be so compelling that agents and publishers cannot say no to it. If it will include recipes, you should have a complete list of recipes the book will contain and three complete recipes in the style that all recipes will be written. Contact agents through the reference book, Writers’ Market.

Blogs, of course, are still so new that it’s hard to predict what they will look like in 10 years and who will be making money from them. And, unlike any other form of engaging writing, they are almost always about the “me.” Perhaps this is why only a handful generate any income to speak of and those that do tend to offer useful information in an engaging way. So, as far as I’m concerned, the main reason to write a blog is for your pleasure and practice. Blogs can showcase your ability to write (or your inability to do so) and in some cases have become a platform on which a book was sold, which I think is fantastic. What will become of them? I do not know.

Bottom line: don’t write if you can help it, and don’t write expecting to make money. The only really good reason to write is because you have to. To those who physically must write, I urge you to write daily, at the same time of day, producing the same amount of words. Read continually, look outward rather than inward, and do all you can to convey your own passions directly and honestly and completely to strangers.

If you liked this post on Food Writing, check out these other links:

© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.

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5 Wonderful responses to “On Food Writing”

  • Tags

    If you want to expedite and streamline the writing habit, may I suggest the exercises in Stanley Fish’s “How to Write a Sentence.”

    If you want a couple of excellent references to supplement “Elements of Style,” (Strunk & White) may I suggest William Safire’s “How Not to Write” (“Fumblerules” in an earlier edition”) and Patricia T. O’Conner’s “Woe is I.”

    • Tags

      Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that if you click on Michael’s ad for Amazon, he’ll get a credit if you then look up these authors and buy their books on Amazon.

      Also Patricia T. O’Conner and her husband Stewart Kellerman run a website called http://www.grammarphobia.com .

  • Chris K.

    Who is this Eric Rupert, and why is he taking credit for the work of Eric Ripert?

    It is probably an innocent typographic error but incredibly disrespectful, especially when following such a pompous post about writing well.

  • Peter

    I don’t really understand how it’s a pompous post…if anything, in 2009, Ruhlman’s way ahead of the curve in discouraging a new batch of poorly written yet ambitious food blogs…

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