Food Writing for Non-Writers
More people in the food world should write about what they do and sell. Writing has helped me contribute to the building of Zingerman’s. It’s also pushed me to learn more about what I do, while making me a better listener and a more sensitive taster.
I started writing more out of frustration than anything else. During our first years in business, we hired people to write about the food we were selling and serving. We published a two-sided, single-sheet newsletter that explained what made our food special and to teach our customers about unfamiliar foods. None of what the freelancers wrote was the message I wanted to convey. The writing wasn’t bad but they were not communicating what was behind the food. How could they communicate the passion I was feeling when they weren’t me?
Finally, one day—I think it was a Sunday—I decided to do the writing. I do not remember what prompted me to make the move – the writer might have given notice, or my frustration level was particularly high. I announced to myself (and shortly thereafter to a few others to make the decision real) that I was going to take on writing the newsletter. Twenty-something years later, I still write the newsletter, along with product handouts, recipes, catalog copy, electronic newsletters, books and this regular column in Specialty Food Magazine.
Even someone like me — who never aspired to be a writer and had no training other than composing papers in college — can learn to write effectively. Something said from the heart, rough as it may seem, will be more valuable than perfectly crafted copy from an outside ad agency. If you feel strongly about something, just say it — it will connect with the reader in ways that writing of higher technical quality, said without authentic passion, will not.
Here are some tips on writing that have helped me. Plus, I encourage you to get “help” from the professionals.
The writing process starts long before sitting at the computer. The more energy spent on taking in information, the more you will have to communicate. Here are steps to take before you start writing:
1. Pay Attention
Notice as many details as you can; watch, learn, listen, taste and touch with a high level of attentiveness to the minutiae. It’s more a mental discipline than anything else. Most people’s natural tendency is to race through life and miss out on about 80 percent of what happens around them. When you do not capture the detail, there is not much meaningful information to write about.
The key is to pay attention, not just to the food but to everything and everyone around it. How many cheeses are on the aging racks? What color are they? How rough are the rinds? What color is the light in the room? What’s the sound the cheese-maker makes when he checks the cheese? What does he look like? How do his expressions change as he checks the cheese? How does the room smell? Is there any air movement? The detail is free for the taking and it provides great substance to your writing, an inventory of observations waiting to be communicated.
I try to remember, too, to capture the fine points of what’s happening inside my brain and body. I record my feelings. What about bacon excites me? What’s it like to eat grits for the first time? How did I feel afterwards? It’s ultimately the feelings, passions, fears and enthusiasms that will connect to others. The world of business, even the specialty food business, is full of people doing things they don’t care about. But the passion, the vocation, the love, the energy and the excitement—the sense of discovery and of frustration and anger and uncertainty—that’s the most interesting.
2. Taste the Food
Recently, I asked Ken Michalowski—internationally known poet, University of Michigan professor and a regular Zingerman’s customer—if he had any advice for people in the food world who wanted to learn to write. Within six seconds he fired back, “Taste a lot.”
It all starts with the food. And if you do not taste, there’s not much to write about. Notice that I did not say, “eat.” I’m referring to tasting on a professional level, paying a serious amount of attention to the subtleties and details of flavor, texture, aroma and finish. When I taste, I catalog emotions and words that help me share food experiences in more meaningful ways. Ultimately, writing about food is finding words that translate what happens inside our mouths.
A great way to learn how to taste is to do comparative tastings. Try handmade cheddar next to mass-market cheeses from the supermarket, or sample five great chocolates from different points of origin. Take note of the differences so that later, when writing, you can more easily describe the foods. It’s essential to taste mass-market food as well, to put specialty foods in a context meaningful to the average consumer.
I still think of this as “homework.” Whatever I plan to write about, I do research to gather background information. The more I read, the more ideas and the more sense I have of what’s going on. The material can be specific to food, but it could also be fiction, history or anything that’s related to the topic at hand. An article or book make an incredible difference, building confidence and providing material to establish credibility and keep food experiences in context. If you do not have time for extensive homework, a few quick trips to the web and phone calls to experts will make you a more knowledgeable person on many culinary subjects.
4. Make an Outline
Outlining keeps things focused. I return to grammar-school writing: State your premise, back it up in the body, then finish with your conclusions, where you essentially restate your premise.
I follow what I call the “WYP Approach” —a silly acronym for “What’s Your Point?” It keeps me focused on the one message I want to communicate to the reader, rather than wandering from issue to issue.
If that doesn’t help, you can always come back to the story of the Baptist preacher who said, “First you tell ’em what you’re gonna tell ’em. Then you tell ’em. And then you tell ’em what you told ’em.”
What I write is simply my attempt to share the information that I’ve taken in. Here are tips that help me make effective writing happen :
1. Just Say It
When I started writing, I would get stuck for hours agonizing over a single stupid sentence. Scores of sheets of yellow-lined paper were crumbled up in frustration. Finally, I learned to ignore the fear of imperfection and just write— which basically means putting on paper whatever comes out, whether I like it or not. Literally, given some sense of what I want to communicate, I usually just sit down and start writing. Even when I think that the writing is terrible, I keep going.
I’ve taught myself to go forward, without overly self-censoring, without trying to create great art or amazing literature or anything other than saying what I want to say. Saying something from the heart is far better than crumpling up paper.
Maggie Bayless, managing partner at ZingTrain and another non-writer who now writes regularly, shared her approach, “I make myself sit down at the computer and write for at least an hour or about 800 words, whichever comes first. I leave that and come back to it a day later. Even if I don’t like anything that I’ve written (and there’s usually at least something usable), I’m not faced with a totally blank page. I’m much better at building on what’s already there than starting from scratch.”
2. Speak Your Mind
People talk about “finding a voice.” I figure we all already have one. Speak your mind, be yourself, share your passions. In A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz wrote, “The written world does not depend on Milan or London, but always revolves around the hand that is writing wherever it happens to be writing: where you are is the centre of the universe.”
Whatever is in your head and heart is what you should focus on. Say it straight in a way that works for you and get on with it. I prefer to write in the first person because it allows me to just be me. I am communicating my opinions, my feelings and my thoughts, so how wrong can they be? I do not tell others what they should do—I try instead to share what’s worked, or hasn’t worked, for me. It’s important to not be too shy. Good writers speak their mind.
3. Share the Details
When you gather good notes up front, writing is much easier. My goal is to share information in a way that gets people’s attention, that will keep them awake, keep them from throwing what I wrote in the trash without reading it. Ken Michalowski told me, rather forcefully, “Don’t be a wimp. Go for it. Write with graphic, vivid words.”
How graphic should you be? Ultimately, if what you have written does not make you want to buy what you’re writing about (or at least learn more on the subject), then your writing is ineffective. Go back and be more forceful, share more meaningful details about the food or your attitudes about it.
Getting descriptive is paramount. I view it as painting pictures with words, being sensitive to details that add texture and toughness. Finding ways to share the nuances conveys the experience to others. There are a lot of crayons in a Crayola box—why settle for just “blue” when the real color is closer to “cornflower”?
Practice may not make perfect but it helps you get better. I write regularly whether I have time to or not. Even if I’m not actively working on a book or article, I spend at least a few hours a week writing. It’s like working out, playing music or anything else. If you do not practice, you don’t get better. When practicing, you should not get caught up in whether the writing is good. Just do it.
Practice helps you let go and move on. I constantly remind myself that what I’m writing—for newsletters, websites, email news, sign copy, etc.—has a relatively short shelf-life. I’m not re-writing the Bible or the Constitution. It’s a newsletter about food that’s more likely to end up in the recycling pile than the local library.
Christine Darragh, another “non-writer” who now nicely composes the e-newsletter for Zingerman’s Roadhouse told me that when the fears start to slow her down, she remembers, “I’m not creating a work of art, nor writing an epic. My readers may read what I write once. It’s more important to take an appropriate amount of time to say what I have to say, then learn from mistakes and feedback, than it is to agonize over the verbiage and spend hours over sentence structure. The email will have the same effect either way, so I might as well use the time working on something new and better.”
5. Get Help
The best athletes are aided by great coaches. The best musicians study with great teachers. And every good writer has a good editor, and someone to proof for spelling, grammar and accuracy. Even if you have almost no budget to invest in training yourself, you can undoubtedly find some English major who will trade their editing and/or proofing skills for some food. Don’t forget friends, families, customer and co-workers; I send copies of early drafts to many people to get input. I also recommend carving out a few hours to read a bit about writing. And don’t forget to use spell-check.
6. Stick With It
I was sharing thoughts on this subject with Rich Hinkle, who has been writing about wine for 30 years (after quitting law school). His advice to new writers was simply to be persistent. “A lot of people can write, but they don’t stick with it, he said. Writing at work may not make you rich, but it can help you communicate your passion about food to your customers and others.”
Almost anyone in the food world with a modicum of ability can write effectively. We may not be inducted in the Food Writers Hall of Fame, nor will our newsletters be covered in The New York Times. But if you are passionate about food, excited about your business and have the willingness to invest time to tell your story to customers, your business will improve.