Tuesday, May 13, 2014

So You Want to Be A Food Writer

By Nancy Cocola

Before I came to work at the CIA, I was already a writer. I’d written two books, many magazine and newspaper articles, countless magalogs and catalogs, and, yes, fabulous letters to my friends and family. Everyone said I had a way with words. But I worried just a little that writing about the vast topic of food, which was so new to me, would prove too complicated and difficult to master.

It wasn’t just that I needed to learn how to spell bain-marie or foie gras, it was that the language of food has its own rhythm and mysteries. Over time, I’ve absorbed lots of culinary knowledge, and, today, can even talk ingredients and techniques with our chefs without embarrassing myself. But ultimately what I have discovered is—and this is a comfort to me as a non-food professional—a knowledge of, and passion for, food does not necessarily translate into the creation of a great, readable article. You need writing skills.

Being the editor of the CIA’s alumni magazine means that three times a year I have to creatively put together a magazine filled with themed feature-length articles, personal interest stories, campus news, donor news, class notes, and, well, the list goes on and on. In the days before I actually start to write, you might peek into my office and think I’m not doing anything, just staring out my window. But while the view of the Hudson River is rather spectacular, I’m not idling, I’m thinking!

Yes, Thinking
Lots of people just start writing, assuming the muse Calliope will appear and guide the writing process—much as she did when Homer wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey. Nope. Not gonna happen. So, barring the arrival of your personal mythological Greek guide to writing, take the time to think your ideas through. Consider:

–Who is the audience for the specific publication or site? Are they seasoned chefs, business people, fellow students, or foodies?
Choose the culinary tone based on your audience’s level of expertise.
Is your topic of interesting and relevant to your audience? Does anyone but you have any interest in the topic?
What is the most important idea you want your reader to take away from your story?
Make sure the topic is narrow enough—people often try to cover too much ground, resulting in an unfocused piece.
Make an outline. I know it doesn’t sound as sexy as having a personal muse, but it can sure make the difference between a story that peters out midstream and one that has a beginning, middle, and end.
Put the piece in a drawer for a few days after you have finished writing. You’ll be amazed at how many things you will see that could use a little tweaking when you look at it again.
Show the piece to someone you respect and stay open to feedback.
Rewrite. This is the cornerstone of creating a brilliant piece.

All this advice aside, I really love to have alumni and students write for the alumni magazine. So, if you have an interest in writing and welcome the prospect of a persnickety editor poring over your ideas and writing, contact me at n_cocola@culinary.edu and maybe we’ll find a topic that works for the mise en place audience.

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