Writer's MS Blog_2Chef Michael Symon and I working last summer on his book, Live To Cook. Photo by Donna.

One of the most frequent question 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 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 non-fiction, 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 leg work. Find out what’s already been written on the subjects you may want to write about.  Seek experts out, 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 in.  Contact agents through the reference book, Writers’ Market.

Blogs, of course, are still so new 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. They 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.


43 Wonderful responses to “On Food Writing”

  • Tags

    This post is an excellent example of what blogs sorely need

    condensed common sense.

  • carri

    One of my favorite quotes about writing…”Writing is easy, you just look at a blank piece of paper until blood droplets form on your forehead.”

  • Laura

    I was once told the same thing about becoming a classical musician. Only do it if 1) You are too talented to have any business doing anything else or 2) You are too obsessed to be able to do anything else.

  • Andy Coan

    Writing is not about the “me,” it’s about the “not me.”

    This is profound and perfect advice on so many levels. Very well said.

  • Kate in the NW

    Great post – thank you.
    I would add that in the process of sitting down and writing every day – blood drops and all – it’s nice to have a good cup of tea (or the adult beverage of your choice, depending on the time of day) and a bit of a distraction or break now and then.
    I suggest reading and commenting on others’ blogs…like, say, this one! 😉

  • dadekian

    Thank you very much, Michael. I’m in the midst of a photography/writing project at the moment and I’m going the site/blog route for now. Of course, I’ll mention it here when I comment! 🙂

  • Phil

    Thank you for this post, Michael. It’s advice that many people (most importantly, people that I know personally) need to heed on any level, not just pertaining to writing.

    When I was in high school, I wanted to become a professional musician. My mother told me if I was serious about it, I should buy a big mirror so I could watch myself starve to death. Didn’t exactly inspire confidence. I wish I’d read something more poignant like this instead.

  • Margie

    That question — “Why should a stranger be interested in what I have to say?” — is the reason I typically avoid commenting on your blog. But this time I want to thank you for the sage advice.

  • Mike

    It’s true! My culinary writing didn’t get better from cooking more or having an amazing meal– but from taking a technical writing class.

  • kevin

    “Bottom line: don’t write if you can help it”

    The inability to NOT write is a necessary but not sufficient requirement for writing well.

    BTW, I’ve got four pounds of pork fat rendering at the moment.

  • Jerry Russell

    As the husband of a writer and published author that physically “must write” and as a blogger who goes into mental withdrawals if I have not written for too long, I agree. Write if you must. If you don’t HAVE to write, take pleasure in reading, writing will only frustrate you.

  • Tammy

    There’s a lot to agree with here. However, I don’t agree with the “don’t write if you can help it” part, or “the only really good reason to write is because you have to.” The compulsion part of writing can be true and romantic, but it’s certainly not the only reason to write. To educate and to question are also good reasons to write. Or merely to exercise the mind. Certainly, the “need” to write will sustain you over the long haul, but everyone can benefit from putting words on paper from time to time. Let’s not get too elitist about it.

  • Jen

    “The only really good reason to write is because you have to.” I thank you many times over for making this statement. Cheers!

  • lux

    Like cooking, writing is a craft, and anyone can do it given enough time and effort.

    What differentiates between the craftsman and the master is not just their skill with the tools of the trade but the inner passion about the work (or as Ruhlman put it, the need).

    It cannot be faked and it cannot be commanded.

  • Beanie

    I run a hospital research center for a living and a do a lot of public speaking. The question I hear most from students who want to make a living in research is “What else should I be doing?” They’re looking for a science class they’ve overlooked somewhere, but my advice to them is always the same: “Learn to write! If you can write, you can communicate what you know. Because if you *can’t* communicate, it won’t matter what you know.”

    Your advice, Michael, is good for for anyone who wants to be a success and anyone who wants to lead instead of follow. While not all of us want to make a living by writing, each of us can make a better living by writing well.

  • Col

    This is very generous. I appreciate the simplicity and the detail.

  • Russ H

    Write EVERY day? Pfft….

    Sounds like a lot of work! Like being back in school! Forget tips, jut give us the short cuts!

  • Matt

    Simplicity is your speciality ruhlman, that is why I check you out everyday and I always await your next post. Thank you!

  • Kevin Shinn

    Writing was a later-in-life discovery for me, only about three years ago when I started putting my thoughts down into words via a blog. It was the encouragement of a friend that made me take the first step. I soon realized what you said, Michael, that you write because you have to. I found I was compelled to put my thoughts into words almost daily. As people read my work, the comments continued to spur me to keep writing.

    Now that the restaurant is open, I find that my writing is as appreciated as my food. I had no idea the enjoyment that people would get from hearing from me directly as chef, about what I am making, and why. I know its a difficult balance, but if a chef is capable of writing, it does a great deal to enhance the whole experience.

  • Mark Boxshus

    Superb advice and timely as well. Lately I’ve been totally absorbed in the process of compiling a cookbook for a national medical non-profit association, and haven’t had time to work on my blog. I’ve been feeling guilty, but that question — “Why should a stranger be interested in what I have to say?” tells me that not blogging right now is ok, because I really don’t have anything too exciting to talk about anyway. Thanks Michael.

  • Food Woolf

    Ruhlman, you are my hero.

    You’ve just written the perfect Must Read post about food writing. I’m sure I’ll be referring friends, readers and aspiring writers to this one for a long time.

    Thanks for writing.

  • sandra

    This is good and profound advice for any would-be writer. The only thing missing is Eudora Welty’s timeless advice: “Kill your darlings”.

  • Deb Schiff

    One of my early writing mentors once told me “Real writers write every day.” He was right.

    Another mentor told me to stop writing about anything personal for a year and only write about nature. That suggestion helped me immeasurably with imagery and description.

    Thanks for your article. It gave me some food for thought tonight.

  • Sophia

    nicely written. I don’t believe writing is a gift, either. I believe anyone can write, so long as they take the time and commitment to THINK deeply, because what is writing but our thoughts in written alphabets?

  • chatodalari

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  • luis

    Waiting on my copy of “Ratios” as I type. I feel I am very ready for this book. Haven’t seen the book or anything but something like this might deserve a plastic fact sheet to keep in the kitchen. Maybe there is one in the book maybe not. But if you haven’t sort of thought about it Michael…. and you happen to have free time.. pls consider it.

  • JP

    Great stuff. I produce an e-mail culinary newsletter that I have to write each week for my company. It gets better with time and practice.

  • ZenKimchi

    The book “Will Write for Food” by Dianne Jacob pretty much delivers the same message. Write what you’re passionate about. Write a lot. There are too many cookbooks.

    I don’t remember who it was, but it was a famous writer who was asked to give a lecture on writing at a university. He went up to the podium and said, “What are you doing here? Go home and write.”

  • Greg Turner

    I think I’m going to print this out and hand it to everyone who ever asks me about writing. Perfectly stated, Mr. Ruhlman. I appreciate it.

  • Ameet

    Write because you “have to”

    That’s the best advice I’ve heard in some time. Thank you for your pithy, wise words.

  • Maria

    As an executive speechwriter and former newspaper/magazine writer, I couldn’t agree more with Beanie. I give the same advice to anyone who will listen.

    And, as someone who is passionate about food and writing, excellent advice, Michael, thanks.

    The concept of “not me” is invaluable.

  • Maura

    Weighing in a little late here, but anyway…

    Wonderful piece, Michael. It’s applies to any kind of writing, not just food writing. I love the idea of “not me”. It is, indeed, invaluable.

    RE: Blogs and what they’re for. Because it’s so difficult to get published (and everyone wants to be a food writer now) I consider my blogs to be my writing portfolio. I’m as meticulous with my blog writing as I am with anything else I write. Anyone could stumble upon it. And I owe it to my tens of readers, and to myself, to be as clear, concise and funny as possible.

    The only thing I disagree with is that anyone can write. Anyone can put words on a paper, and there might be some great ideas in there, but truly good writing is a gift.

  • Amy

    I used to write to make money, and I was doing okay at it. But then my editors said, “You know, when you write about food, those are your best stories. You should specialize.” And so I did, and now things are great. They saw in my food writing what I had not: It was my passion.
    Funny how it sometimes takes others to point that out for you.

  • Diane Hodge

    I’ve only just found your blog, but the advice is profound and true.

    Thank you very much.