Monday, January 14, 2013

So you want to be a food writer....

I receive a lot of emails from people telling me about their passion for food and that their lifelong dream is to be a food writer. The emails then usually ask for some advice as to how to go about being a writer, what they need to do and how could I help them do it. I try to reply to these individually but sometimes I can't so I thought I would do a generic post on the state of food writing and my advice for what it is worth. I think I took possibly one of the most convoluted avenues for getting into the industry so I may not be the best person to ask for advice so I have incorporated both my own experience and some tips from a few other food writers I know.

1. Get some experience. Editors don't care much for blogs. You have one but guess what, so does everyone else. You need to demonstrate experience beyond self-generated media. Go to culinary school, email editors and ask for work experience or submit story ideas, every other day if you have to. Knock on the door of your favourite restaurant and ask for some time in the kitchen, go to a supplier and work on their farm. The moral of the story here - expand your reportoire. A good food writer has broad experience. They know the difference between a bechamel and a veloute, the mouth feel of reductions, the food of the seasons. They eat widely and they eat broadly. They eat often.

2. Prepare to be poor. The lifestyle at the outset seems glamourous. Go on media junkets, eat out all the time in the name of work etc etc. Yes you have to do these things but times have changed. The average pay these days is 50c per word. Freelancers used to get paid $2 per word.  If someone is fortunate enough to have one of the few full time magazine jobs these days, they do not earn nearly what they deserve and the growth of blogging has seen a further thinning of advertising dollars across traditional and non-traditional media which contributes to a decline in pay. There are no more expense accounts, and travel research is more than likely on your own dime. 

3. Luck has nothing to do with it.  If you keep working at it, you'll make it. I, hand on heart, believe that. People often say you're so lucky. Bullsh*t. I've worked my ass off to get where I am. It has taken years of study, years of working for nothing, years of writing, trying to write better, getting rejected by editors and then getting rejected again. It takes time for people to get to know you, to develop enough knowledge, and to find your writing voice. Accept this and keep working hard, there are but a handful of overnight success stories in the world of food - everyone else has been slogging it out for years before tasting any form of success.

4. The industry is there to help. Treat your writing with the highest priority - that means finding financial means to support it. Try to find funding - there are great scholarships and support systems out there. I would be nowhere today if I hadn't applied for writing grants and scholarships. Start researching. Start applying. Yes the applications can be time consuming but some money in the account before you even start a project is worth every hour spent submitting applications. These grants also help build your reputation.

5. Don't write for free. You are worth more than that. You might write for free now - you want to build your portfolio, show some published works to editors and book publishers but guess what. Every time you do, you make it more acceptable for publications to find people willing to write for free and that becomes the accepted norm for generating content. You might do it now but you are doing it so you can eventually be paid. When you have the experience and the expectation to be paid for your skills, you won't be able to because there is someone else out there trying to get published doing it for free. If you still think it is worth it I suggest you set some boundaries. For example - (1) determine what exposure it will generate for you, (2) set a timeframe - ie two articles or one month of online content before asking for payment, if they still don't pay, walk away (3) at the outset ask for the opportunity to be considered for paid work once you have demonstrated you are willing to do it for free. Be ballsy, if you don't ask, you don't receive. (4) Try to submit to media outlets that can provide you with measurable results. How many times was your article read, how many magazines were printed. All these things help you promote the popularity of your work.

6. It is more exciting now than ever. With more and more non-traditional avenues for writing, there are great opportunities for aspiring writers. The change in how media content is being delivered means how you approach the way you work can change all the time. Think broadly - if the writing doesn't sustain you - what else can you do? How else can you write about food or immerse yourself in the food industry. There are crowd funding projects, online magazines, ghost writing opportunities...more and more opportunities every day Don't take a one-dimensional approach to your writing.

7. Ask for feedback. You'll never be a better writer without it. If an editor rejects your pitch, don't be afraid to ask why. You need to know where the writing is falling down before you can change it - you'll also begin to understand what it is they are looking for and better yet, you are keeping the dialogue with the editor going. 

8. Collaborate. Developing a concept to write about, involve food imagery etc etc is time consuming and expensive. Find people with the same aesthetic or who you admire and ask them to collaborate on a project with you. You'll forge great industry relationships as well as see how other people work creatively. This can have a huge impact on how you operate.

9. Broaden your skills. Make it as easy as possible for your work to be accepted. An editor once said to me I got the job because I met the triple threat criteria - I could photograph the dish, write the recipe and prepare the copy. I made their job easier. I think this is particularly important for emerging writers - be proficient across a broad number of related skill sets. Make it hard for them to say no to you.

10. Write, write, write, write, write, write, write, write, write and then write some more. Then do it again.


  1. Possibly also, don't be a vegetarian? (Not insulting vegetarians, I am one myself). But I enjoyed the meaty blog post : )

  2. Ha, yes Jen that might help although it'd be great to see more vegetarian focused food writers around.