When I began writing this blog, all roads pointed to Dianne Jacob, author of "Will Write for Food".
I sought sage advice from a long-time mentor. Snatched from her bedside was a worn copy of "Will Write for Food." Dog eared, with a spine long-since cracked, she said pointed a finger to the tattered cover and said, "Study this book." She locked eyes with me and spoke deliberately, "Don't just read it, I want you to study this book. You understand the difference, right?"
"Swallow that book whole," was the advice of another author.
Today, my own tattered copy has copious notes along the margins, blue ink underscores the better part of the book, and furled Post-its mark my favorite passages.
I had an opportunity to talk with Dianne and frankly, I got schooled. Dianne is a seasoned pro who is both insightful and generous with her knowledge. Our conversation ranges the gamut--from the current state of magazine content to finding your voice. The most important lesson I learned from Dianne? Show. Don't tell.
And if you're heading to BlogHer in San Francisco, you're in for a treat! Don't miss Dianne's panel discussion on "The Meaning of Identity and the Value of Voice in a Crowded Foodblogging World."
Traca: A number of food blogs have spurned books in recent years. Food blogging and memoir share similar traits, yes?
Dianne: They do because food blogging is first person and memoir is first person. They’re definitely linked, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the same. You can’t just take 25 posts from your blog and therefore it becomes a memoir. That doesn’t work.
Memoir is considered literary narrative and it has to read like a novel. So it needs a cast of characters, dialog, action, and it has a story arc, which is what novels and good literary non-fiction have. That’s why collecting your posts doesn’t translate into a well-crafted story.
Traca: What are your thoughts on books that have been largely based on extrapolated content from a blog?
Dianne: They’ve been massaged. They have to be worked into a story that has a beginning, middle and end. Julie & Julia was perfect for memoir because memoir typically is about a certain time—not about your whole life and everything you ever did. It’s about picking one thing and focusing on it. The focus was to cook her way through Mastering The Art of French Cooking over one year. It wasn’t just, “I hate my job. Tonight I’ll make doughnuts.” There was a plan. It fits very nicely into memoir because it happened over a specific period of time. When you decide to write memoir, you also need to know what happens at the end. She knew she was going to finish cooking her way through the book, even if there were some crises along the way.
A memoir is not about everything that happened. The story idea has to be pretty tight. Usually memoir has universal themes that everyone can relate to, like being bored in your job, going on a new adventure, or falling in love. People can identify and say, “Yeah, I’ve been through that. That happened to me!”
It’s told as a story, which is different than writing a post. Posts are short, and they’re not usually serial. They’re serial in terms of chronology but they don’t necessarily build on each other or have the same theme.
With posts you have the freedom to jump around, but with a book, that doesn’t work. The book loses focus. As an example, I talked with someone the other day who said she wanted to have a blog about cooking for her kid. I went to her blog and found a movie review, a cookbook review, and content that had nothing to do with her (stated) subject. She said, “It’s all about food.” Yes, but it’s not focused.
When you write about anything to do with food, then you can’t really describe what your blog is about.
Traca: That’s a great point. I was talking with another blogger whose work feels more like a magazine because it covers a range of topics. But she’s having difficulty finding advertisers because it doesn’t fulfill a specific niche.
Dianne: Right. A blog about everything doesn’t have a subject. If you say “food” it’s just too broad.
Traca: There’s a recent wave of journalists starting blogs. That’s an interesting role-reversal. What are your thoughts on that?
Dianne: Journalists who have jobs on newspapers have been asked to start blogs, and freelance journalists have started them as well, as a way to keep up.
The thing for journalists is that they’re not used to writing in first person or expressing their opinion, unless they’re reviewers. Aside from the technical challenges, it’s a pretty big shift.
I know when I started writing first person essays, I found it intrusive. I was used to reporting on someone else’s story, like a chef profile or an interview. I was not a part of the story and what I thought was not relevant. So to go from that, to writing about, say, what my mother made when I was growing up, it felt like I was exposing myself. Of course, as we have learned in blogs, there’s no subject too private these days. Maybe a little privacy would be called for.
Traca: There are so many elements to blogging: keeping it short and focused, and adding the photography element to it. The number of skills necessary to have a worthwhile blog is astounding.
Dianne: The first blogs were text-heavy journals and photography wasn’t something you were expected to know how to do. The disciplines were more separated. You were either a writer or a photographer.
When I was in journalism school, however, the goal was to work for a small newspaper, where you were expected to take photos as well as report. I had to buy a Nikon 35 ml camera and shoot and develop my own black & white photos. When I got to my first job, I had to take photos good enough to be published. That was a little scary. I got a front page photo and I was so excited. It only happened once!
Traca: I’m intrigued by interviewing different purveyors, chefs and writers. From my perspective, it’s been really difficult to try to shoot photos, conduct an interview, and hopefully take some notes. I feel like I’m running a three-ring circus!
Dianne: Yes, it can seem that way. I don’t take photos while I’m interviewing. Usually I do it afterwards, once they’ve met me and are more amenable. People just naturally want to pose. So instead of saying, “I don’t want a posed shot,” you take pictures of them posing and after a while, they get bored with that. Then they’ll do something more interesting. You take pictures of that…and that’s what you use.
Traca: What advice would you give to bloggers who are aspiring to be professional writers? Can you talk about the reality of being a professional writer?
Dianne: A writer is an artist, and once you think that, the phrase that most frequently comes up is “starving artist.” It’s not the kind of field where you can make much money, like in business, tech or marking writing. It’s pretty difficult to make a living as a free-lance food writer, I know some people who do it, but they work very, very hard. And they don’t live in New York because it’s too expensive.
It’s pretty tough out there right now because ads are down in magazines—and that’s what determines the size of the book (number of pages.) I used to be a magazine editor. I never knew how may pages of editorial I would have to fill until after the ad deadline closed. These days, with ad sales down, there’s less room for long stories.
I was just at the Greenbrier and the food editor for Cooking Light was there. She showed us a long narrative that they published a year ago. And she said they probably wouldn’t publish a story like that now. Instead, they’d publish a shorter feature, cut into more pieces.
If you’re going to pitch stories, you need to pitch things that are more broken up.
Traca: What do you mean by writing stories that are “broken up”?
Dianne: Articles that have sidebars, text boxes, lists, charts, graphs or photo essays. Stop thinking about a piece that’s just one long story. You have to visualize the article from a design standpoint, as a bunch of pieces.
Someone who’s doing that really well is Martha Holmberg, the editor of Mix magazine and the Food Section for the Oregonian newspaper. People have short attention spans, big time! She said, “I think there’s two different forces: 1. There isn’t the space to write a long story anymore, and 2. People are distracted.” That’s the feedback that Cooking Light got back from their research too. Readers want information in little bits.
Traca: Would that mean the writer would provide a piece with 700 – 1000 words, plus sidebar content?
Dianne: No, 1,000 words is too long now. Think about building a piece where all the same information is there, but cut it up.
Traca: With the trend towards shorter pieces, that would also have a financial impact, right? Shorter pieces mean less money?
Dianne: That’s right!
An example that crossed my desk: I heard about a magazine freelancer who told an editor she would write for the perks—hotel stays, dinners, etc. in exchange for doing a story. She’d rather write the piece for free than not do a story at all. She was pitching that to the editor as a way to save money.
I don’t like people working for free and I don’t advise it. I just don’t understand why people should have to work for nothing. I don’t think it’s respectful to take advantage when you’re an editor. But people do it because they want a byline, especially when they’re breaking in.
The question is: How much can you get paid? Maybe you don’t work for very much the first time, but if you build a relationship with the editor and you figure out what the publication wants—and you give it to them on time, with clean copy, then you can ask for more. I coached someone who was writing a column for a national newsletter for only $25. I made him ask for a raise and he got it.
Traca: In your book, you advise writers to “show” not “tell”. Can you expand on that?
Dianne: If you say, “The chef tasted my apple pie and he loved it.” Tell.
If you say, “When the chef bit into my apple pie, her eyes opened wide and she mimed falling over in a swoon.” That means that she loved it but now you’ve given the reader a visual picture of what’s going on. Now the reader can imagine something.
In the first example, there’s nothing for the reader to imagine. They don’t know what that means. You see the difference?
One reason why I’ve always loved to read, is because I love the idea that there’s a movie going on in my head the whole time. I can’t generate the movie if I don’t have any images.
Traca: Blogging is so photo-intensive. In some ways, I think I’m handicapped by that. Now I’m trying to write a story as if the image wasn’t there, then supporting the story with an image.
Dianne: That’s a good exercise. The image should bring information that’s not available in the text. If it’s redundant, there’s not a whole lot of point to including it. These days, it seems like a lot of food blogs put the focus on the photography and then include one sentence about the event. That style makes the reader do a lot of work, because they don’t have enough context about the event.
Traca: Showing as opposed to telling is very personal—making observations, inferring on their behalf what’s happening. At some point it crosses my mind, “Would they be upset by that observation?” I’m struggling with the fact that this is my experience and it’s my take on it.
Dianne: That’s what reporting is all about. Reporting is about observing and being able to capture that for the reader. That’s what’s different about writing in first person, where it’s only about you and your experience. Somewhere in there is the balance that every blogger has to find, because you are not only reporting but recording your responses and opinions.
I don’t think it’s very interesting to only write about yourself. After a while the reader is going to say, “Well, how exciting for you!” They’re not drawn into the story. You have to use all these literary devices like “show not tell,” similes and metaphor to draw people into the story. Your ability to observe is another, to let readers imagine the scene. Give the reader an opportunity to be a part of the story.
Traca: Drawing the reader into the story…that’s a huge challenge, yes?
Dianne: As soon as you want someone to read your work, you’ve got to give them a reason to do so. Sometimes it’s a simple as acknowledging the other person exists. Otherwise you might as well be writing in your diary.
It can’t just be, “Here’s what I did today.” I think that’s why people hesitate—rightfully so—about starting a blog. When they ask themselves, “Why should anyone care about what I have to say?” That’s a good question! Your job is to make them care about what you say.
Traca: Whose writing resonates with you?
Dianne: I truly admire Ruth Reichl. In fact, when I was at the Greenbrier, we were doing a voice exercise with Don Fry. I attended the Greenbrier 10 years ago and I told him that I admired Molly O’Neil and I wanted to write like her. He told me to analyze what she wrote and try to channel her by exaggerating her voice. This time I tried to channel Ruth Reichl. That exercise forced me to look at her technique. She’s very dramatic. Don Fry said she has “a lot of violence” in her writing. There are a lot of pronouncements about life. I tried writing in that way and I was pleasantly surprised.
I also adore New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin. Whenever he goes to a town, Calvin said someone always wants to take him to their favorite restaurant. He calls it a “Ma Casa De La Maison House”. Isn’t that brilliant?
It’s his power of description. There’s a story he wrote about a huge man called, “Fat: The ordeal of Fats Goldberg, a Pizza Baron.” Let me read you this and you can see an example of simile: “When he was visiting our house one day, long after he had forbidden himself to eat cake, we wondered why he kept wandering into the kitchen. Then Alice remembered there was a cake on the kitchen counter. Fats had been prowling back and forth in front of it like a tiger circling a tethered goat.” Similes start with “like a…” It’s not an image you would expect in a story about a cake tempting a man on a diet, but it’s immediately visceral, where he has anthropomorphized the cake, making it into an animal that can’t get away.
Traca: I loved your analysis of that piece.
Dianne: I love to break down a piece to find out why it works…that’s what you need to do. If you like someone’s writing you need to figure out why.
I love Laurie Colwin’s writing also. It’s not pretentious. It’s like she’s your friend. Very homey. But she’s very different from Ruth Reichl. Ruth Reichl is nakedly ambitious in her writing. I don’t mean that in a negative way…I admire that about her.
Traca: Writers whose voice is so clear that it’s not interchangeable…that’s fascinating to me. Crafting your own voice is another challenge that also seems psychological. It begs the question, “Who am I?”
Dianne: That’s why I suggest in the book to have your friends describe your personality to you. That will also be your voice.
Dianne Jacob’s blog, Will Write for Food: Pithy Snippets about Food Writing, covers food writing trends and technique. She started it in 2009 as a way to update her book, Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Restaurant Reviews, Articles, Memoir, Fiction, and More. Now in its fourth printing, the book won the Cordon D’Or International award for Best Literary Food Reference Book. Will Write for Food is used as a textbook at the Culinary Institute of America and in many other classrooms across the US.
Her most recent book is Grilled Pizzas & Piadinas, a cookbook she co-authored with chef Craig Priebe.
Previously a newspaper, magazine, and publishing company editor-in-chief, Dianne has been self-employed since 1996 as a writing coach, author, and freelance editor. She coaches writers across the US, Canada and Europe on writing and publishing books, freelance articles, and blogs.
Dianne judges for the James Beard Foundation and for the International Association of Culinary Professionals annual cookbook awards. She is also a regular judge for the Bert Greene Award for Food Journalism. A feature she wrote about food blogs was a finalist for an award in 2007.
She teaches classes on food writing and book publishing at Book Passage in Corte Madera, The Writing Salon in San Francisco and Berkeley, and Leite’s Culinaria. She has also taught for the Smithsonian and UCLA’s Journalism Department. See her website for more information.