Friday, September 20, 2013

Writing II (Too)


I have no particular talent. I am merely inquisitive.
Albert Einstein 

For Part I A Skillful Understanding link here.

“But I can’t write!” a student at Plate to Page wails as she clutches her camera desperately to her chest. “I came to improve my photography!” or “Oh, but you have talent, I don’t!” a friend and fellow blogger will tell me. “And writing takes so much talent!” But, really, what is talent? Who judges who has talent and who doesn’t? Can we be good at something without talent – or bypassing the whole notion of talent?

Talent is elusive, ambiguous. Mysterious.
Talent, as far as I am concerned, is a mixture of passion, desire, curiosity and effort – that old blood, sweat and tears. Toss in knowledge, experience, patience and a creative imagination and one can do most anything. I will admit that some people are better than others at one thing or another – I will never be the photographer that many of my friends are, but I also don’t take the time to improve much beyond where I am at now. I always thought I could not draw to save my life until a friend of mine patiently stood by me, coaxed me, coached and advised me, made me work at a sketch of fruit, charcoal on white, until I had a lovely semblance of pear, apple and banana. Certainly, some may have more of some je ne sais quoi than another, but that should keep no one from being the best they can.

It reminds me of a quote from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

``My fingers,'' said Elizabeth (as she sits at the piano), ``do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault -- because I would not take the trouble of practising. It is not that I do not believe my fingers as capable as any other woman's of superior execution.''

If you can't excel with talent, triumph with effort. 

Dave Weinbaum 

In my introductory post, I pointed out that writing is a skill just like photography. A skill that can be learned and mastered. But first we must understand just what your role as a writer is. And, more specifically, a food writer (or a writer writing about food!). You might decide that you write to inform your readers about new food trends or old food traditions, dangers of certain foods or the latest agro-political updates: quite possibly you have chosen to blog about nutrition or a particular country’s cuisine; perhaps you instruct others how to bake from scratch or introduce the less knowledgeable to new and unique spices, herbs or condiments; maybe your food bent is geared towards gluten-free, vegan or paleo. Or maybe you just desire to tell stories about the food you prepare, the places you have traveled or the producers behind the ingredients.

But whichever and whatever you are blogging or writing about you must connect with, engage and, in some way, entertain your readers. Your role as a writer is to manipulate your reader’s emotions, evoke an emotional response, inspire nostalgia or inspire action, bring them into your world, stimulate their senses. In other words, you want your readers to think, feel and desire.

What was that you said? Whether writing about the historical or symbolic significance of a food or a dish, whether supplying readers with information be it nutritional or health facts, cultural roots, information about a certain style of eating/diet or whether regaling readers with a personal tale, one must engage the readers, connect on a personal level, entertain them and make them feel as if the post was written personally for them. Don’t simply toss food at them.

Don’t just show them a pretty picture, something flashy and immediate. Invite them in and nourish them intellectually, creatively and emotionally.

And there really is only one way to do this successfully: Understand the ins and outs of writing as a skill; improve those writing skills. Learn how to tell a story. But above all, be fearless. Allow yourself to think out of the box and not be hemmed in either by the limitations and “rules” you have put upon yourself or those that you imagine are imposed upon you from what you see in the world of food blogging. Be creative! But there are a few rules I will set down:

Learn and get used to using Word Docs: Never write a blog post directly into your blogger or wordpress (or other) dashboard. Always compose on a separate word doc. This will take away the pressure to simply “write and publish”.

Install spellcheck and grammarcheck in your Word Doc: we all make mistakes, but don’t always catch them. Typos, double words, punctuation errors, grammar mishaps… even when we proofread a page twenty times, we still may miss one or the other. Spellcheck and grammarcheck are worth their weight in gold. Think of them as your own private copy editor!

Find your own natural voice and writing style: There are a lot of excellent writers out there. Although I will explain to you how to be inspired by their writing, how to learn from their writing, never feel that you must copy their style in order to be a “good writer”. Don’t simply go to your thesaurus and pick out cool, “writerly” words and expressions. I will write about how to find – and develop – your own voice.

Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow 
the talent to the dark place where it leads. 
Erica Jong 

Now that we are set, now that we have gotten past the “I can’t” or “I have no talent” – and please do not even get me started on “the writing doesn’t really matter on blogs!” – we can begin. . . .


Unlike photography – or many other crafts – writing is difficult to separate out and talk about the equipment (language) on its own. Yes, one can (and sometimes should) pull out a good old-fashioned English primer and study up on one’s verb conjugation or sentence structure. Yes, many people should learn to differentiate between slang or text-speak and real live proper language and vocabulary. But while one can practice basic as well as more advanced photography skills with a single apple or the rose bushes out in one’s front yard, developing your writing is best done by bringing all of the elements together from the beginning as well as working with as many props as possible.

What one must first learn to do is, as a writing instructor once told me, become process-centered not product-centered. Stop thinking “I am going to sit down and write that post about my husband’s chocolate layer cake!” Begin thinking “chocolate cake….layer cake…husband… how does that make me feel? Of what does it make me think? How can I express these thoughts and feelings and my own desires? How can I communicate this to my readers? What words do I have at my command?

There are many resources that we have at our disposal, yet it all starts with the props. So let’s first turn to our props! What food blogger doesn’t love to prop shop? And what are the writer’s props? Words! Vocabulary! Expressions! Onomatopoeia, similes, metaphors and other groovy language toys and tools. And how does a writer prop shop?

Read! Without an extensive vocabulary at our fingertips, we are limited in what we can do as a writer. The greater our vocabulary, the more able we are to develop our own voice, find inspiration when we are blocked or at a loss….for words, create a mood, evoke an emotion and stimulate the senses. Simply flipping through a thesaurus does give us loads of great words to choose from, but they are not OUR words! As a writer, you want to OWN your props, your words.

The first thing I always recommend a student, a writer, a blogger is to read! Read everything: newspapers, magazines, blogs and websites, books; read different genres (news, op eds, murder mysteries and chick lit, fiction and non-fiction, how-to books, biographies and diaries, this century, last and the one before). But don’t just read. Study. Read in a way that you notice new words, new ways an author expresses something, how a writer brings a topic or a character alive, makes their voice sing in your head. And as you discover new words and expressions, use them, integrate them into your speaking voice. Once a word becomes naturally part of your speaking vocabulary (your voice), then will it become part of your natural writing vocabulary, and part of your own natural writing voice. Only then can you begin to fulfill your role as a writer.



Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

A marvelous post. Thanks for the useful tips!

When I write, I try to convey an atmosphere to my readers, make them feel emotions and help them create a film in their head...



Sam @ My Carolina Kitchen said...

I am so enjoying this new series Jamie. We all have times when it's difficult to find our voice for a post and your help is invaluable.

Mostly in the prose part of my post I discuss the recipe just as if I were talking the reader in person. I make suggestions about preparation, talk about what makes the dish special, whether it is an ingredient or presentation or whatever. It might not be the "right" way, but it works for me.

Funny, what I write is the exact same discussion my husband and I would have after we've tried a new dish at home.

Have a lovely weekend and thanks again for being generous with sharing your skills & knowledge.

Jamie said...

@Rosa: I love the way you write (and may interview you for this series among other writers)/

@Sam: Thank you so much. And I love what you just wrote and funny that something like that is what my next post will be about... I might quote you!! And I love teaching and talking about writing.

Paula Jones said...

Very good information, thanks for sharing!

Ivy said...

Thanks Jamie for the very useful post and will try and keep your advice in mind. My question is "Can you really teach an old dog new tricks?" (lol).
Serious now, reading does improve writing skills but where's the time to read when there's merely any time to blog?

Jamie said...

@Ivy: I once had an experimental psychology professor who was world-renown and top in his field and I still remember (maybe the only thing I remember from that class) the day he said "People ask if indeed one can teach an old dog new tricks and the answer is definitely yes!" What I want to get you to do it change your whole attitude and your thinking about the way you write, look at it in a new light and really think about the different steps and the things you can do to evolve... You may not become a best selling novelist but you can have more control over your writing and certainly improve. Just think through all the big and the little things I talk about or even point to... and apply it to the way you approach your own writing.

Rambling Tart said...

I love this post, Jamie, and couldn't agree more with your first tip: read, read, read. :-) That is my tried and true tip as well, the thing that keeps me going and is a never ending wellspring of ideas and inspiration. :-) Can't wait to read your next tips!!

Elizabeth said...

Ah, if only the writers of school history texts would pay attention to these lessons!

This is terrific, Jamie. Many thanks. I can't wait for the next installment.

OMG! Yummy said...

Hi Jamie - beautifully crafted post and wonderful advice. I think back to when we first met at IACP NY in a session about freelance writing when I was still doubting whether I deserved the title "writer". Cheryl has firmly prodded me to embrace the title and believe in my own voice and abilities. But I couldn't agree w u more about practicing and honing one's skill. Thx so much for taking the time to share your experience and wisdom.

motherrimmy said...

I've always written my blog posts in Wordpress. I won't be doing that anymore. Thanks for the inspiration!

Maureen | Orgasmic Chef said...

I remember when my friend and ad exec said to me, "Your blog is okay but you're not in there and where the hell is your photo?"

You are so right. Nothing good comes without effort and practise makes perfect or at least pretty darned good.

Bizzy Lizzy's Good Things said...

Great post, Jamie, so with you here!

Parisbreakfasts said...

'Voice' has always stumped me but when I meet PB readers they always say, '
you sound just like your blog' so I guess not to worry.
Really I'm mostly writing to myself...
Terrific post.

Jamie said...

@Paris Breakfasts: You make two great points that I must address... and will address in future posts:

1) "I'm mostly writing to myself". Well. The moment that you have even one single reader, you are no longer writing for yourself and must take that reader or those readers into consideration.

2) What is voice? Yes, absolutely, one must write as one speaks, that is a natural voice. But when writing for an audience, one can certainly bring that natural voice to a higher level, improve on it, hone it, make it easier to read and understand and relate to. This I will begin to cover in my next post! Stay tuned!

Thanks for commenting!

Parisbreakfasts said...

Bien sur, but I'm tough on myself...days, months, even years later I'll go back and edit out a 'the' or 'and' that seems superfluous to me...insane probably.

Sam Taylor said...

Ah Jamie. Reading this post takes me straight back to Ireland listening to you share on the very same topic. I am so delighted you are putting it down in print, now I can keep coming back to it whenever I need a nudge. What a generous gift you are giving in this series. Sam

Jill Colonna said...

Your words of advice couldn't be more timely, Jamie. I appear to have lost my voice: I'm way behind on le blog, lying here with the back out again, unable to sit at the computer containing the photos. But this has been a blessing to have 'forced' reading time and reflection. Looking forward to your next inspirational post!

Stacy said...

Excellent post, Jamie! I do truly believe that there is a writer in all of us. Some just take more of a coaxing to step out in confidence.

I also write first in Word and was astounded, back when I started blogging, to learn that others write directly in the Create Post space. But one caveat, I found that copying and pasting directly from Word messed up my HTML with weird codes and my Feedburner feed ended up gibberish. After researching the problem online, I found that the solution was to run the post through TextEdit first, which strips the extra codes and then paste into your blog post. Of course, it means you have to add the links and italics and bolds, etc. at the end, but the result is legible feed for email subscribers and other feed recipients.

Jamie said...

@Stacy: I do believe that everyone has a story to tell and can indeed learn to tell it well.

I have had the same experience you have had with code. Sometimes if I copy and paste (into my Word doc!) something from another site - maybe a quote or a recipe... it screws up when I copy and paste it into my Create Post space. I also realize that I have to copy and paste my post from the Word doc into the html part - not the Compose part, which then means I have to fiddle around with it once it is in there. But I have it down to a fine art now :-)

Jamie said...

@Paris Breakfasts: when I go back and read some of my early posts and see the errors, I know I could edit and make them better but I don't. I think it would drive me nuts. On the other hand, if I catch something in later or more recent posts, I definitely go in and correct and re-edit! Yeah, obsessive...

Jamie said...

@Sam: I am so honored and it thrills me that my former "students" - no matter how stunningly talented they are, do appreciate and learn from what i share. No matter where we are, we always have things to learn, always need inspiration and new ideas. Thanks so much for your kind words.

Simi J said...

Probably my weakest quality, to express myself in words. I often tangle myself in my own web of words. This is a wonderful post, am looking forward to the next one.

Mairi @ Toast said...

Another great post Jamie :) Thanks again for more tips. Especially like "chocolate...layer cake...husband" Put so simply it makes perfect sense!


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