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.''
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.
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. . . .
FINDING YOUR VOICE: PART I (props)
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.
(Next week: FINDING YOUR VOICE: PART II)