Q & A with Dianne Jacob: Will Write For Food

Dianne Jacob is one of the most seasoned food writers and editors around and has become quite well-known because of the excellent advice and guidance she’s generously been giving out to other writers. A journalist since 1978, Dianne is also a writing instructor and coach that helps aspiring authors hone their craft. You can read more about her work and read her articles at her website.

Her latest book, Will Write For Food, is a comprehensive guidebook to the world of food writing. I can’t say enough good things about this book and it’s the first place I send anyone who asks me about the nitty-gritty on what it takes to write about food; from how to write your first proposal to how much you can expect to make from the finished book.

With helpful tips from well-known chefs and food writers like Harold McGee, Alice Medrich, Amanda Hesser plus powerful literary agents and top-notch cookbook editors—Will Write For Food is a must read.

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David: Hi Dianne, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for me and my readers. As someone who’s a seasoned writing coach and editor, what are the three most important tips you would give to aspiring food writers?

Dianne Jacob:

1. Win the lottery to make up for your income.

2. Take writing classes if you are cook; take cooking classes if you are a writer.

3. Be persistent.

David: Will Write For Food has become a classic, especially among food bloggers. But also amongst others interested in learning more about food writing, including restaurant reviewing, writing a memoir, and of course, cookbook writing. In fact, just about everyone I know has a copy.
What made you write it in the first place?

Dianne: I had been teaching food writing classes for years, and wanted a resource for my students. I couldn’t find one.

David: And was it difficult to find a publisher for the book?

Dianne: Are you kidding? Four New York publishers wanted it.


Part of what I offer as a coach and writing teacher is advice on writing book proposals. So I’d better be able to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

The proposals arrived on publishers’ desks on a Tuesday morning. By Tuesday afternoon a publisher had called my agent, expressing interest. He made an offer the next day.

David: Four publishers?…You go girl!
I hope it was a good offer, since the lottery is so hard to win.

Speaking of offers, recently I was approached by a famous pastry chef and chocolatier about co-authoring a book with him. When I told him recipes needed to be in cups-and-tablespoons for the US market, and that the cakes needed to fit into 9-inch pans, he didn’t see the point.

Since chefs can be temperamental, and often don’t understand home cooks, when you work with chefs how do you tell them the recipes need help or serious revision?

Dianne: I’m going through this right now, I just finished a pizza cookbook with a chef in Chicago who makes killer grilled pizzas.

He has been cooking as a professional for 25 years and has won international awards. But he takes his skill level for granted, assuming everyone else can do what he does. For Craig, the chef, it’s all about taste, and he doesn’t care how long it takes or how many steps there are to get there. So I have to explain how a home cook thinks, that they don’t have his level of experience or—frankly—interest.

In the example of your chef, he measures all his dry ingredients for accuracy, but most home cooks don’t have scales.

David: I think everyone in America, when they’re born, should be handed a scale.

Everyone asks me this, so I think I’m going to turn the tables: What’s your favorite chocolate?

Dianne: I confess to liking the ones that have flavorings like cassis or orange or chai. I can hear your readers hissing.

David: Ouch! (Yes, that was my eardrum bursting…) I don’t mind some flavored chocolates, especially ones with spices, so you’re off the hook with me. My readers, on the other hand, are a bit less forgiving…

So what’s you’re favorite trend in the food world?

Dianne: I like the notion that food is connected to the environment, and that what you choose to eat affects the soil, farm workers, resources, etc.

David: And your least favorite?

Dianne: Molecular gastronomy.
If I have to eat one more foam I’m going to scream!

David: To be honest, the only time I think I ever ate foam was when I accidentally swallowed some while shaving. So I think I know what you mean; it doesn’t taste very good.

Speaking of ‘unusual tastes’, you actually once professed to me a crush on Anthony Bourdain. Frankly, I don’t see the two of you together. What’s up with that?

Where have you been, dahhling? Thousands of people have crushes on Bourdain.

I went to one of his talks here in San Francisco and it was like a rock concert with groupies. A woman in the bathroom spent about 10 minutes applying blush to her décolletage. A woman in her 60s in the book signing line in front of me introduced herself to him as his “future wife.”

Actually, I don’t see the two of us together either. I would just enjoy hanging out with him, as long as it didn’t involve getting plastered and eating animal penises.

Oh. Never mind.

David: Er…thanks for sharing, Dianne.
That doesn’t sound very appetizing to me either. Let’s get back to food writing.
How much would you say a writer should expect to make per year?

Dianne: See question No. 1.

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David: Ok. I know that info is covered in your book, down to the exact dollars and cents. How do food writers supplement that income?

Dianne: Cooking classes, catering, being a private or personal chef, a real day job, doing food tours, and writing in more lucrative fields.

David: What do you think is the state of cookbook publishing today? I know for the past few years it was dominated by New York chefs, and then it seemed to be television personalities. Where do you think it’s going in the future?

Dianne: A big publisher closed its division last year, another publisher has put its famous editor on a 3-day a week schedule recently, so I think it’s going to be even harder for mere mortals to get published.

Sadly, the Food Network cookbooks rule.

David: A lot of bloggers would like to become professional food writers, and several have gotten book contracts. Do you think the era of the ‘celebrity chef’ is over and people are returning to books by home cooks?

Dianne: No. Bloggers have become celebrities, so we’re still in the same era.

David: Well, I know you’re not talking about me. I think I’ve gone the opposite direction.

You’ve written some articles, and we’ve corresponded a lot over the past couple of years about the importance of food blogs and how they’re nudging aside traditional media. Do you think that’s a good trend, or not?

Dianne: At first I sneered, having been a member of the traditional media for 30 years.

But then I got into it. I saw how it has changed the rules of who gets published and what to write about, and I find that refreshing. I like the community aspects, especially when you all get together to raise money for charity. Traditional media doesn’t do stuff like that.

David: I know I’m starting to sound like my parents, but in the past, we had some amazing food writers like Jane Grigson, Roy Andries de Groot, and Richard Olney. A lot of people today have no idea who they are, but I still get shivers when I read anything by one of them. They were so good at what they did. Do you think they’re lost forever, or they’ll be re-discovered by a new generation?

Dianne: It seems that way, doesn’t it. Our culture is focused on the new. So when you read the New York Times Book Review, or when my book group members choose a book, it’s all about what just came out.

On the other hand, most adored food writing from the past was Eurocentric (no offense), and we’ve finally branched out.

David: Who’s writing about food that you currently like to read?

Dianne: In that vein, I’m enjoying the new Saveur magazine, edited by a white guy who’s quite Asian identified. Being Asian-identified myself (my parents were born and raised in Shanghai), this is so much fun.

David: As an editor, what’s the most annoying trait that writers have?
(And please leave me out of this.)

Dianne: Food writers tend to use too many adjectives. Read Calvin Trillin. He doesn’t use any!

David: And if you could name three traits or techniques that food writers could work on to improve their writing, what would they be?

Dianne:

1. Employ all the senses in your writing, not just taste.

2. Use specific words whenever possible, ex. cinnamon bun vs. pastry.

3. Have fun and don’t take it so seriously (I need to take my own advice here).

David: Well, I definitely don’t take it so seriously. But perhaps I’d be rich if I did! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Dianne. You’re the best! And I hope readers check out your book, Will Write For Food, which explore all of the topics we covered in depth.


Links and Resources

Recommended Books on Food Writing

Food Blog Alliance

Dianne Jacob’s Blog

Writing Your Own Cookbook

46 comments

  • What I hate about some food writing is the use of words that are sterile because they don’t mean anything to the reader. There was for a while a fondness for the word “napped” some years back. Eventually it meant something to us, but why should it lie there taunting readers who want to understand a food for however long it takes to become apt? Supernal was another. It got to the point that if I read napped or supernal I put the piece down immediately. Why do they do that?

    No one mentioned M.F.K. Fisher! She is my goddess of food writing.

    I think I would add to your list learning how to write your language grammatically and correctly.

  • Hi Dianne: I have a question I forgot to ask: What do you think is the best way for a newbie food writer to ‘get their foot in the door’? Do you think for someone with little experience, it’s best to start trying to write for newspapers, magazines or something more local?

  • British author Jane Grigson is not going to be forgotten. The University of Nebraska Press is quietly reprinting all her books here in America. I ought to know, I just wrote the introduction to her vegetable book. And yes, it paid and no, not much.

  • Richard Olney won’t be forgotten either. As far as I can tell, “Simple French Food” is THE indispensable cookbook.

  • I am not a writer but a person that has been in the culinary field for 27 years. I love to teach and would love to reach a larger audience with combining my skills with a writer. I feel too many books are written by celebs.
    Any suggestions?

    I think food blogs provide a major service but there are so many people out there that don’t take the time to check them out.

  • David, you’ve inspired me to order this book. I’ve been considering purchasing it for a while, but somehow not gotten around to it. Thanks for the interview. I’m sure you don’t realize what an inspiration you are to people. I would absolutely not spend any time applying blush to my décolletage for Anthony Bourdain. For you, maybe. Your fiancée Fanny has declared her love and me too. I’ve bestowed on you a thinking blogger award. You may want to check out my post about it. You can choose to play or not, but the award is yours to keep.

  • I just finished reading this book! And now I’m hoping to win the lottery so that I can write whatever I want to…

  • Hi there, Dianne here. Sorry for the delay. I have the flu. On the phone I sound like a honking Canadian goose. Fortunately, I can type.

    So let’s see, question No. 1.
    Why do reviewers use words like napped?

    I think they all read each others’ work and are dying to find new adjectives and verbs. My favorite reviewer just won a Pulitzer: Jonathan Gold

  • For the question about how to get started: Yes, David, exactly right. Start at the smallest publication you can find, then use that clip to work your way up to the next largest publication and then the next.
    Or, if you know how to promote yourself, start a blog and hook it to other people’s blogs to get some traffic. Some people have blogs with no comments. Editors and agents want to see responses, lots of them. David, you’re a master at this.

  • Yes, we can learn from the masters of food writing, including MFK Fisher, Jane Grigson, Richard Olney. All are beautiful and well-educated writers with cult followings. If you haven’t read their books, go get them now!

    I assume that today, great food writers live not just in the US and Europe but all over the world, writing about every kind of cuisine. I’d like to know more about who they are.

    Anyone?

    Connie, you said you wanted to find a collaborator. Talk to the food writers where you live — at the daily paper, the alternative paper, the smaller pubs. If they’re not interested they will refer you. It’s a small community.

    Invite those who express interest to one of your classes. Interview them about their writing process and how you might work together. When you click with someone who respects your work, you’ll know it’s the right fit.

  • Hi Dianne — Thanks for a great read and inspiring book. I devoured all the food writers’ stories and anecdotes, and with help from your excellent exercises and guidelines, I’m ready to hit the keyboard yet realistic about the rewards (mostly intrinsic) of food writing.

    My question: Since the cookbook field has been so dominated by celebrity chefs recently, and every ingredient seems to have been featured at least twice, what might be some foreseeable trends or opportunties looking forward?

    – Cal in California

  • david…

    i need a recipe for a salted caramel spread (for toast, or something). i had this while i was working in france for the past six months. now that i’m back in the states, i can’t seem to get my hands on it, and the cravings are setting in.

    could you point me in the direction of a good recipe for it?

  • Hi Dianne. I am a journalist, book author, and magazine editor. Most often I write about food but I really question the idea of defining myself-or anyone else- as a food writer. It seems so limiting. Food is a reflection of who we are, where we come from and what’s happening in our culture. It’s connected to politics and pleasure, farming and Friday night. Food tells stories of heritage, history, geography. It encompasses science, anthropology, and sociology. In fact, there’s no subject that can’t be examined through a food “lense.” So my question is – why limit ourselves be saying we’re food writers? I think it makes us sound like a bunch of recipe writers- but you’re the expert- what do you think? does it mean something in the marketplace? is it a valuable tag?

  • Hi Cal,

    Thanks to you — and everyone else — for all these positive comments about the book. It means a lot that you’ve found it useful.

    Cookbook trends…hmmm. At least in the US, Asian cookbooks are having a big run, as are healthy eating books and as always, diet books and cooking in a hurry.

    But please don’t choose a subject just because it’s hot. You have to be passionate about what you write about. Cookbooks are so much work that you won’t be able to sustain interest otherwise. If you can’t narrow down what you love, ask your friends and family to tell you.

    Laura,

    Why say we’re food writers? Because it’s our area of expertise, just as others are science writers and business writers.

    On the other hand, Calvin Trillin says he’s just a writer and Michael Pollan says he’s a science writer.

    Could this be a male/female thing? “Food writer” sounds too domestic and trivial for guys? David, what do you think?

  • Amy: I’m so looking forward to re-reading Jane Grigson, especially with the new introduction by you! (I linked to it above.)

    Steve: Richard Olney was amazing. I keep waiting for the re-issue of Yquem, which keeps getting delayed.

    Laura & Dianne:

    So, are we food writers?
    That’s actually a great question and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a male/female thing. When one thinks of Anthony Bourdain, one doesn’t necessarily think ‘food writer’, even though he writes about food and restaurants. But we think of Richard Olney as a food writer, probably because he wrote a more romanticized version of ‘food writing’.
    Is Harold McGee a food writer? Or Michael Ruhlman? They’re both top-notch writers who write about food.

    I guess I would consider someone a ‘food writer’ who writes mostly non-fiction prose about food and food-related topics. Writing a recipe is certainly writing about food, and a well-written recipe is a skill. Still, I think that of folks like Calvin Trillin or Laurie Colwin, who wrote ‘about’ food, as ‘food writers’. Whereas the others I might consider journalists.

    Maybe we need to come up with a new term: food journalists?

  • Hi Dianne, thank you so much for your time and all the tips! My question is about multiple submissions? I read a while ago that publishers are not too keen on them, is it true? If one decides to submit a proposal to several publishers anyway, should this be stated in the proposal? Cheers!

  • Hi Dianne,

    I have a food blog http://www.marketmanila.com based out of Manila, The Philippines. I never considered myself a writer but rather someone with a passion for food. With 1,000+ posts in the past two years and monthly pageviews exceeding 200,000 from Filipinos and foreigners across the globe, I am wondering why they keep coming back to read more… By chance today I posted a question for my readers whether I should consider taking the possible next step of writing a book, and because of a reader’s comment, I ran out to a bookstore and purchased your book which is just wonderful.

    Then another reader alerted me to this interview… so my question is, if I don’t consider myself a writer at all, is it sheer lunacy to think about writing a book? And if I wanted to retain much more control over how the book is structured by underwriting much of it myself, is that lunacy squared? Thank you very much.

  • Good morning all. Dianne checking in. I feel better today after a good night’s sleep and a fabulous dinner of white chocolate, pretzels, and 3 chocolate-covered cashews.

    When I’m sick, I eat junk food in bed. It’s a pleasant change from making a sensible meal. Besides, I was not capable of the latter.

    David recommended jook as his favorite cure-all. Maybe tonight. I love that stuff.

    So David, you’re suggesting “food journalists.” That sounds more serious. But it doesn’t apply to those who write cookbooks. I think we’re on to something re the male/female question.

    Gourmet prides itself on hiring well-known male writers to write about food, and pays them well. This implies that writers specializing in food are inferior. Maybe they think food writers are dabblers. I’ve certainly heard that one before.

    And in a way, it’s true. Few writers make a living at this stuff full time. Even you, David, probably do better financially as a chocolate guide than as a food writer, eh?

    Now, on to the questions. Ales, you asked about multiple submissions. I don’t like them for 3 reasons:

    1. A story for a city magazine wouldn’t be the same as one for a travel magazine. Gourmet has a different slant than Eating Well, which focuses on health and flavor. Take the time to shape a story for a publication and you will be more likely to succeed.

    2. Most of the time, you send a query letter asking to submit a piece, not the submission itself. Many publications do not accept unsolicited writing.

    3. One time an experienced writer sent me a story, and I published it in my magazine. Later I was looking through older issues of a competing magazine, and I saw the exact same story. I never hired that writer again.

    ‘Nuff said?

    Now, Marketman. You deserve a reality check. I just read through your blog. You are a passionate, serious writer on fascinating topics. You are a beautiful photographer.

    You post every day,get thousands of responses, and your question about whether to write a book elicited 67 responses. So, um, how are you not a writer? And how, especially, are you not a GOOD writer?

    Yes, I feel your pain about deciding to write a book. It is scary to decide to write ANY book. I was scared too.

    But you seem to be pushing down your desire. I’m reading a book right now called The Courage to Write. Get it. It will help you move forward.

    Last Saturday night at the IACP gala, I sat 1 table over from the couple who won an award for Memories of Philippine Kitchens. You should have seen them jump up and down and grab each other and laugh and cry, and shake the hands of all the other people who came over to congratulate them.

    I’m not saying that you are next. But they had the passion and courage to go forward, and that could be you. There is always room for a well-written, focused book by someone who knows how to get a response.

  • Hi Diane,
    Thanks for taking the time to respond to comments. Says a lot about who you are. I am new to the food writing “biz” but am loving every minute. What do you think of the self-publishing route as a way to break into the cookbook field?

  • Hi Diane,

    How do you determine who to send a query to in the case of a newspaper or magazine? Few publications have clear guidelines on this, which can make it difficult to navigate. It makes sense with a newspaper with a food section that it would go to the editor of that section, but with a food publication, which editor generally reviews pitches?
    Can food blog posts serve as clips when you’re starting out?

  • Dianne here again. This is a blast.

    I feel the need to point out my bias. I see all food writing through the lens of making a living, because I have worked as a writer and editor for over 30 years.

    Now, if you write about food for pleasure and self-expression, more power to you. You can just enjoy yourself. I hope I haven’t given you all the impression that there’s anything wrong with that.It sounds like a huge relief, actually.

    Ronnie, you asked about self-publishing. It’s a viable option if:
    1. It’s only for you, friends and family
    2. You can afford it
    3. You know how to sell your book and get media attention.

    This last one is critical. Please don’t invest lots of money, print a ton of books, store them in your garage, then wonder what to do with them. One way to handle this is to use Print-On-Demand publishing, which prints 1 book at a time and mails it to your customer.

    Also re number 3, if you have sold thousands of books, it’s likely that you can attract a publisher who will reprint it and pay you an advance.

    Mary, good question! Finding the right editor is a big problem.

    I like to call the lowest person on the editorial totem pole (usually the one who answers the phone) and ask. But some magazines don’t even list phone numbers. You can try email. If they don’t answer, you’ll have to take a guess.

    If the staff is big, don’t query the editor-in-chief. Also don’t query the managing editor, as that title usually means they’re in charge of getting the magazine out, not reading pitches. Go for someone between them, like an executive editor or features editor.

    Even if you pick the wrong person, he or she will send your pitch on to the right editor if deemed worthwhile.

    Yes, food blogs are excellent ways to show editors the quality of your writing. Put links to specific pieces in the email, preferably those on the same topic as your pitch.

  • re Self-Publishing:

    I was at an IACP conference a few years back and this woman came out wearing a gingham dress and pigtails. We all kinda snickered–until she told us the hundreds of thousands of book she sold each year. She drives across the US in a mobile home and sells her books directly…and makes a fortune!

    That said, she’s putting the drive and a lot of energy into promoting her books. People think the publisher’s pr dept is going to send them a RT first-class ticket with 50 cities on book tour, but that only happens to very few authors. Most go out and do their own promotion. (You are your best publicist, after all. Right?)

    I think self-publishing is great for people that have a built-in audience. If you live in Rome and do walking tours, you could publish a book and sell it to guests. Similarly if you live in the US and teach cooking out of your home, you can sell a book there. If you have a blog, those print-on-demand companies, as Dianne mentioned, are perfect since there’s no risk to you and you’re not stuck with cases of unsold books. And you don’t have to deal with shipping and payments.

    To Mary: (Oops! Isn’t this supposed to be Dianne’s forum? Sorry..) I’m surprised at how many cookbook editors and magazine editors read food blogs. Although it’s hard to get noticed nowadays with so many good ones out there, being persistent and taking the time to craft a good blog can pay off. They are watching!

  • so dianne and david- let’s keep talking about being dubbed a food writer. i don’t think it denotes an expertise in a useful way- because the best writers on the subject always tell a story that goes beyond what’s on the plate or in the pot. and no matter how much you know about food if you’re not a talented and skilled writer, it will never be a piece of work worth reading, wouldn’t you both agree? it seems to me that at least as much authority and expertise is in the mastery of the craft itself- or should be.
    i never wanted to be pigeon-holed as a female writer, a Jewish writer, or an Ohio writer. all seem rather reductionist and confining. same with food writer. i am a writer and i strive to be a good one. and one of the essentials for doing that is to have a deep understanding of the topic. so yes- i know my saltimboca from my brasciole (clearly working on an article about an Italian restaurant at the moment), but only because it’s my job as a journalist and writer to know, not because i’m a food writer. i’d like to think i can write equally competently on a all sorts of topics…and i regularly take on those assignments too. maybe there is a gender component- left over from the days when the only place to find women in the newspapers and magazines was the soft stuff- domestic arts, fashion, home ec… but those days are gone. instead we live in an age of specialization. but i’m not buying into that. I’d take one good Renaissance man or woman over a roomful so-called experts. your thoughts?

  • Dianne, thanks for all the great responses to the questions. This has been very interesting to read.

    I am a journalist and editor who started writing about food a few years ago via a food blog. Earlier this year, a small publishing company approached me about writing a cookbook and I agreed. However, I know that they aren’t going to be doing a whole lot of publicity for it. Could you give a few tips on how to generate publicity and what to say in press releases. (You would think after 5 years at a newspaper and more as an editor I would know this stuff!But I am at a loss.)

    Thanks!

  • Hi there, back after a lie-down.

    Laura, some writers want to be thought of as generalists, some as specialists. I guess it doesn’t really matter as long as we get to write about what interests us most. And yes, bad writing is bad writing, no matter what the subject.

    Re marketing your book, Sarah, that is a huge topic. In general, your job is to put yourself in front of potential customers as much and as often as possible. This involves knowing exactly who they are (to maximize your effectiveness), which pubs they read (so you can freelance articles), which clubs and groups they join (so you can speak at them), whose blogs they read (so you can get mentioned on them — ahem!), etc.

    Most publishers will at least write a press release and send out review copies. Yours won’t even do that? Man, you’ve got your work cut out.

    Lots of books on book marketing have useful info. And type “Market Your Book” into a search engine. I did so just now and got a long list of sites and books.

  • I just picked up this book today – can’t wait to dig in!

  • Great to see this interview.
    I met both David and Dianne through IACP.

    I worked with Dianne on an idea I have for a book, and got a lot of great advice.

    the book is fabulous and helps focus a lot!
    anyone that writes and wants to make $$$ doing so..
    take advice.. BUY IT.

    Thanks Dianne.. and David

  • Hi Dianne and David,

    Thanks to you both for hosting this terrific (uh oh, adjective alert) conversation. I am wrapping up my second cookbook and I still learn something from you every time you open your mouth (or pen cap or keyboard). I think one ingredient in our mutual success will be continuing to share thoughts, tips, and insights in this way. Many thanks to you both for being so generous with your talents and time.

    Note to Amy — I LOVE Jane G’s Vegetable Book (fruit, too) and I am thrilled to learn you’ve written the intro. I know you will help bring the new printing to the widespread attention it deserves.

    Best,

  • If you really are serious about breaking into food writing, check out the Greenbrier Food Writers Symposium. It’s expensive and far away, but it could be the nudge you need to either get rolling or run screaming from the whole idea. (As a bonus, there are hot doughnuts every morning, acres of Dorothy Draper decor – “Lilly Pulitzer on acid,” said one attendee- and the possibility of seeing someone Famous from New York misbehaving in the hospitality suite. )
    Anyway, it was at the Greenbrier that I realized that my goal was to be a good writer who wrote about food in the context of other issues, and not a recipe writer/content provider with a knack for a catchy headnote. I’m working on my second book and I’m not in it for the money. Writers write!

  • Deborah: I’ve never been to Greenbriar (I’m still waiting for my invitation to speak there!) but I’ve heard the seminar is very good, and the place is real down-south comfort…and homemade donuts?

    But it is a good idea to associate and network with other writers. IACP, Greenbriar, CIA’s Greystone in Napa Valley are pricey, but valuable networking methods. Another option is to find a coach, like Dianne. Many people just need to practice and sometimes a little extra push comes in handy from the outside.

  • I’m going to be a speaker at the Greenbrier in 2009.

    I went there 5-6 years ago. The speakers are captive because the Greenbrier is in the middle of nowhere. You get to mingle with people you wouldn’t ordinarily have access to, like agents and newspaper editors and book editors.

    Re coaching, no flying is required since it’s all by phone and email. It’s useful if you need help moving forward; can’t decide whether to write a book or freelance; change careers; or you’ve written something and want a professional opinion on how to improve it.

    Some people are good writers but want hand holding and structure because it’s daunting to write a book. The rejection rate for book proposals from agents and editors is about 95 percent, after all.

    That applies to magazine editors too. I rejected about 95 percent of queries.

    Coaches have connections with agents and editors that come in handy when it’s time to send out a proposal or a pitch. It works the other way too. Agents and book editors send me writers whose proposals and manuscripts need more polish.

    Coaching can happen at any level, regardless of whether you’ve never been published all the way to experienced journalists and prolific book authors. There’s no reason to think you should be beyond it.

    I hope I’ve been informative without too much self-promotion. There’s more info on my website, http://www.diannej.com.

    — Dianne

  • Dianne, you inspire me as an example of someone who has formed your own goal–food writing–and created your individual path through it.

    I consider myself a journalist-generalist and admire your courage to develop your own way and specialty, and then your generosity in sharing it.

    Although I’ve done food, health and agriculture reporting, and am attracted to those subjects and their overlaps, I’ve never been able to move to what many would call “food writing.”

    I should probably confess here I went to j-school with Diane decades ago, but never had your amazing focus on a subject area.

    How did you develop your vision of where you wanted to go as a writer? Did you know young, or did something trigger it?

  • Hi Caroline, great to hear from you.

    When I was 5, my dad told me and my sister that we were going to be writers or artists. He gave us assignments as soon as we could put sentences together, due every Sunday. I remember, with great pride, one of my first efforts: a poem about a frog with a flatulence problem.

    It was a bad idea to argue with my dad if you wanted to live through the day, so I went to journalism school and became a full-time editor and writer. My sister got a degree in English lit and worked as a newspaper features writer.

    It didn’t occur to me that I could specify beyond that. When I realized food was my obsession, I was close to 40, even though I had already selected recipes for a newspaper, was the editor of a restaurant magazine and had written lots of reviews! Along the way, I had other jobs writing and editing, but not in areas where I really cared.

    I had to become self-employed before I gave myself permission to figure it out. That was 11 years ago. I’ve never been busier or happier.

  • This has been so informative!
    I’m loving your book Dianne, but this interview makes it come even more alive.
    THANK YOU David for doing this!!!

  • You are most welcome, and thank you.

    It’s been fun to have this back and forth with people. I’m not smart enough to know how to do it on my own site. David, I am so grateful for this opportunity.

    What I didn’t say before is that like many others, I inherited my food obsession from my parents. They were immigrants who held on to their identity through food.

    My mother cooked and baked the foods she grew up on. My father canned pickles, brined cheese, made yogurt and planted vegetables that were hard to find in markets. We hardly ever ate outside the house, so I grew up steeped in their food.

    My father’s favorite vegetable was a Chinese celery he grew in the back yard. The dark green stalks were sweet, crisp and juicy, with no strings. He loved to cut them up and keep them in a bowl of cold water in the fridge, so we could have them whenever we liked.

    I had never eaten it again until about 4 years ago, when I bit down on a diamond-shaped piece of dark green that was part of a dish laced with sesame oil. Just from that one bite, memories of my childhood flooded back: the white china bowl in the fridge with pink flowers on it; the greens floating in water; our dark kitchen; the summer; my dad in his white shirt, skinny tie, and black pants. And that is the power of food.

  • Reading these entries reaffirms my idea that inspiration can be discovered in many places � and sometimes those in which you least expect it. When I logged on to learn more about the logistics of food writing, I hadn’t imagine that I would also learn to re-examine the ways in which I regard food itself. I especially appreciated Laura’s comment: “Food is a reflection of who we are, where we come from and what’s happening in our culture.”

    This, along with David’s expert advice about joining food-related organizations and Dianne’s evocative reflections on food in her family history, inspires me to look at my own culinary odysseys in fresh ways. A couple of days ago, I attended a Bakers Dozen meeting in San Francisco. The group, comprised of both professional bakers and ardent amateurs, offers members the opportunity to explore all the delicious aspects of baking.

    At our most recent meeting, we had two demonstrations: strudel-making by pastry chef Cathy Burgett (and one of the authors of Williams-Sonoma’s “Essentials of Baking”) and challah-making by veteran baking teacher Evie Lieb. There, as with this forum, I was expecting logistics � and received a bounty of creative inspiration as the presenters inspired us to venture deeply into each process and its signature techniques.

    Watching Cathy stretch strudel dough across her cloth-covered board transported me back to my childhood, when I was captivated by the sight of my Slovenian grandmother transforming a pillowy mass of dough into a sheet so thin you could read through it. She’d cover her old wooden kitchen table with a worn linen cloth lightly sprinkled with flour, and the dough would cover the entire surface. When the translucent sheet was rolled with spiced apples, bread crumbs and wine-soaked raisins, the dough was somehow itself (the amorphous mass so diligently stirred with a wooden spoon) and something else entirely. Then, the baking catalyzed yet another transformation, as heat elicited the warm fragrance of cinnamon and autumn apples, butter and loving artistry. Eating the strudel, still crackling from the oven, nourished me on so many levels. And this past Monday, Cathy brought it all back.

    And Evie, her hands moving with a calm, exalting confidence and quiet skill gleaned from decades of experience, inspired me to believe I could actually make challah myself (despite being rather, um, challenged at kneading and knotting). Her words and her motions conveyed the long and powerful tradition behind the food, the prayer and poetry that manifest themselves with every rich, eggy bite of sunwarmed bread…

    Oh, yikes: I apologize for going on at such length! I guess this is all a very longwinded way of saying: yes, join organizations, go to cooking classes/demonstrations and spend time with people who care about food and its myriad meanings. You never know where the journey will take you.

  • David & Dianne

    Thanks so much for such an informative post! Lots of useful information here that I plan to go and digest at leisure. It’s a privilege to have two such accomplished writers who are willing to share their expertise so freely – we are not worthy! ;-)

  • Wow, there’s some great writing here, both from hosts (thanks, David and Dianne) and online commenters!

    My question for Dianne (if you’re still reading this):

    I love everything about food, but I’m definitely no expert. Also, I’m no great writer. Still, I’d love get into food writing and am willing to start at the very bottom of the (pickle or wine) barrel. What’s the first thing I should do? (Besides winning the lottery, taking classes and purchasing your book, which (along with a couple of David’s cookbooks) I’ve just ordered from Amazon). Thanks again for all your helpful advice!

  • Thanks Jeanne. Anyone who reads David’s blog must be worthwhile, ’cause he is a quality guy.

    Kate, all that’s left to tell you is: start writing. Writers write. That’s the bottom line. You don’t have to show it to anyone.

    Pick a food you’re passionate about and pick up the pen. Write a paragraph. Write another one. Then another and another, again and again and again. That’s all there is to it. Eventually you’ll find something you like.

    Also try the exercises at the back of every chapter. Thanks for buying my book!

    Thanks to everyone who’s read this blog who has my book. It’s a privilege to meet you. I hope WWFF has helped you find what you’re looking for.(Oops, dangling modifier).

  • Dianne & David,

    I’m an amateur photographer who’s recently begun specializing in portraits of food. I’d love to hook up with a food writer or chef. Do either of you have any suggestions?

    Thanks!

  • Hi Quinn:

    Hmmm. I’m not sure about your ultimate goal. If it is to get your work published in a book, it may not help you to show your work to food writers, unless one plans to write a book and likes your photography.

    Publishers hire the photographer. The writer can only make a recommendation. So show your work to publishers who do cookbooks with photos.

    I’m not sure if you’d get much business from chefs. Try your local city magazine, also p.r. and marketing companies that specialize in food.

    Make your work accessible by putting lots of it on a website, if you have not done so already, so people can review your portfolio.

    I hope I’ve told you something you didn’t know already.

  • Dianne,

    You’re a genius! A friend of mine said you had amazing advice, but I didn’t expect such right-on direction.

    I’m a little embarrassed to admit I haven’t really done anything with my food photos other than show them to my kids and the cat. (Kids liked them, cat didn’t). I’ll work on putting together some of what I think is my best stuff and show it to our local newspaper editor – who is a buddy of mine- and try to set up a website.

    Thanks again!

  • Hi Quinn: I would agree with Dianne about setting up a web site. Check out some of the excellent advice regarding food photography from Lara at Still Life With.

    Also, my photography improved immensely when I got this camera. It’s a small investment, but I love mine and costs a fraction of what larger DSL’s cost. Once you sit down and figure out what all those dials mean, you can get great photos. You’re too limited with a normal, fixed-lens digital camera.

    And practice. Most great writers & photographers don’t just sit down and write, or point & shoot, they do it a lot and devote a great deal of time to it.

    Other bloggers who are food photographers have written extensively about their craft. Two that come to mind (search their site for their blog posts with tips) are:

    101Cookbooks

    MattBites

    Lastly, if you’re serious. get your own domain name. Having a blogspot.com blog is fine, but I do recommend having your own little space on the web. In my FAQ’s (under the categories, upper left) there’s great links to bloggers who’ve written posts about setting up a good food blog.

  • I just wanted to say ‘hi’! I ordered your book before I saw this article and am awaiting delivery, so it’s great to find this interview to read while I’m waiting.

    I’m not sure if you’re still answering questions but if you are – do you have any thoughts or advice for those of us who are juggling a full time job while trying to break into writing?

  • Excellent advice about photography, David. Thanks.

    To Julia: Yeah, that’s a tough one. It’s hard to write when you work full-time and you’re tired when you get home.

    But lots of people do it. I think Wallace Stegner wrote all his poetry while working full-time at an insurance company. Steven King never watches TV. He sits right back down at the computer after dinner.

    Take a look at what’s stopping you. If there’s a little voice saying you’re no good, then tell that voice to go away for a half hour every day, while you’re writing. Just for a half hour.

    Schedule that half hour into your calendar. Treat it like a real event you can’t miss. Block out the time.

    Take yourself seriously and tell yourself that you deserve that time.

  • Dianne has an online course via UCLA extension. I can’t wait for it to begin!