CAMP 2013: Feast for the eyes: Food writing

By 2013 JAWS Fellow Emily Douglas

“Why the explosion of interest in food right now?” asked an audience member at the “Feast for the Eyes: Food Writing for Magazines, Cookbooks, and Websites” panel.

Jane Marshall, author and food historian at Kansas State University (and former JAWS president) brought together experts to answer this question at JAWS CAMP 2013.

Panelists Lisa Gosselin, former editorial director at EatingWell (and current Commissioner of Economic Development for Vermont), and Molly Stevens, a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and culinary educator, offered audience members tips and practical suggestions for capitalizing on the trend — as well as some theory about what’s behind it.

“Food is an escape,” Stevens suggested. “The world is fast and harsh. Food takes us back to our families.”

But she cautioned against the notion that Americans should “go back” to a time when they cooked from scratch. After all, she pointed out, women were the ones stuck in the kitchen doing that cooking. The challenge is to “teach ourselves to cook from whole foods again”—in a more democratic way.

Tips for Vivid Food Writing: Or, So You Want to Be the Next Smitten Kitchen?

You can, Gosselin said. “There is a huge opportunity to create your own audience. You can build an audience of 200,000, and that is bigger than many magazines have.” So how?

• Develop a brand for editors to understand. Brands are about trust, and you need editors to trust you, to know that they will have a consistent and positive experience working with you. Your brand can be: I’m funny, I’m the best researcher, I’m the charticle queen. If you have a dietary restriction, that can become part of your brand! “Food has become a philosophy. If you have an ethic or philosophy about food, that can be part of your brand,” Gosselin said.

• Respect objectivity. “There is very, very little objectivity in food writing today,” Gosselin told us. She blames food manufacturers—some of whom are able to commission multi-million dollar studies to demonstrate the health effects of their foods—but she also blames food writers, who in their quest to battle Big Food, put their opinion before their reporting. “Many esteemed writers have gone from reporters to journalists to book authors to pundits,” she argued. “When you’re a pundit, you’re going in with a particular point of view” and will highlight studies that confirm that.

• If you’re writing recipes, make sure they work! “Readers invest effort, time, money, and possible social embarrassment in your recipes,” Stevens pointed out. Make sure they won’t be disappointed.

• Editors have fewer and fewer resources—little time, and high risk if something goes wrong. New writers are a risk, and one that’s becoming harder to take. Increasingly, said Gosselin, EatingWell works with established writers, often ones they’ve worked with before. How do you break into that? “Try to find something you can really own.” Start with niche and regional publications, and move up from there to higher-paying articles in bigger magazines. Working with a new writer is like going on a first date, Gosselin said. “You don’t necessarily want to have a three-course meal right away, but if you have a coffee and that goes well, you will want more.”

• Write for a publication—in their style, voice, and respecting their audience. “Study the edits you get,” Stevens said. “If I get edited, I say, what did I not ‘get’ about what they wanted? Understand that editing is a gift, someone else helping you.”

• Experiment with new forms of recipe writing. Prose recipe writing—without a list of ingredients on top, followed by a list of steps—is a burgeoning field, with opportunities for experimentation. (Stevens cited Jamie Oliver and the book The Everlasting Meal as strong examples of this trend.) Interactive recipes are another promising model.

• Being a good food blogger means being a good food photographer. (Gosselin noted that Pinterest drives more traffic to EatingWell, via re-pins of food photos, than Huffington Post or Yahoo.)

Tips for Making a Consumer Magazine Stand Out

Gosselin has worked for Ski, Bicycling, Audubon, Islands and EatingWell, and had some great advice for those working on the editor, rather than writer, side of food writing.

• Create your own mission statement. Ask yourself where you fit relative to your competitors, and then take that beyond the magazine itself into partnerships.

• Value the “average reader.” As an editor, you don’t have to know everything— often it’s better if you don’t, because the average reader doesn’t. You’ll know to ask the seemingly obvious questions that readers want answers to.

• Embrace a “multiple-use approach” to content creation. EatingWell would produce cookbooks that could also be turned into articles, slideshows, and sold to partners such as Kaiser Permanente and FreshDirect. With this strategy, Gosselin said, EatingWell was able to triple their staff. “We had to be more than a print publication.”

• “If you are doing journalism well, you are changing people’s lives,” she noted. What’s exciting about editing for a vertical audience—a passionate audience focused on a narrow subject—is that they are looking to you for expertise and information. You can encourage people to practice better habits.