The Food Writer’s Dilemma

There has been much hand-wringing of late about the state of food writing. Amanda Hesser gave stark advice for future and current food writers. John Birdsall gave his own perspective on the industry. Adam Roberts talked about whether or not food blogging is over.

All of this self introspection is navel gazing at best, because the food writer’s dilemma is the same dilemma that most every writer has always had. How do you make a living at this? The answer to this question, at least at a high level, has never changed, one iota.

Here are the answers, or, as I call them, rules to this lifestyle.

Rule #1: Always be Writing: Period. Full stop. Every day, write something down. It’s amazing to me that the amount of people who want to be writers who don’t do this simple task. Yes, take a break from time to time. But one hundred words, or a thousand, it doesn’t matter. Write, write, write as long as you are mentally able.

People who master rule one can feel free to call themselves a writer. However, this isn’t the subtext of Hesser’s, Bridsall’s, or Robert’s point. Because without a paying audience, you’re writing to yourself, and this, unless you’re independently wealthy, is not a viable career option. So you have to add another rule to your skill set, one that allows you to make a living at writing.

Rule #2: Always be Selling: This is where most people slip up, because they believe that if they write something magnificent, the world will come knocking upon their door.

This just isn’t so. You have to sell either your work or your talent. Some of us get other people to sell our work for us. Other’s figuratively pound the pavement themselves and end up with a long term writing gig at a newspaper, magazine, web site, or other medium. But the rule is, if you want to make a living at writing, you have to sell yourself. Sorry.

The discussions that are occurring now are little more than lamenting the fact that the rules have changed. To this end, they are right. The changing media landscape means that traditional paths to (food) writing have shifted, altered, or have disappeared completely. This is the bad news.

The good news is that there are other paths out there. Other paths have yet to be uncovered. You (and I) have to be motivated enough to look for them, or create them ourselves. If writers are unable or unwilling to do this, then your income will always be limited.

There is one way (out of many) which will find these paths more often than not. Sell good writing. I know, I know. “Good” is subjective. But there are two more rules which will help distinguish your writing, and make it unique.

Rule #3: Always be Editing: Any work can be refined. The first draft almost always is horrible, and the second draft is rarely much better. Add into this the fact that every writer has their blind spots when it comes to grammar, spelling, narrative form, thesis establishment, and a host of other writing issues that I could write a book about. Learn to edit. Until you do, find an editor who believes in you and work with them, not against them. This means being critical of your self, and understanding that writing is a craft, first and foremost. Good writing is almost never a solo effort.

The last rule is an extension of rule #3, but applied over the entire endeavor.

Rule #4: Always be Improving: I suck at selling. I realize that, for me to be able to be full time at this, I have to improve at this skill. I am marginally better at writing, and have only recently been confident enough to understand that editing and writing are similar, but not the same to one another. Every single writer out there, whether it’s Michael Chabon, Amanda Hesser, or Kate Hopkins, all can improve in one of the three areas above. To get where we want to be, we should be looking to get better at each of these areas. When we writers get good enough at all three, success, in some degree or another, will follow.

These rules have not changed in five hundred years of the publishing industry. They existed back in M.F.K. Fisher’s time, and they exist today. Yes, aspects of these areas have altered in one way or another since the first published author, but the basic rules are still the same.

If you want to write, then write. If you want to make money at it, then sell yourself. If you want to keep on selling yourself, get better. Everything else is little more than shop talk.

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