Articles - 17th May 2019

Idiot Sandwich: The tricky skill of becoming a food writer

Words by Jenny Linford
Illustration by Jon McCormack

When I started writing about food in the early 1990s, being interested enough in food to want to write about it in was considered rather odd. Things have changed. Today, food is fashionable in Britain and wanting to write about it is now regarded as entirely understandable. Broadly speaking, people come to food writing from two different directions and meet in the middle. There are people who want to write and who also have an interest in food (my journey). Then there are those who know about food – chefs, trained cooks, food producers – who become interested in writing about it. That interest in food is key; every good food writer I’ve met has genuinely loved food. Food is a vast, multi-faceted subject – think of food history, the politics of food, food and health, food production, food and the environment – which is what makes it so fascinating.

Food writing, like food itself, is a diverse field. You might find yourself naturally drawn to a particular aspect of it. When I tell people that I write about food for a living, the usual response is to think that I’m a restaurant reviewer. While I have written restaurant reviews, it’s not my speciality; my food writing covers a lot of different areas, which is what I enjoy. If, though, what you enjoy about food is eating out (rather than cooking), then this is an area you may want to focus on. Restaurant reviewing jobs – especially on national newspapers – are hotly sought after, so it’s a competitive area. As a way in, try writing for specialist restaurant websites or local guides. London’s diverse eating out scene, for example, offers a lot of scope for coverage.

If, however, you enjoy cooking – handling and transforming ingredients – and want to write recipes, then do build up your knowledge of cooking through hands-on experience, whether formal or informal. I didn’t train in a professional kitchen and am a self-taught home cook and my recipe-writing reflects this, with my cookbooks aimed at domestic cooks like me. What most people don’t realise is that there is a skill to writing a recipe well. Reading and using cookbooks by good food writers such as Diana Henry, Nigella Lawson or Nigel Slater is a great way to appreciate this. As a food writer, one has a duty to the reader to write recipes that work; to do this involves effort. Writing recipes involves not only testing them conscientiously, but measuring ingredients and writing the method clearly and accessibly.   

The qualities required to be a freelance food writer are those required by all freelance professionals. In terms of character, I think persistence is key. You have to be determined and be able to cope with rejection, since – unless you’re very lucky – there will be a lot of that. This persistence applies to both journalism and book writing. It took me over two years of writing round to various publishers to get my first book idea commissioned. When Macmillan commissioned my first book Food Lovers’ London (a guide to London’s cosmopolitan food shops, first conceived of in pre-Internet days and still in print seven editions later!), I decided to go all out to try and be a food writer. I left my job as a bookshop manager, did a three-month course in periodical journalism and researched and wrote the book at the same time. As with all freelancers, being self-motivated is key. On the work side, qualities that editors look for are reliability and professionalism, so respecting deadlines, writing to brief and to word count.

Be prepared to be flexible and make the most of any opportunities. My career as a food writer as seen me write guides, cookbooks and food books. I’ve written journalism for newspapers, magazines and websites on topics ranging from Singapore’s food scene for Delicious magazine to an interview with Chinese chef and restaurateur Andrew Wong for The Sunday Times. Other writing work has including copywriting for food companies, working with advertising agencies, restaurant reviews, creating recipes and editing recipes. Opportunities for food writing can be found not only in the specialist food magazines but also in less obvious places.

The food scene changes all the time and it’s important to stay aware and alert of trends. The current underlying interest in food and health, for example, is seeing the rise of free-from foods, veganism and gut health (fermented foods). In today’s hyper-connected world, information is available at your fingertips, so make the most of this amazing facility. Follow people who interest you in the food world:  chefs, food producers, food writers, cookery magazines, newspaper food sections. There is a real online community of people keen on food and platforms such as Twitter or Instagram offer a rewarding chance to engage with people who share your interest. Being a freelancer is often a solitary profession, so the chance to chat companionably on-line to likeminded people while sitting alone at your desk at home is a bonus.

Nowadays – with food being such a popular, appealing subject – social media offers a real opportunity to create a platform for yourself.  Publishers keep an eye on who’s making a name for themselves in the social media sphere and are keen to use them to get access to a new audience. A number of bloggers and supper club hosts have gained first a following and then a cookbook deal.  Also, as in many other fields, winning a food writing competition is a great way to make a name for yourself.

I’ve been writing about food for decades now and am still as fascinated by the subject as when I first started out. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to meet so many interesting people – fellow food writers, food historians, food producers, chefs, keen cooks – from whom I’ve learnt so much. Food writing is competitive and being a food writer is not an easy way to make a living. If, however, you are genuinely fascinated by food, then it is a rewarding area of work to pursue.

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