Crafting Content for a Young (New) Writer

by Adam on April 10, 2013

I was attending the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Conference this past weekend in San Francisco. The organization itself is a “big tent” in the culinary world, engaging food writers, authors, media, publishers, agents, bloggers, and to some extent, chefs. Each year, the annual conference has a particular theme…appropriately, this year’s was “Dirt to Digital” around real-world food experiences in a virtual world.

There was a lot of good content being shared at various panels and networking events, with panels on the power of Pinterest, online video and similar socially-oriented programming. There were also a number of sessions on startups and entrepreneurship in food, including one panel I was lucky enough to participate in around financing for food startups, with Wade Roush of Xcomony, Ben Lee of CircleUp and Iso Rabins of ForageSF. Overall, a lot of good engagement and many takeaways.

One session in particular that I attended on Monday got me thinking because of the implications posed for content creation in the future. The panel included Corie Brown of ZesterDaily, David Ellner of Panna, and Molly O’Neill, famed NYT writer and founder of One Big Table and now the Cook N’ Scribble writing series. It was something that Molly said that struck me, which I’ll try to paraphrase below:

Up until a few years ago, the idea of the “structured” editorial environment was prevalent for writers who worked in the food media. Whether in a magazine freelance position, as a journalist for a major newspaper, or even as a writer for a new media startup, there was always a back and forth between writer and editor, a honing of the craft whereby a newcomer could build their expertise by working alongside those that had come before. But that’s now changing. With the cuts in editorial staff, the closing of various sections of newspapers (including the food section) and the rise of user-generated content creation, there is a rapid deterioration in the ability of young writers to have their work edited, to engage in the thoughtful business of honing their food writing.

I have to say that while the focus of the panel was on making money off your food writing in new channels, this particular point of view really resonated with me. Now, please don’t interpret this as an affront on food bloggers, because it isn’t. There are tons food bloggers out there, many of whom I count as friends, who are doing really great work, work that is helping to forward the conversation around food in interesting and daring ways.

But, I do see an issue with the editorial infrastructure around food going forward. I can’t see a future in which investment in the editorial process leads back to the traditional workflow where editors work with writers to carefully craft and recraft stories that both enrich a reader’s experience and also enhance the writer’s ability to tell stories going forward. Nowadays (and Molly said this on the panel), editors, regardless of where they are working, feel the need to continue to move content forward. Content is not words, content is units of copy, space that needs to be inserted in order to fill a quota and so there is no real impetus to take time with that content.

Again, don’t get me wrong, I think there are many online and offline outlets that are investing in content and producing good content, but my concern is how the content business continues to evolve and foster a younger demographic who want to write about food, but don’t have inroads or access to more seasoned writers who can help them.

While I don’t have an answer, for those looking to write more about food, I have a few suggestions that are probably obvious, but I think important to mention:

  • Everything that we do in writing can in some ways be inspired by other writers around us. Always remember to follow writers you admire, read what they are writing, and just as important, what they are reading. 
  • In the same way, come up with a list of writers that you want to know more about. How did they get their start, where did they work? Are there opportunities for a young writer to get involved in the same or similar ways?
  • Be willing to work for free, at least in the beginning. There are a lot of content outlets that would gladly take content from a new writer looking to hone his/her craft. The Edible series of magazines across the country are always looking for new writers and that’s just one example.
  • Related to the above, when taking on work for free, be sure you know what you are getting out of it. Try to talk (and I mean talk like “on a phone”) with your editor or whomever will be reviewing your work, as a way to form a connection and expand your network. Insist on getting feedback on what you write and also get copies of both the original and the edited piece.
  • Build your portfolio, whether with a public-facing website or a private file. Keep track of every piece of work you do, and track your progression of voice and tone as a writer (this can easily be done on a WordPress website as a way to have it live on in the digital world. This also helps you get “found” as a writer down the road).
  • In the same vein, if you can, keep a log/journal of the things you learn along the way and the tips/pointers that editors or other writers have to give you, so you can see on a broad scale the various things you need to keep in mind.
  • Be daring and don’t be afraid to push the envelope. It’s not easy to get noticed in food writing, but it’s even harder if you are doing what thousands of other writers are doing as well. Try to make yourself stand out, either in the way you present content, or in the topics you write about.
  • Lastly, but most importantly, be true to yourself and your writing. People will remember you by what you write, so whether it’s a single blog post or an article in Saveur, be sure that it’s something you would stand behind regardless of who read it before putting it out there. Content follows us no matter where we go and our online identity is what builds our brand.

While I don’t think this covers everything there is, it can at least give new writers a step in the direction of replacing and enhancing some of the editorial infrastructure we are losing as more content outlets continue to close or streamline.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Amanda April 26, 2013 at 3:22 pm

Hi Adam,

Thank you for this very useful post. We, from Omar Niode Foundation, were at the IACP.
Last year at the International Food Bloggers Conference in Portland you also gave excellent tips.

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