Some time ago, I attended a Food Conference hoping to learn a few things. The Keynote Speaker was Nathalie Dupree and she talked for an hour about storytelling through food and ultimately, finding your voice.
This has been a big problem of mine from the get-go: dealing with writer’s block. I had a burning desire to share my recipes and love of food and was happy seeing them transformed into decent looking pics to fuel my creative outlet as well…but the part about being a food blogger that I didn’t expect to weigh in so heavily was the writing: the introduction and story leading up to the recipe.
Because today, it is simply not good enough anymore to have a great recipe you want to share. They should be accompanied by mouth watering pictures artfully arranged to tempt the taste buds and above all, a strong voice behind it. People want to connect these days and the best way to do it is through making an impression in your writing.
This was my biggest challenge and still is; finding my voice. In the beginning I kept the introduction simple and to the point. It was strictly about the food and I could have been a robot and no one would have known any better. Albeit, a robot with fine cooking skills, but still, a robot. The next approach I tried was to be slightly more specific about the food and went the route of The Teacher, and although it was justified in introducing cuisines that were relatively new and unknown to my readers, my voice still lacked personality. Because while Alton Brown on Good Eats had lesson after culinary lesson, he still had a lively personality that shone through it all.
I realized about almost a year later after starting the blog, that I was writing as formally as I could. Since I am not by nature a formal type of person, this limited my ability to prose, or soliloquy, or do just about anything that was ‘me’ in my writing. It also gave me frequent writer’s block where I would oftentimes start a new post, have the recipe and pictures ready, stare at a blank screen and panic.
I was a deer in headlights. I knew I was a good writer but couldn’t figure out why this was so hard for me. Part of it was my inability to find my voice. The other part though only became evident at the conference. Nathalie’s words that got to me were: ‘To write, you must read’. Now this didn’t really sink in as good advice till she followed up later with “You cannot write in a vacuum.” Best. Advice. Ever.
“You must read. You must be primed before you write”. It was such simple, logical advice that it was overlooked just as easily. That was the solution to my problem. Besides relaxing and letting myself go in finding my voice, I also needed to prime myself with inspiration. Goodbye deer in headlights!
How many times has this happened to you? You have this great recipe you want to publish, complete with great looking pictures and you start a new post… only to come to a screeching halt when you realize you have absolutely nothing to say. Cue staring blankly at an empty screen with mild panic bubbling inside you. Your mind starts picking off random ideas on how to start. Ultimately, you want to say how yummy it is, but after hundreds of posts of saying how something is yummy in so many different ways, you’ve run out of creative and innovative ways to say it. Not to mention having to stay away from general key words like delicious, scrumptious, divine, marvelous, awesome and nomilicious.
Us food writers have the blessing (or curse) of having the same subject matter day in and day out. Unlike regular book writers, we don’t have different subjects with multiple personalities involved in a complex storyline and the cliffhanger or twist ending. Our subjects remain the same, with the only variation being different flavors, cuisines, portions and textures. Our subject may be sweeter, have a fiery temper, speak with an accent and be loved by all or an acquired taste but behind it all, our subject has the same driving need; being yummy and wanting to be eaten.. Unlike regular writers, we can’t afford to have writer’s block, take a few months away from it and come back refreshed. We have to churn out recipe after recipe with ideal consistency to keep our readers happy. Food writers cannot afford writer’s block.
So what do you do when you’ve run out ways to say ‘yummy’? You could tell a story about how the food affects you, how you first came to it, a funny story associated with it. But if you’re like me, not every recipe among the hundreds you have published comes packaged nicely with a funny anecdote.
You could get technical and focus on its history and how to cook it to perfection. Again, we come across the same dilemma where not every recipe has its own unique history and some times, it’s as easy as slapping something onto a pan and turning the heat on. What do you do then? Talk about ingredients? After so many ingredient soliloquies shared across all the past recipes you have talked about, your readers could probably be professors on the subject by now.
Or you could talk about yourself, your life: use the blog as an extension of you. There are some people that do this and are comfortable with that level of exposure, but what about those that want to maintain some level of privacy in their lives? How do you extend your personality through story telling without revealing too much? There is a fine line between hiding behind your recipes and using the internet as a ‘Dear Diary’ moment.
The key to figuring out what you want to talk about is to find the balance between all the strategic topics I have mentioned and to know when to use them. Backed with a solid voice that peppers the post with your unique personality and thoughts, you have a recipe for the perfect introduction.
To get there, find your voice, and to maintain it and your style of writing, you must be inspired. No one can write in a vacuum. I suppose that’s why it’s such a stereotype seeing writers sitting in coffee shops pounding away furiously on their laptops. Since us food bloggers don’t really do that (do we?), we could instead surround ourselves in a virtual coffee shop: a blog feed.
Find a blog feed like Bloglovin and add all the food blogs you love, aspire to be or admire. Add blogs that inspire you whether it is in their writing style or voice, their recipes or skill level of cooking, their website style or anything you can think of and add them. Add as many as you are comfortable reading on a daily basis and read. These blogs and their creators will serve as the source of your inspiration and the shield against your writer’s block because odds are, after reading their posts on a daily basis, your mind will be full of ideas for your own posts. And somewhere in between, you will find your voice.
I’m not talking about plagiarism and ripping off their style or content but to use them as a guiding light towards finding your own style, your own content and your own voice. I should warn you though that this is a commitment, constantly reading to write. It is not a set and forget kind of method unless you are one of those blessed individuals with plenty of daily inspiration.
To summarize: to write you must read. That is the cure against writer’s block.
Update: Another lesson I have learned along the way is to write the way you talk. People love hearing write ups in a personable tone!