Liveblogging Day 2 of the Food Writers Symposium at the Greenbrier

09/14/2010 10:08 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

DAY 2 - 14 Sep 2010

Good morning again and welcome to the continued liveblog from the 2010 Professional Food Writers Symposium at the Greenbrier. For those who missed the description yesterday, The Symposium has hosted nearly all of America's best food writers over the last 20 years, probably including your favorite. It's 4 days of intensive seminars on all aspects of the business of writing about food. Please bear with the typos and the lack of links, which are hallmarks of a liveblog. I'll fix and add as I can...

Today we're going to get a sessions such as:

  • Writing Your Own Way in Your Own Voice with writing coach Don Fry
  • A Panel on "What do Editors Want"
  • "10 Things Every Writer Should Know"
  • "Ask (Pitch) And You Shall Receive" (there are other workshops at this time, but this is the one I'm taking)

Don Fry on Writing Your Own Way in Your Own Voice

Don starts by pointing out that its a very tough time for writers. The reason there are so many food blogs out there is because there are so many writers out of work. So, he presents some "survival tools."

"I'm the Johnny Appleseed of writing freedom. I teach writers how to write in many different ways."

The internal critic: each writers has one who reads everything you type, and sits behind your eyes and says things like "that sentence sucks" and the so on. Don says that you can control this internal critic by writing faster.

Streamline your writing process: Need to create a process that is not the one your teacher taught you, but the one that works for you.

  • Idea
  • Gather
  • Organize
  • Draft
  • Revise

Your process is your individual collection of techniques to finish these steps.

Planners and Plungers

Planners decide what to do and then do it. Plungers do things to figure them out. There is no real difference in what each turns in. Remember your 6th grade assignment to write 500 words on what you did on your summer vacation and turn in the outline you used to write it. Planners did just that. Plungers did the essay and then write and outline of it. Both may have gotten A's.

Basic Structure for Maximum Understanding. Human beings have an attention span that can grasp up to 7 parts of a unit, so you organize material into units with 1 to 7 parts.

One of Don's fundamental principles is "Never let your reader feel stupid." Also, essay readers run out of gas for about 10 paragraphs in. Its a good place to add a "gold coin," a good anecdote or something to refresh the readers attention. I, for example, would need one right about here for this liveblog to keep you reading on. I'm banking on you right now, since liveblogs don't allow for much revision, to read on until I come up with something witty and add it in later tonight.

Back to the list above. The "Organize" part is where procrastinators spend most of their lives. The questions that help are:

  • What's this about?
  • What are the parts?
  • How long does this need to be?

Planners ask those questions, answer them, then write. Plungers write, then ask those questions along the way. Some other ways to organize are

  • Jot down important things and turn them into sections
  • Write a series of questions, answer, rearrange, delete
  • Unify with a spine, eg and idea, or image or phrase
  • Write an extended caption from a photograph

We are conducting an exercise now on how to organize a short piece on "What's in season right now." We brainstormed some important aspects to such a piece, such as where we are, what season it is, what is ripe here and now, what else is going on in the season, etc. the organized them into sections, leads, endings, etc.

Pictures are your friends. Writers are taught that text and images are separate things, but that's not how readers read. People look at an article like this:


You may think you don't read things like that, in that order, but you do. It's important for writers to get involved with taking or selecting the photo, and drafting the headline. Also, people look at a page or a 2-page spread from the top right and scan counter-clockwise.

Don is now going on with a long list of ways to write faster. It includes things like "Type first what you know or like best or least" and "leave blanks to fill in later." More to come.

Best thing you can do for a fellow writer is to give him/her a 2-minute debrief. Have them tell you what the story is, in 2 minutes or less, and ask questions. If s/he can't do it in two minutes, they need to refine and refocus their idea.

Check out - a good source of sources (eg: You need a diabetes patient for a piece on cooking for diabetics, this site will help you find one)

Editors offer deadlines and sizes. If an Editor tells a reporter 1500 words, she'll get 1700. If she says deadline is the 15th, she'll get it on the 16th. If she says 1200-1500 words, she'll get 1400. If she says the 15th at noon, she'll likely get it at 1pm. From a writers point of view the thing to know here is if you turn in the right size and turn it in early you'll get better editing.

Next we're talking about imitating the voices of the target publication. Devices that create voice (when used consistently) are:

  • Level of diction
  • Unusual language: slang, dialect, archaic, foreign
  • Formality or grammar
  • Sentence Clarity (Diagram: <--- LEFT || Subject, Verb || RIGHT ---> clarity has more info on the right side rather than left, or between subject and verb)
  • Sentence Complexity
  • Sentence length and varied length
  • Punctuation
  • Dependent clauses at the beginning of sentences
  • Insertions
  • Repetition of words, phrases, imagery
  • Parallel Structures
  • Mixture of active, passive and linking verbs
  • Contractions
  • Economy of wording
  • Rhythm and flow
  • Abstract and Specific references
  • Person and tense
  • Confidence and assurance
  • Sophistication of reference and explanation
  • Areas of reference
  • Name dropping
  • Echoes, especially standards works
  • Imagery
  • Wit and humor
  • Point of view
  • Zest

***Break Time***

OK we're going to do an exercise now. Dunno how this will translate to a liveblog. We're going to watch a video about a test kitchen, and we are to write for about 20 minutes about it. We'll read some to the group and ask "What works?" and "What needs work?" No bloodletting.

So! The video from the America's Test Kitchen series, and they're discussing making the best burger from grinding your own beef, from sirloin tip and boneless short rib. It's your typical TV cooking demo, in a kitchen that looks like a hybrid of professional and home, with busy cooks in the background.

They chilled the beef in the freezer for about 20 minutes, then ground it in batches with 12 pulses in a Cuisinart. Very loosely patted together, not smacked repeatedly between both hands like my grandmother taught me. Buns get toasted, 1000-Island-like sauce gets made, burgers get heavily salted and gently placed in a hot, oiled skillet.

Woops! OK he lost me at using plain American cheese. Don't care how much of a snob this makes me sound like, there are many far better cheeses - like a real cheddar or good gruyere. Aside form that, I'm gonna try this when I get home.

In a minute, I'll blog about what everyone said about the preceding 5 graphs.

Whoa! Thanks fellow food writers. You like me, you really like me!

Everyone was kind and stuck to the rule about no bloodletting. And no less a blogger than Molly Wizenberg was complimentary about its clear voice and particularly about the ending - liked the immediacy of it.

Don just took a question about the appropriateness of using the passive voice (or the question was posed to Don, perhaps). He says using active voice exclusively sounds powerful but formal, while the use of the passive voice was considered less so.


Panel time!

What do Editors Want?

Panelists Holly Hughes (editor of the Best Food Writing series), Joe Yonan (Food editor at the Washington Post), Laurie Buckle (Editor of Fine Coking_and Rux Martin (of HMH)

Joe Yonan says first of all that to pitch to newspapers be sure to pay attention to that first syllable, "news." They look for scoops

When it comes to food, it may not be a new item, but it may be looked at in a whole new way. he gave the example of a woman who wrote a piece for them about a blind tasting of pastured and factory eggs. Another was a Jane Black piece about "knocking heirloom tomatoes of their pedestal"

Laurie Buckle says she's looking for expertise, and someone who is a devotee of the mag. She wants writers who know her readers and who are eager to work as a team and explore ideas. Also a sense of humor and an adventurous spirit.

Rux Martin can't really tell us what she's looking for because she's looking for something she doesn't know yet. She also feels that the best book writers come from a long history of writing for newspapers and magazines, and more and more lately, blogs (yay!)

She wants a new take on classics. She likes chef books that have fresh take on their background. Wine stories written in a new way (stop talking about tobacco). No foam cookbooks or immersible blender cookbooks. Ideally: something funny.

Holly looks for pieces that make me hungry, make me laugh, or make me cry.

Joe is talking now about what stuff would go to a staff writer as opposed to a freelancer. The ones that require quick turnaround generally stick to staff, as do wine and spirits columns.

Laurie was asked how to approach an editor about a regular column, and she says, in a way, don't. A regular piece is something that an editor might eventually bring to you. Or at least, there would need to be a strong relationship already. She sees a regular feature as like a marriage, and there needs to be trust and commitment involved.

Rux says she'll stop reading a pitch when it says "I have not been able to find a book like this," because it probably mean it won't sell. Also remember that an editor needs to be able to work with you and your book for a year, so if she's not truly sold on you and your book, she can't sell it to her company or the public.

Laurie added: remember to see all Fine Coking does. It's a magazine sure, but there is also 9 special issues a year, 3 books, a website and an app.

Holly lamented not being able to edit for what she does - selecting stories for Best of the Year dictates that you must use articles as they were published.

Rux is now emphasizing when it is and isn't OK to push back on an editor. If she says theirs a problem, she is probably right. But that doesn't mean she knows the answer. So look for ways to work together with the editor to fix the problem, rather than trying to convince her it's not a problem.

Couldn't see who it was, but someone asked Rux about the interest she had voice in narrative nonfiction, and wondered if she still feels memoirs are a difficult sell. She said yes, sadly, but if your not famous it needs to be specific to you yet universal and you must write gorgeously.

Here endeth the panel, but after lunch I'll be in a pitch session with some of the same panel, so watch for that


Dorothy Kalins is speaking over lunch. I had to abandon my Slow Food principles and eat quickly so I could rejoin you out here in liveblogland

"Reporting matters. So does Research." And she means more than wikipedia. The fod writing world on the internet especially is awash in ill-researched (or unresearched) pablum and untested recipes.

We do what we do to excite and engage the reader.

Words no editor wants to see:

Kalins believes in an island of misfit words. Most banished here are adjectives. Many are personal. "Yummo" might work for Rachel Ray but most of the rest of us should not use it. unctuous is another

changing the world any one thing at a time

Remember it's not about you, it's about your reader. Or put another way for purposes of this liveblog, it's not about me, it's about you.

Read good writers! Underline, annotate, return to them for sources of flow. Read the James Beard Foundation's food journalism winners, and Corby Kummer's food section at the Atlantic, and my friend (yes I know it's not about me, but she's literally sitting next to me as I type) Elissa Altman's blog Poor Man's Feast


Back from the Bunker

I've been away from the blog for a bit because (I am not making this up) they do not allow electronic devices in the Congressional bunker we just toured under the resort. Seriously. A reinforced concrete bunker built in secret in the 50s and 60s as a safe place for all of Congress (and one staffer each) in the event of nuclear emergency. Exposed by the Washington Post in 1992, part of it is now open for tours (which is where I was) and the rest is now used by CSX IP, which does secure data storage for major corporations.

Now, I'm back in conference mode for a break-out session called "Ask (Pitch) and You Shall Receive," with Joe Yonan, Laurie Buckle, Rux Martin and Kirsty Melville (see links to them earlier in the blog until I get around to re-adding them here)

Laurie starts by asking if anyone has been to a pitch slam, and none have.

Joe says don't link me to "You can find more of my stuff at..." Rather, point to specific article.

Kirsty says don;t write to her and address her as Kristy or you're right out.

Joe say the WaPo takes only a couple freelance pieces a week.

Laurie says there is too much legend and lore around pitching, all you truly need is a good idea (is that all?)

Kirsty mentioned that she is susceptible to chocolate.

Pitches are no longer as formal as they once were, but there is still a place for the well-written letter. That said, once again the idea is the thing.

Stephanie Ellis, one of my fellow attendees, talked about her apprehension in sending blind queries. The panel said it's a logical apprehension, and attending conferences like this is one of many effective ways to cultivate personal relationships that help open doors. And cultivating that relationship leads to editors who think of you when they need a story on something that you are expert in - the Holy Grail is tat point when the editor calls you instead of you calling her.

Joe says follow-ups are something he appreciates. And include the original pitch in the follow-up.

Choosing a story or idea is very intuitive for editors. And even though it might be a good idea, and/or you're a good person and/or writer or it might or might not sell, there may be only one piece.

They seem to have a love/hate relationship with email pitches, and it's leaning more and more toward hate. They do get hundreds of emails a day, and it simply isn't possible to read them all.

The mystery of the subject line. Needs to be clever, not "article idea," or "query" and be sure to have at least some indication of what the specific idea is in the subject line of the email.

Call the editorial assistant and get to know her (they are mostly women), ask about who does what, who to send what to.

Know what the magazine, newspaper etc. has already published, and DON'T pitch those.

Now we're getting into pitch slams, and I won't tell you what the pitches were out of respect for my fellow writers here. The panelists are quite helpful and are able to take an idea, twist it around and make it into something better and worth pitching to them. It feels to each of us like we have a foot in the door. We'll see.

Supper time.