The best food writers are persistent and have a thick skin. That’s what it takes to get published. Editors and other gatekeepers are inundated with proposals, and yours must fit comfortably into the profile of a specific magazine in order to start planning the engagement or a marriage made in words.
It is important to study several issues of any publication before deciding whether your story idea is a good fit. This means you have to decide whether to propose a 750-word travel story with six recipes that would fit nicely into a specific section or an introductory headnote and four recipes for a section devoted to fast, fresh food — or indeed a different magazine entirely from the one you originally had in mind.
I’d like to share with you a short section about food writing from my FOOD JOBS book that I hope you will find helpful:
“You have already put your hand on the door. Now push it open and consider all your options. You must make up your mind whether you want to be a newspaper columnist of write for a consumer magazine like Cooks Illustrated, Fine Cooking, Saveur or a trade journal, such as Nation’s Restaurant News, Pizza Today, or Sous Vide Tomorrow.
Perhaps you’d like to compose profiles of famous food people or write press releases for restaurants or commodities boards. You might dream of becoming a world traveler who rhapsodizes about food in far away places. Do you yearn to become a restaurant reviewer or write a cookbook? These are just a few among many, many destinations to consider.
Publishing is not an easy field to get into. The competition is ferocious. You don’t have to be as good as the next person, you have to be a whole lot better. But have courage. Remember, even the greatest writers had to find a way to wriggle their toe through a seemingly closed door. And there is always something new to explore.
If you passionately want to be a food writer — and you must be passionate about this crazy idea — you will find an outlet that will provide a home for your work. But this will happen only if you suggest a topic that will interest the specific demographic profile of its readers. For example, a vegetarian magazine will not be thrilled to receive your news that you have the best recipe in the world for beef stew and Cooking Light won’t answer your query letter if you are proposing an article about super rich sundaes.
Although you may think this is obvious, it is astonishing how many writers court the entirely wrong mate and then get annoyed when their advance is rejected. So don’t propose a 3,000-word treatise about Chinese dumplings to a publication that is enraptured with the heritage of Italian grandmothers.
Begin your journey as a food writer by buying an armload of magazines — as many as you can afford. Or go to a library where you can find many of these magazines. Take your time. Study the open letter from the editor, examine every page and every quadrant of every page, and every advertisement as though you are Sherlock Holmes. Take notes.
By the end you will have a pretty good idea about the DNA in the bones of each publication and you’ ll be in position to see whether your idea will be a good fit. This is a kind of dating game in which you decide whether or not to make the first move. If you are climbing to the top diving board, get ready to take the plunge.
Next Wednesday, I’ll have a few suggestions about how to write a query letter to that first magazine you’ve decided to go after.