Dear Da, how do I become a food writer?

posted on: Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Throughout the week I will be answering questions about blogging.
If you have a question you'd like me to answer send me an e-mail.

I'm always surprised when I get e-mails like this one...

My name is Courtney Ochab and I follow your blog and love your posts! I was just wondering if you had any advice or even a story as to how you got into food writing. Thanks so much!

To be honest I kind of blush when I get e-mails like the one above. I'm not sure I can consider myself to be a food writer. For me food writers are people like Molly Wizenberg, who are able to write beautiful prose about toast. It's David Lebovitz, capable of turning the food at Charles De Gaulle airport into a big joke with his brilliant sarcasm. Food writers ooze talent, they suck you in even if you never ever ever make any of their food because you hate tofu. For me food writers are people who can lure you in with descriptions of smells and textures, so much so that you can taste the food they're describing even if you've never even seen the dish in your life.

I'm not sure I'm a food writer. I think I mainly just lure you in because I have cute kids with cute attitude problems. But since you asked I do indeed have a story about how I started food blogging and I also have some advice on how to get involved with food writing. As usual my stories are much longer than the practical stuff, in this case the advice. For easier browsing I've divided up the post. Feel free to skip the story and jump straight to the advice.

Without further ado...

The story:
When I turned 11 years old my best friend Maritza Morales gave me a present, it was a tiny blue journal. From that day on until I started college I wrote in a journal every single night. I might have missed a handful of days but I guarantee it was no more than 5. If I didn't write I could not sleep. So every single night before I went to bed I wrote about how I would marry either Jonathan Taylor Thomas or Jonathan Jackson. If I had my pick it would be Jonathan Jackson because he had a role in General Hospital, which consumed the better part of my middle school days. Please don't judge. We lived in Chicago, my parents worked crazy hours, and I watched a lot of TV.

(some of my old journals)

Then we moved back to Brazil and I continued to write about boys I would never meet. Then I had a boyfriend, a three year relationship that got meticulously documented in a series of journals. I don't know which is worse writing about TV stars or writing about every single detail in your first relationship. Luckily I met Christian my second semester of college and our relationship had way less drama than I was used to. Plus we only saw each other on the weekends so really I had less material to work with. Top that with writing academic papers, my journaling took a plunge for the worst .

In March of 2006 I became a mother and I had a whole new boy I wanted to write about. That's when I started writing in journals again. I wrote daily in a journal for me and weekly in a journal for my son Enzo. 

Then in the end of 2006 my friend introduced me to blogging. She invited me to read her private blog. It was the first blog I had ever read and I loved it. At the time she was living in LA and trying to get a coyote to bring her boyfriend to California. She wrote about activism and taco trucks and she was hella passionate too. I loved her blog and was motivated to start one of my own. I created a private blog and shared it only with my family and friends in Brazil. I wasn't used to writing in Portuguese so that blog slowly started dying. Then my sister-in-law started a public blog and I became fascinated with the idea of writing for a public. From there I started reading blogs from people I didn't know like Dooce. Dooce is a good first blog to get addicted to, I have been a fan of hers ever since. The problem with Dooce is that she's intimidating. No one can tell a story like Dooce. I knew I couldn't and that's why I didn't start my own mommy blog. Instead I wanted to start something more practical so I started a family blog instead where everyone in Christian's extended family could contribute and stay in touch. The problem was that I pretty much hijacked that blog and posted all the time about our little family and our personal life. I think I was starting to piss people off so I decided I needed a space of my own. That's when I started Kitchen Corners.

I decided that I could write about food only because I was convinced no one would be interested in reading about my life. My life wasn't interesting like all the other mommy bloggers I was reading. My life was just me, Christian, and Enzo going about graduate school in full steam living far away from our families and trying to make the best of it. Clearly food was more interesting than that. It was probably a dumb reason to get into food writing but that's why I did it. I loved cooking and I loved eating and I loved writing so I decided I could write about food. I didn't read a single food blog at the time, in fact I didn't even know they existed until my friend Mariko pointed a couple out to me. Still I hardly read any food blogs. I mainly just wrote and took horrible pictures which were published on a blog with red background and white text that had a playlist on the sidebar, the kind of playlist that's hard to turn off. So not only were you greeted with bad pictures and text you couldn't really read but you were also forced to listen to the music I liked. No wonder I only had two readers, Christian wasn't even one of them and honestly I can't blame him (Mariko and Metta I'm sorry for what I put you two through).

I'm telling you this because if I was able to do it than there is nothing holding you back. If you want to be a food writer then start writing NOW. Start a blog, it's the best way to get engaged. Your writing at first will be rough. Your pictures will be junk. Fine. But please please please with all the free templates out there and will all the awesome blogs to glean from you have no excuse to have a red background with white text.  Now whenever I look at a blog that has a poor design my feelings get hurt. Before you even start writing create a space you are proud of, a space you'll enjoying coming back to. When in doubt white background with dark text and pictures that align to your text is simple and easy to look at. I'll talk more about design later this week.

In the summer of 2008 (6 months after starting Kitchen Corners) I spend a lot of time learning about blogging and design. I had the whole summer to do my MA thesis research but instead I became obsessed, completely obsessed, with blogging

I would spent hours researching Pro Blogger and tweaking my layout. During one of those afternoons, where I studied blogging instead of school, I stumbled upon BlogHer and just like that I found out that BlogHer was having a conference in San Francisco. That is how I signed up for my first blogging conference. Those were the days when BlogHer conferences weren't sold out months in advance. That conference changed my life. It was there that I learned about Twitter. It was there that I first heard the term SEO. It was there that I realized that other food bloggers existed and they were GOOD. During one of the sessions Kalyn from Kalyn's Kitchen organized a room where food bloggers could go around and introduce themselves. I think there were probably 20 of us. I sat next to Biggie from Lunch in a Box and Lydia from The Perfect Pantry. I also met Elise from Simply Recipes who is the godmother of food blogging. I had no idea who the heck all these wonderful and influential bloggers were. They were nice to me and I felt like I had a community I could count on, at the time that's all I knew.

I wish I had left it at that. I wish I had taken that good feeling and used that to make my blog my own. Instead I got home and and as soon as I saw the blogs from the women I had recently met I felt very very little. I compared myself and tried to mold my blog into something that was not me. Don't ever do that. It does not work. Kitchen Corners wasn't working, it felt like a total chore. I was writing in a style that felt forced and fake.

So, I started bebeloo, another blog because Kitchen Corners felt like work. It was on bebeloo that my love for journal writing reappeared. I wrote about life with no expectations of having anyone read it. I didn't do giveaways, it wasn't useful to anyone but myself, and I was having fun. The writing was just straight out me and I liked it AND surprisingly other people started finding it and liking it too. I didn't want to give up food blogging all together because I still loved cooking and wanted to share my recipes so then I decided I wanted to start yet ANOTHER blog. Mariko and I  thought The Little Foodie could be a total success. The purpose of The Little Foodie was to only write recipes that were kid friendly. Word of advice in this long story of mine -- starting something just because you think it can be a success is not a good idea. I had all these business plans for The Little Foodie. Luckily Mariko didn't really buy it. Today The Little Foodie is all Mariko and it's beautiful. It's a beautiful blog with beautiful writing that makes my soul smile every time she posts. 

Giving up on The Little Foodie was the first step to simplifying my life as a writer. The next step was to say good-bye to bebeloo. This was very hard to do because I had build a community around bebeloo, a community that was all my own. I had regular readers who always left a comment. They became my friends. I didn't think I would ever be able to do the same with a food blog but it started happening after I cleared away the clutter of trying to do too much and was able to find my voice. Kitchen Corners is a late bloomer of sorts. Even though I've been blogging here for 3 years it's only recently started to blossom in the direction I want it to go, food writing mixed with real life. My life.

The Advice:
  • If you want to be a food writer than write from your soul. Start looking for that voice of yours this very second and start writing. The best way to start writing is to start blogging, there is something empowering about hitting the "publish" button that will motivate you to continue writing more.
  • Read great food writers. Start with food blogs you are interested in and go from there. Read blogs that have high traffic like Simply Recipes, David Lebovitz, Pioneer Woman, Steamy Kitchen, 101 Cookbooks, Gluten-Free Girl, Matt Bites, White on Rice Couple, Orangette, and so on. These blogs are well crafted. Study their craft but don't copy it. Use it as inspiration.
  • Approach your local newspaper and offer to write for them for free. Jaden Hair, from Steamy Kitchen offered this advice at a blogging conference I went to. If you've ever had the opportunity to hear Jaden speak you know that when she speaks you listen. This woman knows her stuff. She started blogging around the same time I did and and quickly made her blog successful. I took her advice and approached my local paper. They said yes and they pay me too! For the last 8 months I've been writing a weekly food column with the Santa Cruz Sentinel. 
  • Go to blogging conferences. If you want your blog to take off or even if you want your blog to be a serious hobby I think it's imperative that you go to blogging conferences. The people you meet and the knowledge you gain is worth every penny you'll spend. In January I spend close to $2000 to go to Food Blogger Camp. It was a huge investment (thank goodness for that newspaper gig right?!) worth every penny. Go to blogging conferences.
  • Whether you decide to start a food blog or not you should read Will Write For Food by Dianne Jacobs it's full of resources to get you started.
  • And if you do decide to start a food blog read David Lebovitz's recent post Food Blog. Go ahead and read all 200 comments too. In fact I should read that post again, it's that good.
The End.

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