A friend emailed with a problem. Her gardening club loved her tales of digging in the dirt and her near-obsessive, homesteader-like canning and preserving activities that they asked her to write an article for their newsletter.
Then panic set in, so she asked me how write an article, which is funny for two reasons. One, that she asked me; I feel like I fumble through this. And two, her emails are already full of article-ready descriptions of her fruits and her labor, like this one:
I’ve been hanging out my bathroom window picking fresh figs. I’ve got a jar of figs in vodka. Will be doing another in bourbon later. Fig jam and chutney are on the list for this weekend. I guess there are worse problems to have.
But her question made me realize that we often want to know which steps to take for a specific endeavor. There is no lack of information out there but there is often too much and not the right information…for what we need. My brother, who is a great cook, once called to ask me how to fry an egg. See what I mean?
This is by no means comprehensive or in order of importance. But this is what I told her, and it’s a good place to start:
• Trust your voice. Voice is important and one already exists in your emails to me. It’s too easy to sound stiff and awkwardly academic just because you have to write for publication. Don’t let that happen.
• Read similar articles. Reread articles in your cooking magazines but with a new eye. Notice how the articles are constructed and see if you can find devices that enhance the story, such as metaphors. A recent story I read about butter started with personal anecdotes from the author, and a few paragraphs in, she explored a brief history of butter.
• Write all the way through. Then go back and edit. Don’t rethink or fuss with the words as you go. It’ll stop ideas from coming. Really, DON’T.
• Make it make sense. In the first paragraph, hint at what you plan to cover later. If it’s a longer piece, add subheads. Adding subheads forces you to create a logical structure. Ideally, you should make an overall point. Avoid rambling about growing and preserving food; there’s too much to say on that topic in one short article.
• Add a quote or cite a reference. This adds credibility and texture to an article. In one of your emails, you sent a beautiful quote by Thomas Jefferson: “On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs of Aunt Sally’s cellar.” This would be perfect…if only he were talking about figs.
• Be descriptive. As they say “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t just say fig. Instead, describe its texture and color, its squishiness. For example; “You’ll know a fig is ripe if it feels a bit like a woman’s breast.” Maybe not that, but you get the idea.
• Think like the reader. What do you want from a story on a similar subject? What makes you enjoy reading it? Do you find tips useful? It doesn’t hurt to ask the editor what their readership likes.
• Walk away. Then come back a day or two later. The same holds true for any creative effort (we’re both designers by vocation; picklers by avocation). You have to put aside your efforts and let the ideas marinate—not unlike figs in bourbon. Active thought, followed by incubation, followed by ah-ha moment…or so we hope on that last one.
• Have fun.