Will Write for Food

The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Memoir, Recipes, and More


By Dianne Jacob

Formats and Prices




$16.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around July 14, 2015. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

The go-to soup-to-nuts guide on how to really make money from food writing, both in print and online

With recipe-driven blogs, cookbooks, reviews, and endless foodie websites, food writing is ever in demand. In this award-winning guide, noted journalist and writing instructor Dianne Jacob offers tips and strategies for getting published and other ways to turn your passion into cash, whether it’s in print or online. With insider secrets and helpful advice from award-winning writers, agents, and editors, Will Write for Food is still the essential guide to go from starving artist to well-fed writer.


1: What, Exactly, Is Food Writing?

A recipe for fettuccine with prosciutto, cream, and nutmeg. The history of tea. A blog post about Toronto's Chinatown. A roundup on where to get the best deli sandwiches in New York. A guide to sustainable cooking. An exposé on fish labeling at grocery stores. Food writing wanders over dozens of subjects; the storytellers and their craft are what bring it together. Hundreds of people publish books and articles on food, some writing for the first time. One of them could be you. It's easier to choose what to write about if you understand why you want to write about food in the first place. Says writer David Leite of LeitesCulinaria .com, "People get this warm glow when they say, 'I want to become a food writer.' It becomes this romanticized overarching career." What's your reason to write about food?

You'd like to tell your life story and pass down recipes to family members.

You're a caterer, chef, or restaurateur whose customers have asked for recipes.

You're fascinated by the history of a certain food and want to research it.

You want to write a cookbook based on expertise you've developed.

You can't find a blog that deals with your child's allergies, and you know other parents could use one.

You want to capture the cuisine of a country and people you love.

Whatever motivates you, food writing has a requirement that makes it irresistible: you love food, and you get to eat and write about it. What's better than that? Today is a great time to be a food writer. While at its most basic, food writing covers recipes and restaurant reviews, just about any topic and form can be about food, including:





restaurants, chefs, and farmers

news and trends

essays and memoir




This first chapter explores writing in blogs, newspapers, magazines, and books as a starting point to define food writing. I asked some of the most creative minds in the field to tell me what good food writing means to them. Is it simply good writing? Or is the most important element that it makes readers hungry, helps them experience pleasure, activates their senses, and evokes images of a certain place and time?

Good Writing Is the Essence

I believe good writing is the main determining factor of good food writing, and I set out to see what others had to say. Saveur magazine cofounder Colman Andrews, now editor at theDailyMeal.com, puts it bluntly: "If you're not capable of being a good writer, you can't be a good food writer. It's about clarity of expression, style, voice, accuracy, knowledge of structure, and rhythm of language. The idea that food writing is a separate discipline is false." Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet magazine and author of several memoirs and a novel, is even more adamant. She told me the term "food writer" is pejorative, like "woman writer." She's a writer, she says. That's it.

I'm a big admirer of Calvin Trillin, who has written about food for decades in the New Yorker magazine. He adamantly refuses to describe his work as food writing. He calls it "writing about eating" and doesn't distinguish it from any other nonfiction. He insists he is not a cook, has no culinary knowledge, and does not rate food. "It's probably fair to call me an amateur," he cracks.

To further make his case, Trillin told me he does not describe food in anything he writes. I found it hard to believe. How could someone write about food without adjectives? I dashed to my bookshelf and reviewed several of his essays. Here's an example from his book American Fried: Adventures of a Happy Eater: "Being in a traveling trade myself, I know the problem of asking someone in a strange city for the best restaurant in town and being led to some purple palace that serves 'Continental cuisine' and has as its chief creative employee a menu-writer rather than a chef. I have sat in those places, an innocent wayfarer, reading a three-paragraph description of what the trout is wrapped in, how long it has been sautéed, what province its sauce comes from, and what it is likely to sound like sizzling on my platter—a description lacking only the information that before the poor beast went through that process it had been frozen for eight and a half months."

For Trillin, the most important part of the craft is "careful writing, making sure every word is the right word." He says he learned from A. J. Liebling, a New Yorker writer and author of Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, an acclaimed 1959 account of eating well in Paris.

Well then, if you're a writer whose subject is food, what constitutes that form? Leite explains: "While the best food writing is evocative, has an unmistakable voice and an immutable sense of place, it does all the things good writing can do. Some people can write about changing motor oil with as much sensuality as eating a peach. It's how you use the language, how you communicate."

"Food writing is a wonderful, weird passion," adds blogger and Beard-award-winning author Shauna James Ahern of GlutenFreeGirl.com. "You can drop artifice and pretensions and just start to write about what you love, even if it's what you had for breakfast. If you have a strong, distinctive voice and you've honed it well, readers will feel like they know you. You know you've succeeded when people will want to meet you."

As in other fine writing, there's lots of room for creativity, say two award-winning freelancers. Jeffrey Steingarten, a former columnist for Vogue, says his essays take the form of "flashbacks and flash forwards." GQ magazine contributing writer Alan Richman says food writing provides more opportunity for free expression than most other forms of journalism. "When it's a review or critique of food, the experience is subjective, so you can say whatever you want. You can be mean, funny, or profound," he explains. "When it's a piece about a head of lettuce or a new shop or a restaurant opening, you're writing about a subject that's been covered thousands of times, and you have the opportunity to seek out a new angle. The repetitive nature of food writing should encourage creativity, not stifle it."

What All Food Writing Has in Common

Some say there's something specific about food writing, that it must, at minimum, stimulate the senses and make you hungry. "The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite," writes Liebling. "Without this, it is impossible to accumulate, within the allotted span, enough experience of eating to have anything worth setting down. Each day brings only two opportunities for fieldwork [meaning two meals at restaurants], and they are not to be wasted minimizing the intake of cholesterol."

And then there's the factor of overall pleasure and enjoyment. Says award-winning cookbook author Darra Goldstein, founder of the now-defunct Gastronomica magazine, "Some food writing is almost utopian. Communicating pleasure and enjoyment is a part of that."

Food writing often evokes a place or memory, or the immediacy of a moment. Judith Jones, a vice president and senior editor at Knopf who has edited such legends as Julia Child and James Beard, says food writing "describes taste, textures, flavors, and smells, and gives a food experience a larger context by writing about a more common experience, drawing on something universal that speaks to everyone." She points to an essay by M. F. K. Fisher, whom she also edited, titled "P Is for Peas," in which the author and her family pick peas in the vineyards of Switzerland. Here's a sentence: "I dashed up and down the steep terraces with the baskets, and my mother would groan and then hum happily when another one appeared, and below I could hear my father and our friends cursing just as happily at their wry backs and their aching thighs, while the peas came off their stems and into the baskets with a small sound audible in that still high air, so many hundred feet above the distant and completely silent Léman."

Yes, this is food writing, because peas are the subject. But there's so much more: a scene, a terrain, ambiance, and relationships, all vividly drawn. You are there with her on the hillside, watching the scene.


Judith Jones, vice president and senior editor at Knopf, has influenced American culinary culture for decades by publishing gifted food writers, including Julia Child, M. F. K. Fisher, Edna Lewis, and Laurie Colwin. When I asked Jones how she came to work with them, she said modestly, "You follow your instincts, the things that you love. If you feel strongly about a book, the rationalization is that there must be others like you who want it. I thought if I wanted to know that much about food, there were others like me."

Here's more about these iconic writers and how Jones became involved with them:

Julia Child. In 1960, Jones received a manuscript for what would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking. "The first choice had been Houghton Mifflin, but when the editor there reviewed the manuscript, her reaction was: Why would any American want to know this much about French cooking?" Jones had recently returned from living in Paris for three and a half years, and Knopf had hired her as a French editor to deal with translations. She lobbied to become the editor of Child's book, and Alfred Knopf gave her a chance. The rest is history.

M. F. K. Fisher. Jones became friends with Fisher over years of mailing her galleys of Knopf books. Fisher was already known, and Jones wanted her to endorse Knopf books. In the 1960s, Jones visited California with her husband, Evan, a distinguished food writer in his own right. Fisher invited them to her home in St. Helena for lunch. "It was so hot we ate in the cellar," recalls Jones. Fisher made a "Provençal lunch, cold salads and other things. She owed one more book to her current publisher. Then we did a book together." Among Friends came first in 1971, followed by A Considerable Town in 1978, Sister Age in 1983, and As They Were in 1982.

W. H. Auden once said he could not think of anyone in the United States who wrote better prose than Fisher, but because she chose food as her subject, her audience was extremely limited. Perhaps, but she is one of America's best-known food writers now, with a continuing fan base that enjoys her sensuous, humorous, and beautifully sad voice.

Fisher's most quoted essay is the foreword to The Gastronomical Me, which begins: "People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? . . . The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry."

"I tell about myself, and how I ate bread on a lasting hillside, or drank red wine in a room now blown to bits, and it happens without my willing it that I am telling too much about the people with me then, and their other deeper needs for love and happiness."

Edna Lewis. In the 1970s, Lewis had a restaurant in New York frequented by the likes of Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. Jones was intrigued. "I could see right away that she had a story about her whole relationship with food, her family, that she was part of the American experience," Jones remembers. "She had a beautiful way of talking about food. She was an instinctive cook. I said, 'Write your own book, your own experience, and let's do it together.'"

The result was the classic The Taste of Country Cooking, published in 1976. You'd never know Lewis owned a New York restaurant. This book celebrates how her family prepared and enjoyed American food in a rural Virginia town founded by freed slaves. Dignified and knowledgeable, she expresses her joy of fresh, natural tastes, capturing a simpler time of living off the land, where vegetables came from a garden, meat from a smokehouse, fruit from orchards, and canned jams and condiments from the previous summer.

In her foreword, Lewis explains why she wrote The Taste of Country Cooking: "Whenever I go back to visit my sisters and brothers, we relive old times, remembering the past. And when we share again in gathering wild strawberries, canning, rendering lard, finding walnuts, picking persimmons, making fruitcake, I realize how much the bond that held us had to do with food. Since we are the last of the original families, with no children to remember and carry on, I decided that I wanted to write down just exactly how we did things when I was growing up in Freetown that seemed to make life so rewarding."

Laurie Colwin. Primarily a fiction writer whose themes were love and family, Colwin attracted an ardent following by word of mouth. In her novels, her characters are domestic sensualists who like to cook humble but deeply satisfying dishes. She wrote two simple and unpretentious books about cooking and food: Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen and More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen. Reading her makes you feel as though she is your favorite bighearted, funny friend, instructing you with love on how to entertain, and confiding about how much it delights her to cook and eat with friends and family.

Jones was a fan. Over lunch with the editor of Gourmet, Jones suggested Laurie Colwin as a strong new voice for the magazine, writing about food. "I had read all her stories, and they always had food in them, so I said, 'I bet she would be good.'"

Colwin wrote Home Cooking and More Home Cooking with Jones as her editor. In Home Cooking, she writes about her cozy home in New York, where she fed people plain, old-fashioned food such as roast chicken, string beans, lemon cake, and coffee. "One of the delights of life is eating with friends; second to that is talking about eating," starts a passage in Home Cooking's foreword. "And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends." Colwin died prematurely of heart failure in 1992. All her books remain in print.

Other award-winning authors Jones has edited are Lidia Bastianich, James Beard, Marion Cunningham, Marcella Hazan, Ken Horn, Madhur Jaffrey, Irene Kuo, Joan Nathan, and Claudia Roden.

Writing About the Senses

As you've read in some of the examples I've provided, food writing often focuses on the senses: touch, smell, sound, appearance, and taste. Many newcomers to the form focus on how food tastes and skimp on the other senses. When I hand out a list of adjectives (see page 146) to students in my classes, it always thrills them, but food writing isn't just about descriptions. It's about putting the food in context. Here's an erotic passage from Ruth Reichl in Comfort Me with Apples: "He kissed me and said, 'Close your eyes and open your mouth.' I sniffed the air; it smelled like a cross between violets and berries, with just a touch of citrus. My mouth closed around something very small and quite soft, the size of a little grape but with a scratchy surface. 'Do you like it?' he asked anxiously. I tasted spring. 'They're fraises des bois from France!' He slipped another one in my mouth." That's four sensory experiences in a few sentences.

Smell is the most important sense, because most of what you taste comes from smelling it first. That's why you can't taste food when you have a cold. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a lawyer and gastronome, had figured it out when he wrote in his 1825 book, The Physiology of Taste: "For my part I am not only convinced that without the cooperation of smell there can be no complete degustation, but I am also tempted to believe that smell and taste are in fact but a single sense, whose laboratory is the mouth and whose chimney is the nose; or to be more precise, in which the mouth performs the degustation of tactile bodies, and the nose the degustation of gases." (Brillat-Savarin was the author of the famous comment, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.")

Smell can also induce emotions, feelings of nostalgia, and involuntary memories, known as the Proustian Effect. You've probably experienced it when a smell triggers a childhood taste memory, and a wave of emotion hits as hard as a punch to the gut.

Identifying odors and tastes is elusive, and writing about them is just as difficult. Writes Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses, "Smells coat us, swirl around us, enter our bodies, emanate from us. We live in a constant wash of them. Still, when we try to describe a smell, words fail us like the fabrications they are." Most writers convey a flavor or aroma by using analogy, where something is "like" something else. But it's tricky. "You could say basil tastes a little like mint," proposes Colman Andrews. "What if you've never tasted mint?"

And how do you describe how things taste? As I mentioned, there's way too much focus on taste, at the expense of other senses. Jennifer McLagan faced this problem head on in her cookbook, Bitter. "Bitter, while a positive taste in many cultures, is not well loved among Anglo-Saxons," she wrote. "It is hard to evoke a positive taste image for bitter. Astringent, pungent, bittersweet, bitter as gall (bile) or wormwood, acrid, caustic, tart, astringent, harsh and sharp are some of the words you find in a thesaurus when you look up bitter," she writes. "Not a very appetizing list."

At least the list is specific. That's what good writers go for, to avoid being reduced to words like "delicious," "yummy," and "amazing," which tell readers nothing other than you liked it. Specific writing is always preferable, because you want readers to imagine the food, and they can't without a word like "peppery" rather than just "tasty."

It's easy to get carried away with adjectives when writing about the senses because adjectives are a perfect way to describe them. Too many will weaken writing, making you sound sentimental. Do readers really need to know that a brownie was fudgy and decadent? Strive for more original writing, and don't string together a raft of several adjectives. I see this so often I sometimes think adjectives are the crack of food writers.

Darra Goldstein suggests reading M. F. K. Fisher, who uses "one perfect adjective that somehow manages to encompass a whole range of sensation, or something atmospheric that allows you to understand what the sensation was." She gives this example from a New Yorker essay: "It was reward enough to sit in the almost empty room, chaste rococo in the slanting June sunlight, with the generous tub of pure delight between us, Mother purring there, the vodka seeping slyly through our veins, and real wood strawberries to come, to make us feel like children again and not near-gods." Rococo is anything but chaste, says Goldstein. "It's over the top, but Fisher manages to convey the sense of childlike innocence she goes on to describe in the sentence by means of this single adjective."

While taste and smell are critical to food writing, so is touch. Touch informs the reader about the ripeness of a cantaloupe, or how to judge a steak's doneness. "Each culture has its own appreciation of food," writes McLagan. "A comparative study of words used to describe food textures found that [the Japanese] have more than four hundred words to describe the texture of their food. The Chinese have around one hundred and forty-four while English speakers seem impoverished with a mere seventy-seven terms. Do we not care about texture, or is it just too much pudding and mushy peas? The French, whose cuisine is renowned for its sauces, have more than nineteen words just to describe the viscosity of a sauce."

Steingarten believes we should monitor other physical sensations as well, such as the sense of locomotion in stirring, where you detect physical changes and sensitivity to temperature as a sauce thickens. Chef and author Anthony Bourdain explores touch in A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal: "I had to learn to use bits of bread, pinching the food between the two—and only two—fingers and the thumb of the right hand, the digits protected by a layer of folded bread. . . . Abdul (was) tearing the white centers from each little triangle of bread, creating an ersatz pocket. . . . I called him on it, accused him playfully of cheating while I struggled with the thick, not easily folded hunks."

Then there's the visual aspect. Some writers excel at writing about the physical features of food using similes and metaphor rather than adjectives. Similes compare, using "like" and "as." Metaphor calls it something else. In An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, Elizabeth David describes sugar-coated coriander and caraway seeds, "bright as shiny tiddlywinks." That's a simile. In Between Meals, Liebling wrote that the haricots verts he was served "resembled decomposed whiskers from a theatrical costume beard." That's a simile as well. Now for metaphor. Nigella Lawson wrote this about chocolate raspberry tarts: "With their dark chocolate shells and their white-chocolate mascarpone filling, these look fancy enough, but when you eat them what strikes you is their cleanly balanced simplicity." Of course the tart crust is not a real shell, but it's deft way to keep from repeating the word "tart." While these examples instantly bring images to mind, note that two sound delectable while one does not. Food writing is not always about rhapsodizing.

David, a British writer who educated first England and then the world on Mediterranean food, writes in a sensuous, stimulating, and intellectual style. Here she focuses on sight, scent, and taste: "Now there are signs of autumn on the leaves of some of the almond trees. They have turned a frail, transparent auburn, and this morning when I awoke I devoured two of the very first tangerines of the season. In the dawn their scent was piercing and their taste was sharp."

Writers Jane and Michael Stern provide an elegant example combining touch and visual writing. Read how beautifully they describe the ultimate apple pie. You can see their minds going into slow motion to describe the experience: "The crust is as crunchy as a butter cookie, so brittle that it cracks audibly when you press it with your fork; grains of cinnamon sugar bounce off the surface as it shatters. The bottom crust is softer than the top, but browned and still breakable. Where the top and bottom meet, there's a knotty cord of dough that becomes impregnated with enough fruit filling to make it chewy. Inside is a dense apple pack of firm Ida Red crescents bound in syrupy juice." The specificity of the words, combined with active verbs such as "bounce," "crack," and "shatter," makes this description evocative. Note the use of simile as well, in "crunchy as a butter cookie," and metaphor in "knotty cord."

Some writers think the least important sense is sound. But consider how it enlivens the experience in Alan Richman's colorful Bon Appétit essay "The Great Texas Barbecue Secret": "Because the meat is seldom pricked during cooking, the fat accumulates, sizzling and bubbling. Slice, and the drama unfolds. Think of a bursting water pipe. Better yet, imagine a Brahman bull exploding from the gate at a rodeo."

Describing your perceptions is difficult to get right. Most beginning writers tend to overdo it. In the worst case, says L. A. Times food columnist Russ Parsons, descriptions can be cloying, gratuitous, and prurient. "The idea is not to be flashy but elegant. You want to use enough sensual language that you get across your pleasure and your involvement with the topic, but don't want to come across as overblown, which reads as cheap and unconvincing. Write it and keep going over it, taking out as much as you possibly can and leaving the essence."

Perhaps the best way to access the senses is not to take them for granted. I like the way Richman and the Sterns slow down to describe each moment as it unfolds. Editor Judith Jones advises writers to use the senses as a starting point, the evocative element, and then go on to the larger theme or context.

Getting Passion Across


  • "I quite often recommend and give a copy of Will Write for Food to new authors...it's a terrific introduction to cookbook writing."—Robert McCullough, Publisher, Appetite by Random House
  • "Dianne Jacob has presented budding food writers with a clear blueprint on how to get started in the business."—Michael Bauer, Executive Food and Wine Editor, San Francisco Chronicle
  • "My only complaint about Will Write for Food-and it's a big one-is that it wasn't around when I started my career. If you're serious about becoming a food writer, save yourself years of banging your head against the wall in frustration and run to the checkout with this book now."—David Leite, food writer and publisher and editor of Leite's Culinaria
  • "Required reading for everyone interested in learning how to translate their passion for food into words. Dianne Jacob offers up a smorgasbord of practical advice for anyone who has ever aspired to write about food, and she shows how to make writing a tasty and lucrative pastime."—Darra Goldstein, founding editor, Gastronomica magazine
  • "I wish I'd read Dianne's book before I started a tiny little food blog on a whim years ago. For current and aspiring food writers, it's positively dripping with helpful advice and information!"—Ree Drummond, author of The Pioneer Woman Cooks and thepioneerwoman.com

  • "Whenever someone emails me about how to pursue a career in food writing, I politely tell them they're in the wrong place, that I have no idea what I'm doing, and to buy this book instead."—Deb Perelman, author of The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook and smittenkitchen.com
  • "A thorough tour through the increasingly dense jungle of food writing...invaluable to all writers who want a new or bigger audience for their work, whether in digital form, in blogs, in magazines, in cookbooks, or in food memoir."—Michael Ruhlman, ruhlman.com and coauthor of The French Laundry Cookbook
  • "Will Write for Food is a great gift, not just for those who are new to food writing, but for those already ensconced in the business. Dianne's clarity, kind suggestions, and nudges and admonitions to work well are truly inspiring."—Deborah Madison, author of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
  • "After writing a successful blog for over a decade, writing four books, and still expanding my business, I really do credit this book with giving me the hope I could do this."—Shauna James Ahern, Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef
  • "This book does a great job of covering the nuts and bolts of food writing, for sure, but Jacob delivers much more than the usual advice: She shoots straight about the realities of the business, provides loads of insider insights and practical exercises, and radiates enough genuine enthusiasm to get both beginning writers and seasoned pros up and at 'em."—Martha Holmberg, cookbook author and former publisher, Fine Cooking magazine
  • "You'll find everything you need to know about becoming a food writer in this indispensable information-packed book. And if you're already a food writer, this book will help you become a better one. Useful writing exercises concluding each chapter help sharpen your skills. If food writing is your passion, then grab a copy of Will Write for Food and get busy!"—Greg Patent, author of Baking in America
  • "Practical, accessible, and insightful, Will Write for Food is an absolute "must-have" for anyone interested in making either side income or a solid living from culinary writing!"—Midwest Book Review
  • "If you're a foodie who loves to write, then Dianne Jacob's Will Write for Food is a treasure trove of practical tips and techniques for those looking to thrive and survive in the food writing arena. This book...takes you through the process of setting up a blog, reviewing free products, going solo as a freelance writer, mastering the art of recipe writing and different approaches for restaurant writing. That's just the tip of the iceberg."—BookTrib

On Sale
Jul 14, 2015
Page Count
352 pages

Dianne Jacob

About the Author

Dianne Jacob is a popular speaker as food writing conferences and workshops in America and around the world. She judges for both the James Beard Foundation annual cookbook awards and the IACP annual cookbook awards. The coauthor of Grilled Pizzas and Piadinas and The United States of Pizza, and the writer of The Good Pantry, she lives in Oakland, California.

Learn more about this author