Thursday, February 7, 2008

Foodwriting as a career in India for Me Magazine

Whenever I introduce myself as a food writer I am usually asked “What’s a food writer?”

I recall the first time the question came my way, I simply blurted out the obvious, “A food writer is someone who writes about food” and went on to elaborate on the kinds of articles I wrote and the magazines I had been published in. But the episode comes back to me. After all, how would you answer that question right now?

Good question!

Even Wikipedia does not seem to have an answer.

BUT according to Wikiedia “Food is any substance consumed by living organisms, including liquid drinks. Food is the main source of energy and of nutrition for animals, and is usually of animal or plant origin.” And Writing is defined as “a process which may refer to two activities: the inscribing characters on a medium, with the intention of forming words and other lingual constructs that represent language and record information, or the creation of information to be conveyed through written language.”

So FOOD WRITING could be defined as “the inscribing characters on a medium, with the intention of forming words and other lingual constructs that represent language and record information, or the creation of information on the subject of any substance consumed by living organisms, including liquid drinks to be conveyed through written language.”

Umm… I think I will stick with FOOD WRITING is writing on food. I can hear you going “DUH” at me but try having to explain what you do at least once a day (at the very least) to a PR rep for a restaurant, a publication or just about anyone else and you will sympathize…

This is because food writing is still to a large extent an undefined sector in the publishing industry in India.

On the global scale Food writing has come into its own. Categorized under the larger umbrella of writing in general it has it’s niche and covers everything from articles for print and web to books related to food. It encompasses subjects ranging from food (and drink) production to consumption. That said there are branches within food writing - some food writers choose to stick to certain areas like restaurant criticism – in which case they would be restaurant critics, or wine in which case they would be wine writers or wine critics.

Conversely food writing is an undefined, unrecognized sector in the publishing industry in India. There are less than a handful of food writers about, no formal training courses and even today few publications recognize food writers as specialist writers. In fact Food writing in the true sense of the word is unexplored and books on food are at a very rudimentary stage of evolution. Food writing has a long way to go toward achieving the cult status it enjoys in the West. There are very few food writers in the true sense and no formal training courses. So each step of my journey has been one of learning as I went along.

So does one need to have a specific background or training in order to be a successful food writer?

It will come as a surprise but most food writers and food critics ended up in this field after working in other areas of writing or in another career altogether… Jeffrey Steingarten, the food writer for Vogue, was a lawyer in his past career, Ruth Reichl, Editor in Chief of Gourmet magazine, worked in and later owned a restaurant and closer to home restaurant critic Rashmi Uday Singh author of the Times good food guides was Deputy Director General, Shipping with the, Indian Administrative Service, before she gave it all up to be a food writer.

I take comfort from all these stories because food writing happened entirely by chance for me. I discovered food writing while on a sabbatical from my job. As the mother of a toddler I was pretty much confined to my home and the internet was my lifeline to the world. I spent hours surfing the net and reading about all sorts of things and experimenting with blogging. It was at this time when I was looking for information (on pickles I think) that I discovered egullet.org home to like minded people who reveled in food. I spent weeks dithering around, lurking through its forums, scribbling a line or two here and there until I finally worked up the courage to put up an essay on Uttarakhandi Cuisine. The cuisine in question being unknown, my post got a lot of attention and my inherent talent for research and writing must have come through because I got a lot of praise. The post was the first step to a book that is awaiting publishing but more immediately it brought me a job offer with a local gastronomy magazine and made me realize that perhaps there was a career for me in food writing.

The first realization a food writer must have is that food writing is not just recipe features or restaurant reviews. It goes beyond that. Food writing like all other writing aims to stimulate the senses of the reader either evoking experiences, past or present or more practically motivating the reader out of the armchair and into the kitchen or nearest restaurant.

Not willing to give up being a hands-on mother, I chose to freelance. My first article (not surprisingly) on Utterakhandi cuisine was published in April 2005 in Savvy Cookbook. By June that year I had 3 articles published including an essay on Kutchi food, a recipe feature and a restaurant review, each in a different publication. In retrospect free lancing was the best decision I could have taken because it allowed me to work on a variety of subjects and styles and amass a body of work that I would not have been able to if I had been with just one publication.

Three years down the line today I have more than 400 articles and share viable relationships with at least 12 publications.

When you are starting out it is a good idea to try everything but be wise and use that phase to identify your strengths as well. For instance I prefer to circumvent restaurant reviews and other generic articles. These are easy to write but my approach to them is of a “have to get this article out” sort of attitude as opposed to my usual feeling of eagerness that subjects I gravitate towards inspire. I have found that articles that motivate me are ones that deal with subjects closest to my heart; the food on the plates of real Indians, culinary history, the migration and evolution of cuisine, sustainable agriculture, the intersection of food and culture, food as a carrier in the evolution of a culture (preferably researched at the knees of someone’s mom or grand mom) and my India is a rich country for that.

That said however do focus on your niche once you have identified it. Food writing is relatively unknown in India - I am still slotted under freelance writers at most publications. As a result I am often asked if I could do a story on this or that “just this once”. I did a couple of these in my initial days but stopped when I realised I spent twice the amount of time researching unknown subjects. If you have decided to be a food writer, FOCUS on food writing. Sticking to your niche might lead to lean pickings at the outset but it will pay off in the long run. Once your by-line comes to be associated to one kind of topic and your prowess with the subject comes to the fore more “meaty” assignments will come your way.

I made Rs.1000 for my first assignment. I then spent the ensuing year accepting whatever came my way, regardless of remuneration. One year down the line however, I began to let go of low paying assignments because I found that these were the hardest ones to do. I also began to develop relationships with quality publications. You might need quantity in terms of bylines at the outset of your career but once you are established it is the publication you associate your name with those that count and believe me, the good ones rarely have qualms about paying fairly!

Most of us shy away from appearing avaricious. We are uncomfortable asking for more money. At times like this try to remind yourself that you are having that dialogue about money because the person at the other end feels you are worth pursuing. (let me share a secret here, I don’t stress about appearing greedy ever since I realized that it helps separate the wheat from the chaff!) Once you have work coming in, losing a quickie job that pays too little isn’t a bad thing, it just frees up time for you to write the kind of stuff you want to – paid or not!

Food writing has ups and downs, the best thing is being forced to try new things. Last week, working on an article, I had a great time discovering the amazing variety of green leafy vegetables we use in Indian cuisine (I found 7 in Mumbai alone). I made three new dishes with them; an Irani mixed greens offering called Gormeh subzi, a forgotten Gujarati recipe called Dakho and a concoction all my own combining greens and dals. It was heavenly, but I would never know without trying it all. Food writing is a field that requires constant educating and re-educating. I study nearly every day to keep up with trends and food facts. I inhale every bit of food writing I can get my hands on, have about 500 books on food, encyclopedias and histories of foods and food names. The worst time I have had as a food writer is recently while I was pregnant! With a more adventurous palate I had more exotic cravings as well!

It takes hard work, dedication, perseverance, research, knowledge, an open mind, the ability to multi task and above all passion and creativity to grow as a food-writer but It's an excellent job for someone with a passion for food, writing and learning.

A FEW TIPS

It is important to write properly - When you send in an article, make sure it’s letter perfect. I thought I was a skilled writer until Naresh Fernandes editor of Timeout pulled me up for not spell-checking! He also recommended investing in a copy of Strunk and White which has held me in good stead when i am unsure of something.

Don’t wait for deadline - You can be an excellent writer but not meeting deadlines makes you unreliable. Also your editors are juggling lots of things so if you can send your work in early , do so, I have always found appreciation coming my way when I filed a story before time.

Ensure your information is complete - Do not leave anything to be desired. At the same time strike a balance with information, over loading your reader and making your editor work overtime will not get you more work!

Know your subject - I once accepted an asignment on Japanese cuisine, a cuisine I had never sampled. The publiation never used it. It had no passion. Write on subjects you know, i have found I can write well even on yams if I have experiencesd them. Besides if you are called to discuss your story idea you must be able to. Nobody is going to trust you with an assignment unless they are confident in your abilities.

Understanding your reader - If you’re writing recipe features for a woman’s magazine that is targeted at homemakers – an audience that juggles a budget ands cooks upto 3 meals a day - an article on innovative ways with Daal or quick microwave recipes rather than something like Truffles will be the order of the day, Truffles are better suited to the glossy, lifestyle magazine where your subjects must be in step with culinary trends around the world. You have to be in tune with your reader. That’ll help you identify appropriate ideas for your audience.

Be patient - Okay, you’ve spent hours, sometimes even days, developing story ideas, and if you are like me chances are you’re going to want a response RIGHT NOW. BUT hold on, remember that editor receives tons of similar mail. Every editor I’ve ever worked with has responded in due course. If you don’t hear back in 2-3 weeks then by all means e-mail or phone but keep it short. (Until I got confident enough to wing it on my own, I actually wrote out exactly what I would say over the phone). No extra chitchat, to the point. Remember you’re not trying to make a new friend; you’re trying to get work.

Develop a distinctive voice. This is perhaps the hardest to achieve. Voice is the unmistakable sound, rhythm, and point-of-view that connects with the writer so you know whose written it when you read it. Read writing by M.F.K. Fischer, Nigel Slater and closer home Chitrita Banergee, Vir Sanghvi, Vikram Doctor are people with a voice. When you’re reading them you can hear the authors' voices in your head. And more importantly, you can never confuse or interchange them. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t inherently interesting enough or big enough personalities to pull it off, as these masters do, most of us have to work at finding and developing our voice. But when you succeed, editors will use you again and again. Readers who have read me from my earliest articles might agree that I finally seem to have found my voice. I was inspired by the Laurie Colvin whose books I discovered recently.

Create your own website or blog. The fact is your own space on the web works. And with push button publishing you can do it with a blog, they are free. I include a link to my blog when I introduce myself to a new editor. Even if the assignment does not come my way, they do register me and my knowledge. Until you collect enough published work, the site will also make a good platform for your capabilities.

BOX ON FOOD WRITING CLASS

And then you can also thing of taking classes to augment your talents. Last year I took an online food writing class with Pamela White, publisher of the only periodical that focuses on food writing. In six online lessons, students learn to pitch columns, write articles, query magazines successfully, review restaurants, and write food essays and memoirs. Bonus chapters include tips on styling and photographing food, essential information on copyrights, selling rights and trademarks, and insider advice editors want writers to know. Each lesson includes assignments that guide the writer to successfully understand the lesson. Pam has now turned her original food writing class into a self-study course. "Make Money as a Food Writer in Six Lessons" Information on her course and book is available at http://www.food-writing.com/


3 comments:

serendipity said...

Thank you Ms. Ghildiyal, those are very useful tips indeed. As a lawyer who has decided to become a food writer, I am extremely heartened!

Ruchi M said...

I chanced upon your blog and found this article. I am very keen to become a food writer and this article was immensely helpful.

Do stop by my blog whenever you have minute.
http://ruchisimplyfood.blogspot.com

Ruchi M said...

I chanced upon your blog and found this article. I am very keen to become a food writer and this article was immensely helpful.

Do stop by my blog whenever you have minute.
http://ruchisimplyfood.blogspot.com