A lot of food writing is wonderful. It's lyrical, and evocative. It makes me think and feel and dream and relate in a way other types of writing don't. That's a big part of why I chose this professional path.
But some food writing makes me groan. It’s tired, obvious, and overwrought. It's just so terribly easy to go overboard, to be cutesy, to employ excessive and unwarranted punctuation (!!!), to rely on cliche, and to assume, always, that more is better. More descriptors. More sensory cues. More obscure references to people -- without fleshing out who they are. Why should we care about your aunt's ragù or your neighbor's avgolemono? Who are these people? The key is to paint a picture, and then to step back and make sure the lines and colors and swirls all make sense from afar.
These are the things I tell myself when I sit down to write. And then I still use too many exclamation points.
Words have power, and it takes time, and effort, to choose which ones best represent a meal or, I don’t know, a melon. Sure, I can call it delicious. I can call it luscious. I can call it “the most amazing melon I’ve ever tasted.” Yawn. Why not call it something else entirely? Why not call it a melon whose slippery softness evoked the sweetness of my first kiss, a kiss stolen from the boy who worked in the law library of my father's office in 1985?
Restaurants hire consultants to help them craft menu language to make dishes move faster and maximize profit. There’s a whole science behind the cues people respond to, and while you don’t need an advanced degree to be a food writer, you can employ a few simple tricks to grab someone's attention. You can also train yourself to ferret out awkward phrasing and clunky descriptors.
Think, first, about what words turn you on. Linguistic resonance is highly personal, so it’s unlikely that your list and mine will be the same. And that's fine. It's good, actually.
For me, the words I'm drawn to come in a rush: warm, soft, soothing, comforting, simple, rustic, caramelized, sweet, hot, cool, melting, refreshing, relaxing, light, creamy, thick, fat, crisp, shocking, clear, clean, blanket, smother, suffocate, dribble, kiss, nestle, cling.
Words I try to avoid: delectable, yummy, amazing, fantastic, delicious, scrumptious, sooooo, great, the best, decadent, phenomenal. I'm sure you can find these words in my writing -- I'm no more perfect than you -- but I think they're a bit lazy. And while lazy's fine every now and again, I don't really want to spend my entire life on the couch in my jammies. (For more on this topic, check out food writing expert Dianne Jacob's post titled "The Worst Food Writing Words.")
Another good tip is to be aware of your pulse. This sounds ridiculous, but hear me out: when I read a beautiful turn of phrase, or a creative simile, or a line of prose that leaps rhythmically off the page without tripping on its own cleverness, my heart flutters. Only a bit, and only for a second, but something happens to my body and I feel, instinctively, that I've hit on something good. That's when I know -- as a writer and a reader -- that the word choice is right.
Finally, good writing, once consumed, should inspire a moment of quiet reflection. When I finish reading something that moves me, something so well-crafted it forces me to sit completely still in my chair, I know I've hit pay dirt. I may even read it again to drink it in more fully. I want to bathe in good writing, and leave a layer of it on me as I move throughout my day. I'm not talking about my own writing, obviously, but any writing that shimmers with meaning, resonance, beauty, and craft. If I sit there for a minute or two, quietly, without clicking away or turning the page, then the writer's words have found me, reached me, moved me, and left a quiet mark.
Strive for this in your own work, as I do in mine. We may never get there (is there even a there?), but if we both keep trying, the world will continue to swell with beautiful words.