Anonymous asks: How do I get into food writing? I’ve wanted to be a food journalist since graduating from college.
Dear Anonymous: It’s a very tough market for food writers, as you know, with some universities barfing out large volumes of grads with MAs and MFAs in “Food Writing” and “Food Studies,” academic disciplines they basically invented out of whole cloth, and often staff with professors of dubious meaningful credentials. Publications (e.g., the Huffington Post) have learned they can pay literally nothing for food writing. And nearly gone are the days when glossy mags like Gourmet routinely paid writers $3 per word.
Actually, a career in food writing was never as easy as it supposedly once was. And the challenges of pursuing such an occupation continue to be formidable.
Here’s how I did it, and it’s still a good way.
Get a day job that pays the rent. I worked as a secretary, a photo editor, and then as a financial analyst for years in an era when computer skills were less common. If you have the chops and inclination, waiting tables, Web design, and office work can be good choices, but for many careers in food writing (as a critic, especially), it’s probably better to stay away from restaurant work and public relations.
Start a blog on a subject that’s startling and not yet well-covered. The Evolution of the Pizza, Jogging for Foodies, Urban Fishing, Dish of the Day, One Neighborhood Per Week, Food and Sex, Root Vegetables Only, Fast Food Eaten Slowly, Cheapest Meal I Saw Today, Being James Beard, One Random Restaurant, Following Yelpers, and Where Eater’s Never Been are some examples. Start a Twitter, and start a Facebook page trumpeting your adventures.
Once the blog is up and running and excellent, use it as leverage to pitch stories — modest ones at first — to Web and paper publications.
Study every website, magazine, and newspaper that publishes food writing. Then study those that don’t. Find ways that ones that don’t can incorporate food writing into their editorial mix, and then tell them how. Offer a sample of what you could do for them on a regular basis, illustrated with great photos. Cast yourself as a totally self-contained journalistic unit, and invest $300 in a great camera.
Do the same thing for the publications that already use food writing. Tell them an area they’ve missed, and offer an excellent sample. (If Time Out doesn’t cover ethnic groceries in obscure areas, prove that they need to by producing scintillating pictures of food products almost nobody has ever heard of.) Create a need where none exists.
Second, worm you way into food publications that seem to use an army of food writers. Try Serious Eats. To come up with something no one there is doing yet will be a real challenge. This is for the purpose of résumé building, not income generation. When someone asks you, you can say, “I’ve been published 17 places, and here is a random collection of my clips.” Remember, everything you publish is important, and increase the volume as you move forward. Even if you’re publishing little, write your ass off on every food-related topic you can think of. If it helps, begin working on a book now. Once again, scan the aisles at Barnes & Noble, and find a topic that has been neglected. It’s important to learn to write volumes of material because when you do land a food-writing job, I can guarantee it will require lots and lots of writing (at least 1,500 words per day).
Your goal is to quit your day job, but don’t do so until your quantity of freelance work (or offer of a permanent job, which is more likely) justifies it. Eventually, you’ll find publications coming to you with offers of freelance work. Be a human dynamo.
There is nothing sadder than a food writer who decides to go freelance with no advance preparation and no source of income except for Mom and Dad. The income from home will dwarf the freelance income, and it won’t motivate you. Who wouldn’t sleep an extra couple of hours if cash flow is guaranteed? But then you’ll miss that retro food truck with great egg sandwiches that stops by the factory gate every morning at 6 a.m. in East Williamsburg.
Oh, and go to parties where food editors hang out, and get on publicity lists for press releases, but try not to go to preview meals at restaurants or on press junkets, because it poisons you for lots of different types of food writing that require you to be truthful.
Finally, good luck!