Melissa Clark Works Her Tail Off, and Says You Should Too

Sep 272011
 

Prolific food writer Melissa Clark writes cookbooks, freelance articles and columns, and a blog.

If you looked up the opposite of “slacker,” you’d see Melissa Clark‘s name highlighted in bold.

The prolific freelancer writes weekly recipes for the New York Times and Gilt Taste, among other freelance gigs. She has also written 32 cookbooks. Many are collaborations with chefs including Daniel Boulud, David Bouley, and White House Pastry Chef Bill Yosses. Her latest cookbook, out in October, is Cook This Now: 120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can’t Wait to Make.

Oh, and in her copious spare time, she takes care of her young daughter and writes a blog.

In an interview, she spoke about her career as a food writer, including advice for those who want to be as successful:

Q. You’d been working as a cook and a caterer in New York. What made you want to become a food writer?

A. I always wanted to be a food writer. I started a catering business when I was in grad school. Food was in everything I wrote. It was my metaphor. This was the 1990s. People knew of restaurant critics and cookbooks writers, but food writing wasn’t a viable career. I felt like I was on an uncharted path.

Q. Is a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in writing a good way to learn about freelance writing and cookbook collaboration? Would you recommend it?

A. No. It’s a good way to find your voice as a writer. People don’t think about that. It’s just as important.

Q. As a freelancer, don’t you have to write the voice of the publication?

A. If you don’t even know who you are and what your voice is, it’s really hard to figure out how to make your voice fit into other molds. Voice has to have a point of view, the perspective that the piece is coming from.

It’s really good to know how to write in different perspectives (first person, second person, third person). You learn all different perspectives when you get an MFA.

I recommend that people take writing classes. It helps stretch you as a writer. It’s really good to challenge yourself.

Q. What was your first big break as a freelance writer?

A. I wrote for websites about food, including once a month for Hearst magazines. I wrote tons of content for Cuisinenet. They paid me real money. I could support myself if I catered on the side.

I also developed recipes for IMP, which put out recipe cards that went out in the mail, where they asked people to subscribe to a recipe club. They had bought (food) photos from Sweden, and they would give me a recipe in Swedish. I made a lot of coffeecakes and French pancakes.

If I were doing it today, I would start out blogging, because that is the path. The path (I described) is gone.

Q. Regarding collaborating on cookbooks, how difficult is it to convince great chefs to let you redo their recipes for home cooks?

A. Depends on the chef and their ego level. Some cling very tightly and want their food to be made exactly the way they make it. Other chefs are wiling to let go of it. I want to work with chefs who let me work with the recipe.

Q. How did you get your regular freelance column for the New York Times, “A Good Appetite?”

A. I started writing for the Times in 1998, doing general assignment reporting.

They came to me with a column in 2007. They wanted people to see into the mind of a confident cook who finds her way, how you get from point A to dinner. They said, “Let’s try it for 10 weeks.”

Q. What’s your the best advice for someone who want to freelance?

  1. Work really hard on your writing
  2. Write in different voices
  3. Make deadlines, have clean well-edited copy, be nice, be accommodating. Get back to them right away. That’s just as important as being a great writer
  4. Take (writing and cooking) classes
  5. Don’t think that people should come to you because you have a blog
  6. Intern, stage, and make yourself much more valuable
  7. Don’t say no. Just say yes and make it work.

Q, What would you tell someone who wants to write a cookbook?

A. It’s hard to sell a cookbook without a platform. Really work on that. (If you’re a blogger), editors care about how many readers you have and how many people comment. You have to build it.

The idea doesn’t have to be original. Everything is put through the lens of you. Really focus on your voice and market that.

I’m still learning. Every time I do a cookbook I have a new tutor.

Q. What’s the hardest thing about developing recipes?

Tips -- like why to grate a tomato -- and recipes appear on Clark's blog (Photo by Melissa Clark).

A. I’m always humbled by what I don’t know. I try to learn when there’s something that doesn’t work and I don’t know why, especially with baking. I don’t take anything for granted.

Sometimes I make something and it doesn’t blow me away. How do I make it better? It’s always a fun challenge. But it can also be humbling when it doesn’t work.

I have a little trick that I always use. I retitle the recipe. So, if I burn the pasta in a pasta dish, I call it “browned garlic pasta. ”

Q. How important is it to have a background as a professional cook, to become a food writer?

A. No one’s going to read you if you’re not an authority. You need to know more than the person next to you because you’re going to teach them. It’s all about improving your skills and your knowledge.

Q. What would you like to tell someone who wants to be successful?

A. The old Einstein quote: It’s 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration. I work really hard. Also, don’t be so brittle. Criticism is good. It helps you. It makes you grow.

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  45 Responses to “Melissa Clark Works Her Tail Off, and Says You Should Too”

  1. Thanks for another great interview, Dianne. It seems to me that freelance writers are fairly thick on the ground and any advice that gives us a little head-start is very welcome! I do agree with Melissa about working on ones writing, too. I am absolutely convinced that it pays to learn as much about writing as I can and writing out of your comfort zone is a great way to hone your skills.

    • You are welcome, Amanda. There’s so much to learn in the blogging world, but becoming a good writer is not one of the optional skills.

      • I wish your comment about good writing not being optional was true here, Dianne. I can think of a couple of very successful blogs here in Oz which are quite poorly written.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. The secrets to making a great living as a freelance food writer are no longer secret: Dianne, Melissa and Einstein just shared them all!

  3. Dianne, Another home run! It’s funny that Melissa talked about the 99 percent perspiration factor–I was thinking about that before I even got to the end of the post! My mom, a prolific and talented painter always said that. She produced some of her best work in her eighties, and even now, in her nineties, she sketches daily–she has notebooks full of the guests on Charlie Rose when she can’t get out and paint. She was a good example of how to keep at it, keep learning your craft, keep producing your very best work, and then go another mile. She was always taking classes, even when sometimes she could run circles around the teachers. Melissa is another inspiration to all of us to keep our derrieres in gear. Thanks!

    • Thank you for saying so, Sally. Your mom sounds like an incredible role model. What a fascinating woman and mentor to you!

  4. I totally agree with Melissa’s statement, “don’t be brittle…criticism is good”. I like the warm fuzzy comments, but I cherish the ones that point out flaws and challenge me. I want to be challenged.

    • Yeah, that’s one of my jobs as a coach. I doled out a lot of criticism as an editor. I’m gentler now that the writers are paying me, vs. the other way around, but I still dish it out.

      • As someone who definitely needs to stretch, grow and become more malleable, this has been one of the most valuable aspects of working with you. You always say it like it is — and I love that about you. Another great (and inspiring) post, Dianne!

        • Ack! You’re enjoying my criticisms? I’m glad I am not coming off as too hard. Thank you, Elizabeth. I feel inspired after this talk with Melissa.

  5. Excellent interview Dianne.
    I think that having a thick skin is vital.
    Living with a Chef can give a girl very thick skin :0)

    I also think that taking writing classes, cooking classes and ‘how to work that darned camera’ classes is very important. You can’t be a natural talent at all three and
    there is no shame in educating yourself.

    • Thank you, Mona. Yes, we could all work on our thin skins. We writers tend to be such sensitive, fragile folks. Sometimes we imagine things out of our sensitivity. I have seen that, and written about it. Re taking classes, it is a good reminder on how to stay fresh and how to keep improving oneself.

  6. Thanks for this snapshot into Melissa’s success. She is very driven, but I like that your interview questions revealed her human side too. Also the fact that she still learns despite being what many would regard as quite an expert. I think people stop growing the moment they think they know it all. Excellent post.

    • Thank you Linda. We all strive to be experts. But somehow within that we have to keep learning. Fortunately, that’s easy when it comes to blogging. It keeps changing, and we have to keep up.

  7. I found this today’s post to be very informative. When I first started blogging, I saw it as a hobby. But now I want to continue writing and improve my writing as well. I find your advice very helpful and inspiring. It’s a nice read with hard facts stated in a more understandable manner. Thanks.

    • I think your comment is directed to Melissa, but I will say “you’re welcome” on her behalf. She strikes me as the kind of boss I’d like to have: a hard-ass but also helpful and encouraging.

  8. I have long admired Melissa’s work and am so happy to read about how she makes it all happen. Knowing yourself, understanding your strengths and weaknesses and honing those skills and just plain hard work are indeed what it is all about and I admire her for saying this. I think the fact that she sees her own work as constantly evolving and that she is always learning is what makes her the successful writer that she is. A really inspiring and informative interview, Dianne.

    • Thank you Jamie. It’s refreshing to interview someone who’s an expert in her field, yet feels that she doesn’t know it all. Quite a good balance that keeps her humble.

  9. The perfect reading at my table with my morning cup of very black tea before I tackle my full day as a restaurateur, cookbook writer, blogger and mother of 2. Whew, I am tired already!
    Melissa gave great advice! And what she says is so true. Hard work, take the good with the bad, learn from your mistakes, keep going, all of these things have helped me find my voice both out loud and on paper. The last thing my husband said to me last night was some mumbo jumbo about getting rich quick. HA! Its hard work, buddy! I’ll share with him that Einstein quote!

    • Yeah, that Einstein quote is a good one. People tend to think your business and what you accomplish is so glamorous and easy. If only they knew! Looking forward to seeing you at IFBC in November, Ann. And coming to your restaurant, of course.

  10. Thanks Dianne. Her final quote is a real keeper, “Criticism is good. It helps you. It makes you grow.”

    • Absolutely. Maybe I should say that to my coaching clients and students, but they probably know that. Otherwise they wouldn’t expose themselves to me!

  11. Great interview, Dianne, with very helpful advice. Great to see Melissa Clark’s humility, and her reminder that success does not just “happen.”

    • A lot of times we don’t know the backstory of how someone got where they are today, and we don’t know the current story — how hard they work to stay there and inch forward. So we think anyone can do what she does. That must explain all the people who would love to be recipe columnists for the NY Times. They have no idea what’s involved.

  12. I have many years worth of cookbooks that are nothing but recipes and I still love them. So the trend towards story telling in a book seems to be a newer trend for me and often one I could just as easily live without.

    Then I got Melissa’s cookbook and I found her introductions to each chapter so charming that I started to read her story like a mini novel. I knew I would come back to the recipes but it was her warmth and remembrances that made me fall in love with ‘In the Kitchen With a Good Appetite’ and with her.

  13. I loved this interview. Melissa Clark speaks the truth, especially about taking criticism. I have an MFA–in poetry, no less–and learning to take criticism on a daily basis and turn it into better writing is one of the best things I gained from the degree program. Improving our writing skills should always be on the front burner, but it certainly doesn’t take a degree to get better. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend an MFA to anyone in this economic climate. But reading the best writers, and thinking about how they put words, sentences, and paragraphs together, is a good way to get a “degree” for free.

    • I’m with you there. I’m not going back for an MFA anytime soon, but I love reading great writers and trying to figure out how they do it. Right now I’m discussing Calvin Trillin essays with a client, and we’re dissecting his writing, para by para, and talking about what we love and why. He’s written the first draft of a Trillin-esque essay. And guess what? It’s difficult to imitate the guy. That’s Melissa’s point: Trillin didn’t just get there overnight.

  14. This is one of the best interviews I have read in a while. I’ve been inspired by Melissa for a while now, but her advice is SO timely at a time when I’ve been overwhelmed by new projects and ventures related to my blog. It’s easy to get down on yourself and worry, but her ‘just do it’ attitude is exactly the right one.

    • Yes, we writers are experts at worrying and getting down on ourselves, eh? But eventually we pick ourselves up and keep going. And we see what we’re doing well. Sometimes I find the “getting there” part is the most fun, once I’ve worked up the nerve to start.

  15. I remember when I first started noticing Melissa’s writing. I’d be reading a piece in the NYTimes, and my mouth would start to water b/c everything sounded so good. Then I’d look to see who wrote it, and time after time it was Melissa Clark.

    Later, on two different occasions, I had questions or issues with a recipe. I scrounged around the web and found an email for her and wrote her with the problems I was having. Both times, she wrote me back within a day. (She doesn’t know me from Adam.) I’m always stunned at how quickly the busiest people seem to write back.

    Good writing, good recipes, quick response time’97what more could a reader (or an editor) ask for?!

    • Wow, Martha, that takes nerve. But she got back to you. I love that. It goes to that “ask a busy person” philosophy, because they are most likely to get things done. And I agree with you about her writing. I love how she makes it sound so easy, like she was fooling around in the kitchen one day and came up with a delectable dish. Sure.

  16. I really enjoyed reading your blog post.
    I love Melissa’s cookbooks and her style of writing.

  17. Excellent interview and advice – entertaining and informative. “Everything is put through the lens of you. Really focus on your voice and market that.” This sentence crystallised a lot of thoughts I had been having. Now to put into action…

    • Thank you, Sally. That statement rang true to me as well. If you really want to write about chocolate cake, you’ve got to put it through a personal lens — or there’s nothing new to say.

  18. Great interview – thanks for gleaning so many helpful insights from Melissa. Last year, I met Denise Vivaldo and Amy Sherman at IACP, two other go-getters like Melissa, who seem to bear out that Einstein quote. People on the outside looking in rarely realize just how hard food writers/photographers work and how much they have to scrap for opportunities to try and make a living doing what they love. Continuous learning and improvement — and a hell of a lot of hard work — are such necessary ingredients for success. I’m just getting started, so I will certainly be taking much of this advice to heart!

    • Thanks. All the women you mentioned do this full time, so it’s probably easier to work really hard at it if you don’t already have a full-time job doing something else. So many bloggers do so as a hobby but aspire to do as well as Melissa does.

  19. That last point is key, and applies equally well to all areas of life. Sometimes I find it hard to get honest feedback from people because they’re so afraid of hurting my feelings, especially when it comes to food. I didn’t start culinary school because I wanted to spend my life flipping burgers at a fast food joint. If I ask for an opinion, it’s because I genuinely want it. I want to know iis it too spicy, not spicy enough, if the balance of flavor and texture isn’t quite right. Nine times out of ten, I already know the answer before I ask it, Im just looking for someone to back me up and say, eh – it would be better with x. Constructive criticism is the only way that we can truly grow and improve, in all aspects of life. That being said, it is sometimes hard to remember that when being criticised…

    • Oh yes, that’s true. Easier to say so than take it. But like you said, you already know how to fix it, so it seems to me that their criticism is easier to take when you already know the answer. Maybe it’s worse when you have no idea and you get blindsided by something that didn’t occur to you.

  20. Melissa is an inspiration to all food writers. She is one hard-working woman.

    People in the NYC area, take note. I will be interviewing Melissa at King’s Cooking Studio in Short Hills, NJ on Saturday, December 3. Contact http://www.kingscookingstudio.com for more information. The class price includes a signed copy of Melissa’s new cook, Cook This Now, and a cooking demonstration/tasting.

  21. Dianne, what a wonderful, thoughtful interview with Melissa Clark. I’ve admired her work ethic and writing for many years now, and boy does she stay busy! I can only dream of one day being able to take on as many projects and multitask as well as she does!

    It’s reassuring to hear that Clark has worked her tail off to get where she is today, especially as someone who is just starting on a hopeful path towards becoming a food writer. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing, I’m currently in culinary school, and once I graduate, I hope to pursue my Master’s in Food Studies or Gastronomy. In the midst of my grande tour of academia, I also have a food blog that’s steadily gaining momentum, and I’ve begun writing a food column in my local paper. Let me tell you, it’s all completely exhausting and a great deal of work, but I am enamored with every single moment!

    Melissa Clark and you, Dianne, are two food writers who I respect and look up to immensely. I’m moved and inspired by how passionate you both are about food writing and your craft. I’m dreaming big, working hard, and taking on any and every opportunity that comes my way!

    Thanks for the terrific interview, and for the inspiration.

    • What a lovely comment, Jaclyn. Thank you. It sounds like you are the same Type-A sort who grabs onto something and doesn’t let go. I don’t see how you can go wrong with that approach. Best of luck.

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