I’m so Over “Perfection” in Recipe Writing

Mar 042014
Thai-Sandwich-With Cheese

Is a cookbook author’s Asian Sandwich with cheese “perfect for every occasion?” I think not.

Recently I edited a cookbook manuscript for a publisher, where the author used  “perfect for every occasion” in one too many headnotes.

I lost it. I struck out the phrase and then went back and struck it out every time it appeared.  “Perfect for every occasion” screams 1950s housewife to me. And it doesn’t make sense.

Here’s why:

1. Most of the time, readers don’t need ideas for  “occasions.” They need food for  meals.

Okay, they might need the occasional dish for a potluck, a baby shower, or a new neighbor. Those are specific events. A dish cannot be perfect for every occasion. I guarantee you that the author’s Asian sandwich with cheese (oh yes, I did see that in the manuscript) would not be perfect for:

  •  A wake for an elderly uncle
  •  A four-year-old’s birthday party
  • Anyone who thinks Asian dishes should not include cheese or American sandwiches.

2. Perfection is unattainable. Yet we promise readers that they can get there, if they could only make and serve this meatloaf/tomato soup/red velvet cupcake. Holy June Cleaver! Do they need to wear pearls too? If only life was so simple.

3. If it’s perfect for every occasion, readers only need one dish. Why would they need a whole cookbook? This one dish would do it for every meal.

4. “Perfection” is a cliche. When writing a recipe headnote, do we really need to tell readers that hot chocolate is perfect for a winter’s evening? They might be tired of hearing that, because, well, it’s obvious.

Shall we give perfection a rest and try something more doable? Why do you think so many writers go the “perfect” route? 

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 (Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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  73 Responses to “I’m so Over “Perfection” in Recipe Writing”

  1. Hilarious! I think we all fall into using certain phrases, and need to be shaken out of them. You helped a writer kick a habit that was making her writing superficial and silly, I hope she thanked you.

    • Oh good. This is one of those posts that I wasn’t sure about. Glad you liked it, Robin.

      Some writers have thanked me for helping them kick a habit, yes. Some are now terrified of writing the wrong thing! That’s not good.

  2. This is a “perfect” Dianne post – so very “you” and I support your view entirely.

    • Ha ha. Thanks Liz. You should have seen all the parts I deleted and rewrote, Liz. This one gave me trouble.

  3. The use of “perfect” or “my new favourite” for every recipe needs to go. Thank you for taking a stand. Nothing is perfect and not everything can be a favourite. We don’t need to be sold that line for every dish. Readers are qualified to make that decision on their own.

    • Yes, there is a lot of selling that goes on in recipe writing. It’s a necessary evil. I’m just tired of this way.

  4. I tweeted “perfect” to a salmon vendor right after I replied to your tweet about this post! Ha ha. Was that subliminal power of persuasion or what?

    Funny thing this perfect thing. It IS overused in recipe writing.

    I find I want to use it when I’m trying to describe an experience, but usually catch myself and force myself to dig a little deeper.

    In regard to the tweet, well, I don’t know what to say except I probably won’t tweet it again! Thanks for helping me kick the habit. Now I’m going to search my blogs for the word I don’t want to write again. Lol

    • I don’t mind it from time to time, but it does seem to be a mindset that people want perfection. I suppose they do. But as you say, it is overused.

      Don’t worry about it too much. I do these posts just to make people think — and laugh. And going forward, you will be more cognizant of it.

  5. Always good to get your comments on the latest ‘over-trending’ topic or vocabulary!

  6. Hi there!!
    I have been following your blog for quite some time, sharing my favorite posts on Facebook and Twitter. This is my first time to actually comment but thought it time to tell you thanks for all the wonderful information I find in your posts. I am a freelance writer and blogger but food has always been my favorite topic. Just wanted to send a virtual high-five and say thanks for all the great help. Love your blog!

    • Aww, thanks so much Kerri, both for posting here for the first time, and for sharing my posts on Twitter and Facebook. It means a lot to me.

  7. I have certainly fallen victim to the “perfection” trap in my recipe descriptions before, but recently I had a similar revelation to what you’ve described: I don’t really need a perfect occasion for rice, a cake, mug of tea, etc, so my readers probably don’t, either.

    It has been difficult to find alternative ways to express my love for something, but the challenge is what makes us better writers, right?

    • Exactly, Yasmeen. They just need encouragement to try it. It is hard to find a different way to say it each time, I agree.

  8. “Holy June Cleaver! Do they need to wear pearls too?” ha ha ha ha ha

    I use perfect when speaking to my friends on social media just like I overuse exclamation marks… to stress a point and accentuate something. I am sure I use it on my blog but really when I think something is so over-the-top special and worth trying. Perfect for every occasion? No, I don’t think so. And that is pretty presumptuous on anyone’s part. But why oh why would anyone need to say this in a cookbook? I would assume that if someone bought my cookbook, it would mean they were tempted to try some of the recipes and not need to be convinced. Great post, Dianne, and I love when points like this are brought up for public discussion.

    • Hi Jamie! Yes in casual speech this kind of stuff is perfectly fine, but when you read it over and over in a cookbook, it’s hard to take.

      But to your point about trying recipes, readers do need to be convinced. That’s why they make only 2-3 recipes in a cookbook on average. You probably have the same average with the cookbooks you own. So you do need to sell people, but of course, there’s an art to it.

  9. I think we all have phrases that get stuck in our writing. Mine is “little.” Once I realized I was using it excessively and unnecessarily, I started running a search on my recipes and posts so I could delete or change it.

    • Good idea, Jenny. I do that kind of thing as well. That same writer used “beautiful” a few times to describe her dishes and it bothered the editor as well as me, so we took it out.

  10. Can we get rid of “chock full” also?

    • That term drives you crazy, Sandra? It does sound a little dated. I’d be all for striking it out.

  11. As an editor, you may want to take a look at the headline for point 1. Unless your intent was to show how difficult perfection can be to attain!

  12. I just did a quick search on my site, according to google I have used “perfect” a total of 272 times on my blog in some form or another. That’s an average of almost once every other post. Eeeesh!!!!!

    • Ha ha ha. How brave of you to admit it, Jenn. Well, what can I say — except that, moving forward, I doubt that it will appear on your blog with any regularity.

  13. Amusing but poignant Post points. I believe we can omit the word perfect, and the expression, perfect for every occasion. Rather than reminding me of the 1950’s however, it reminds me of one of the catch-all headline phrases so overused in the blogosphere today such as: Best Ever Chocolate Cake, Three Top Best Chocolate Cake Recipes. I realize this is the current trend, but I would like to be the judge of what I believe to be the Best Ever Chocolate Cake, thank you. And agreed, cheese in an Asian Sandwich of any form (even Indian) would not in any way be considered as “perfect.” Thank You Dianne.

    • That’s a great call. Perhaps those words are used instead of “Top Three Most Searched Chocolate Cake Recipes….” which doesn’t have the same ring to it. But still, you’re right. The best ever according to one person isn’t necessarily the best ever to another.

    • You are most welcome, Peggy. Interesting to bring up those headlines. They are written to get massive clicks. That’s a little different but it’s still all about selling. When someone types “chocolate cake recipe” into the search box, they will get hundreds of responses, so how do they find yours? Only if you call it the Best Ever. Or if your recipe appears on the Food Network or Allrecipes websites, which is unlikely. Those two always come up first in searches for me.

  14. Spot on! Amen! Here here! It’s another form of sloppy, useless language, overused to the point at which it is rendered meaningless. I used to circle this word, along with “very” and “interesting” all the time in my student writing when I taught college English comp. Kudos to you for bringing this to light. Nothing is perfect. I love the way you broke this down. Yeah, Asians aren’t typically that into cheese. Thanks for this!

    • I always strike out “very” and “interesting,” Carrie. I’m with you.

      And cheese on an Asian sandwich…< >. The editor left that sandwich in the cookbook, though, so what do I know?

  15. How about “perfectly delicious?!!” ha ha! I hate writing headnotes and I especially struggle with words. I prefer to let my pictures speak for me – it certainly is easier!

    • HAHA I definitely agree with you. I get a little stuck on the headnotes. I feel like I am being cheesy or thinking way too much like an advertisement.

    • Wow, you’ve got two words squeezed together now, both of which I dislike. Good job. (I know you’re kidding.)

      It is definitely difficult to write dozens of headnotes and come up with something new to say. But hey, that’s why we’re writers. We live for challenges like this.

  16. This reminded me of a time where I had written headnotes for hundreds of recipes to go into 2 cookbooks, back to back projects, under tight deadlines. After a while I couldn’t stand the word and thought, “If it wasn’t delicious, why would it be in this book?” I put the editor on high alert for overuse of “tasty,” “delicious” and “mouthwatering,” too.

    • Oh yes, that sounds like a difficult project and so easy to fall back on those overused terms. I feel for you, Marilou.

  17. Your statements are not only true but very funny.

  18. I love reading this articles, I learn a lot, since I am new to the food blog world of writing 😉 I definitely understand what you are saying and where you are coming from. This is the “perfect” article hahaha – on a serious note: What do you recommend when writing on the recipe head note? THANK YOU in advance. Kristin Nicole

    • Thanks Kristin. Re writing the recipe headnote, that’s a whole blog post. Or you can read what to say in my book. Basically, your job is to get the reader to want to make the dish. But you can’t oversell it, which is why I wrote this post about using “perfect.”

  19. It’s great to be reminded of that nothing is perfect, ever. Thanks for this recipe writing lesson. As always, so helpful!

    • Thank you Betty Ann. It’s true that nothing is perfect. It’s not that it’s a bad idea to try, just that the term is overused in headnotes.

  20. I hadn’t really thought about the use of perfection until now but you’re right. I need to do a self-check to see where I stand with the use of that word. I may find in checking I have done that with other words that is just as useless and too repetitive. :-)

    • Don’t give yourself too much of a hard time about it Susan. The point is that you’ll think about it, going forward.

  21. well said! the is no such thing as perfection. we can certainly lose a lot from an experience searching for perfection. thanks for sharing your perspective. it’s freeing indeed.

    • Thank you, Shelly. I guess I’m not concerned with making the “perfect” dish. I want it to taste good, but that is a too restrictive and unattainable idea.

  22. Perfection is unattainable! Thanks for reminding us… in this very funny way!

    • You’re welcome, Carol. I suppose you can approach perfection in cooking, as long as the focus is on the approach. That seems more reasonable to me!

  23. Hi Dianne, Thank you for this post. Yes, perfect is a problem. Related to this is a trend I’m noticing–a backlash perhaps–for very loose recipe writing, in the style of Elizabeth David. I also noticed this in Ken Albala and Rosana Nafziger’s “The Lost Art of Real Cooking” and in Tamar Adler’s wonderful “An Everlasting Meal.” I think it’s a good shift away from strict and constraining recipes, a move toward encouraging both fledgling and advanced cooks to trust themselves. No, there’s no perfection, but there’s love, nutrition, delight, surprise.

    • Well said, Christy. Yes, a few cookbooks are breaking out of rigid recipe style, but not many. It’s a change of pace to read a casual paragraph about how to cook a dish, because we experienced cooks get it. But mostly it’s above the heads of fledgling cooks. Mark Bittman does this from time to time in the NY Times, where he just publishes a list of 100 sentences about how to cook a dish. I don’t think he ever uses “perfect,” though.

  24. LOL, Dianne, you crack me up! Funny you should mention 1950s cookbooks as I have two of them sitting right by my scanner. One is from Better Homes & Garden (1953) and the other is Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book (1950). lol Gotta have those pictures of perfection, you know. 😉 There are quite a few oldies recipes that I want to scan and try, like the old-fashioned (brittle) fudge. Enjoyed this excellent point, as always. As Robin and the others noted, it’s always helpful to be reminded. -er

    • Oh those sound terrific, Eric. I have some older cookbooks too, which are great for standard recipes because they’re not fussy and I know they’ll work. It’s more about the whole June Cleever thing. I don’t see you as wearing pearls, though. Thanks for often being the only guy to respond.

  25. Brilliant! Yes, “perfect for every occasion” sounds dated. And no, it can’t be perfect for every occasion. My other pet peeve is “amazing.” Like the show with Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain and Gwyneth Paltrow where they travelled through Italy and tasted the local food. Every time Batali and Anthony would give an interesting story and description of the food Paltrow would declare it “Amaaaazing!”

    I’m also always baffled every time Rachael Ray makes something and presents it and screams, “How good does THAT look? You could even entertain with this dish?” What?

    Keep up the great work!


    • Ha ha. I have always wanted to see that show, until I read what you just wrote. Maybe I’ll pass.

      As for good looking food, it’s definitely essential to cooking, so I don’t know what Rachael Ray means either.

  26. Perfect! Now I have another thing to share with my audience at this years FNCE conference( the annual Food and Nutrition Conference of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics)

    I’m presenting on Recipes That Sell: From Blog To Book and Beyond

    You shall be quoted in front of a huge audience in Oct!

    Thanks Dianne!

    • Hmm. Recipes that Sell — that’s a great title. Of course, as you will see from the links at the end of this post, too much selling is not always a good thing. What are you covering in this talk, Robyn? Now I’m curious. Do tell.

  27. It’s not just bloggers that get into overused words and phrases. Another word that has really been bothering me lately is “boozy”. It was used frequently in at least the last 2 issues of Bon Appetit ..including on the cover. To me that screams 1950’s. Someone on their editorial staff must really like that word.

    • I love that word! Of course, not if it’s overused, but for me, it’s evocative of a drunk Marilyn Monroe tottering on heels, holding a bottle and slurring her words. My dad loved her, so I watched a lot of those kinds of movies growing up. That was more 1960s though. I’m off by a decade in my imagination.

  28. Thank you, thank you, thank you. There is no such thing as perfection. Why do so many people strive for it? It only leads to disappointment.

    • You’re welcome Judy. Maybe we strive for it because we think we have to — we see so many images of people who have seemingly perfect lives — in cookbooks and blogs, not just movies and TV.

  29. Very funny! I don’t know how many cookbooks that author had written, but perhaps s/he got a little tired and ran out of things to say. Rather than dig a little further and tell the reader what’s so great about the dish itself, the writer fell into telling you what occasion to use it for. I will be sure to watch that in my food writing from now on. Thanks!

    • Thanks Halona. I think it was the author’s first book, but I agree with you that she ran out of things to say. Or sometimes we say the same thing over and over without realizing it.

  30. I wrote perfect on a recipe just yesterday! Maybe next time I’ll say ‘beyond perfect’

  31. “Perfect” misses the mark, just like “great,” because it tells us nothing. What I want to know is WHY is it perfect or great? Answer that, and you’ve got something to say. If it’s great because it’s made from ingredients most people already have, tell me that! If it’s perfect because even a klutz can master the technique, tell me that!

  32. I don’t think I have read a rant from you before with such conviction, Dianne. Still grinning!
    Yet – to promise perfection? I am still a dreamer and a goal setter – so believing it can exist – at least in my own imagination, is “a good thing”. Without the possibility, I may lose some of my tenacious drive.

    • Aww, no you won’t, Valerie. It’s in your DNA to be a pro. And yes, I do have rants from time to time. Glad it gave you a laugh.

  33. I’m knocking ‘perfect’ out of my recipes. I appreciate your pointing out that “perfect” is cliched; the word has lost its meaning. I’m looking for words to draw my readers in; I don’t want them their eyes to glaze over as they read another “perfect” recipe that may or may not be perfect for them.

    Another great post- thank you Dianne!

  34. Oh, Dianne, sigh. You create so much additional work for me! I just searched my blog and found too many entries containing the word “perfect.” And I know it’s lazy writing! I’m good at keeping out very because of Mark Twain: “Substitute damn every time you’re tempted to write very. Your editor will strike it and your writing will be just fine.” So now I just need to add perfect and delicious and all the other lazy writing quirks that I sometimes fall prey to.

    Thank you so much for your rants and for holding us all to a higher standard.

    • I love that quote! Brilliant.

      Yes, sorry about creating additional work. That seems to be a general thread here in the comments. Now you have to come up with several appropriate substitutions, maybe even a new phrase or two. It’s a challenge. But you are up to the task, Lucy.

      I’m so pleased you aren’t sick of my rants yet.

  35. I’m so guilty of that!
    I just found your wonderful blog, and I don’t think I’m gonna sleep tonight. There are so many interesting posts to read. As an amateur blogger who is trying to learn the art of recipe writing, I found so many valuable advises here so far! Thank you!

    • Welcome, Shinee. If you click on the Recipe category you will find lots to keep you busy. Look forward to having you as a regular reader, and I hope you get some sleep soon!

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