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

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 [Read more…]

Like Throwing Darts in the Dark? That's Freelancing

Freelancer Cheryl Sternman Rule. She's learned how to throw darts that hit the target. (Photo by Paulette Philpot)

When I was a magazine editor, I wondered why freelance writers couldn’t figure out what I wanted. I rejected 95 percent of pitches.

Now that I’m on the other side, I see how difficult it is when you’re an independent writer, on the outside looking in.

At the recent Book Passage conference on Travel, Photography and Food Writing, food writer Cheryl Sternman Rule spoke about why pitching to publications is such an anxiety-producing process. What she said resonated with me, so I asked her to share it:

“As a freelancer since 2004, I’ve spent years both pitching and avoiding pitching,” explains Cheryl. “For me, pitching seems like a dark art. There’s black magic about it that often makes me feel like I’m throwing darts in the dark.

“Editors have editorial calendars, or ideas in their heads for what they’d like to cover. We writers are not often privy to this information. So we shoot story ideas out like darts and hope they’ll hit some mysterious, shrouded target. It’s a tough game to play, psychologically.”

That’s exactly right. You keep throwing until you strike the target, even when you get no feedback. You need a thick skin to be a freelance writer, not to mention an ability to see in the dark.

Meanwhile, Cheryl [Read more…]

New Writers Welcome at Saveur, says Oseland

James Oseland, Saveur magazine editor-in-chief

Wondering whether to pitch Saveur magazine? If you’ve never written for the publication before, you’re in luck, says Editor-in-Chief James Osland. In a recent phone interview, he estimated that some 60 to 80 percent of Saveur is freelanced. Of that amount, he said at least 50 percent is not from regular contributing editors.

So, if you do the math, that means 30 to 40 percent of Saveur’s food writing is written by new writers. Moreover, new writers don’t have to pitch a small story first.

“No,” Oseland  reiterates when I express surprise. “You don’t have to break in at the front of the book. I’ll take a feature.”

Saveur has only nine issues per year, with an average of 72 to 74 pages to fill per issue. That’s three or four features, four to five departments, and four to five shorter pieces in Fare, a department at the front. “We don’t have a lot of real estate,” Oseland admits. “Sometimes you have to choose stories that go well together. I wish it wasn’t finite, but alas it is, so we have to be judicious.”

One Long Communal Story Meeting

The way to get into Saveur is to pitch (an email to the editors that [Read more…]

Is Lower Pay for Web Writing Defensible?

silhouetteMaybe the magazine editor was just talking off the top of her head, but when I read it, steam came out of my ears.

In a story in the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ newsletter, by Stephanie Stiavetti, the editorial director of a national food magazine spoke of writing opportunities on her magazine’s website:

“There’s a lot of fear and concern…the move to user-generated content will impact those who made their living writing for print, but it has also opened up new opportunities for bloggers.”

Oh yes, we know all about that, how links are the new currency, and dwindling opportunities for freelancers. The article continues:

“How much quality can you expect from an uncompensated writer who may not be willing to put a lot of effort into an unpaid gig? ‘A lot,’ says the editor, who plans to use guest bloggers in the future: ‘We’ll be [Read more…]

Putting the "Free" in Freelance

empty_pockets-450x343Earlier this year I began working with a sophisticated home cook and sometime cooking teacher who wanted to start a blog, write for publication, and later on, write a cookbook. That wasn’t the order, but I told her it would work best that way.

She launched the food blog, and it’s coming along beautifully. For clips, we brainstormed a few story ideas for newspapers, which would produce results much faster  than magazines. She pitched several weeklies in the state, with two responses. It wasn’t pretty. Here is the first, from the paper’s editor:

“All the articles are volunteered.  We have no budget for freelance, or for anything else that matter. Everybody does it here for love. Still, we recognize that many freelancers who query us are hoping–and needing–to sell their articles.  If that is the situation with you, of course we will understand your not being able to place it with us. If on the other hand, you are in a position to donate the piece, it would be our pleasure to run it.” [Read more…]

Food Writing That Happens Only Twice a Year

Honey and apples signify sweetness for the year ahead
Honey and apples signify sweetness for the year ahead

It was the Jewish New Year this weekend, one of two opportunities for Jewish food writers to freelance articles about the holiday. Newspapers only cover Jewish food twice a year: on Passover in the spring, and on Rosh Hashana in the fall. It’s kind of like specializing in stories on turkey, and therefore you can only be published on Thanksgiving. Does this make sense? No, but welcome to Jewish food writing.

And just like Thanksgiving, each year, food writers have to come up with something new. The distinguished Joan Nathan, America’s best known cookbook author on the subject,  dutifully found an unusual angle for the New York Times last week: how actors in New Hampshire recreate early settlers’ celebration of Rosh Hashana. At the Washington Post, freelancer David [Read more…]