A guest post by Suzanne Fass
Cookbook writers may hate me at first if they think that—once they’ve turned in their manuscript to a publisher—they’re done. I make them do more work. I want every cookbook to be the best it can be, the most useful for anyone cooking—and learning—from it.
As a copy editor, I try to save writers from embarrassment. I correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar. I fact-check. I query missing ingredients, missing steps, cross-references to recipes, and anything else that looks weird to me.
So if you’d like to see fewer copy editor corrections and queries in your manuscript, consider these ten points:
1. No voice. Recipes don’t just tell what to combine and how long to cook it—they convey your personality. Part of the creation is your own description of how it should look, sound, feel, taste, and smell. People say they read cookbooks as if they were novels, even though a cookbook is basically a technical manual. They deserve something worth reading, not a string of overused standardized terms.
If you’re the writer for a chef or celebrity’s book, spend enough time with your client to internalize how they express themselves, and project that voice throughout the writing.
I can’t supply a voice if it’s missing, but I try to make sure the voice that is there comes through vibrantly. Here’s an example of a distinctive voice.
2. Passive voice. Ingredients aren’t magically transformed by an unknown force. We work with them and they work for us. So I prefer when a recipe is active: “Beat the eggs until …,” not “The eggs should be beaten until …” Note, too, that the active voice is usually more concise—and in cookbooks and magazines, real estate is precious.
3. Improper use of culinary terms. A Food TV host might say “sauté the mushrooms in broth,” but that doesn’t make it correct, or even possible. Develop your own voice and vocabulary, but be accurate and clear.
4. Inconsistent terms for measures or techniques. When I see multiple terms for the same thing, I assume the version you use the most is the one you like best, and plug it into every occurrence. For example, if you call for both “potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes” five times and “1/2-inch-diced peeled potatoes” twice, the cubes win. In the event of a tie, I’ll use the wording that’s most consistent with your voice.
I do this so readers will recognize the same ingredients, equipment, and actions throughout the book and feel comfortable. But it makes me uncomfortable to pick your words for you, so use your vocabulary consistently, please.
5. Illogical or ambiguous prep terms. The recipe says “1 cup squash, sliced.” The reader wonders, “Should I stuff a few zucchini into a measuring cup, then pull them out and slice them? And is it okay if they stick out the top of the cup when I first jam them in?” It’s clearer to say “1 cup sliced squash.”
And remember: “1/2 cup parsley, chopped” is not the same as “1/2 cup chopped parsley;” the way you measure the parsley is different, and that difference can change the dish. Be clear which you mean.
6. Unrealistic prep times. The time it takes your readers to prep something could be very different from the time it takes you, and light-years from the chef you’re working with. This is especially true if the reader is multitasking, not focusing the way you did when you developed the recipe. If you include times, a realistic range is helpful. You don’t want your readers to feel inadequate or frustrated, do you? (Betty Teller had a great post on this blog about it.)
7. Unrealistic cook times. All happy families may be alike, but all stoves and ovens are different. Ingredients, too. Jacques Pépin explains it well in this video. A range of times is the best way to account for those differences. Giving visual or other sensory cues for doneness as well as times lets the reader know what matters most.
8. Misplaced oven preheating or water boiling. Did someone really say to preheat the oven before mixing a dough that needs 3 hours to rise? To boil the pasta water before starting an all-day ragù? Oops. Please put actions like these closer to when they’re actually needed.
9. Esoteric ingredients with no substitutes. What’s everyday to you might be esoteric to a reader in another region. Who has heard of Johnnie Fair syrup, for example? Or mâche. Sure, there are times when only one item will do. That’s why God invented the Internet.
But if another syrup or green is acceptable and more universally available, or if frozen will work as well as fresh, or if the dish will be taste fine with a different protein or flavoring, let the reader know—including how much, if the measures differ. The same goes for equipment: call for a fine-mesh strainer, not a tamis.
10. Unavailable package sizes, or no size given. Do you really want to send readers on a wild-goose chase looking for a specific package size no one can find? A size range (two 15- to 16-ounce cans black beans) is better. A stew made with a 29-ounce can of tomato sauce instead of the 8-ounce can you tested with—but didn’t specify —might turn out okay, but it won’t be the well-balanced entrée you intended.
A final note: if your publisher gives you a particular style guide, or gives you their own guide, please follow it. It’s not meant to stifle your creativity, but to help you become part of the family.
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Suzanne Fass has been a freelance copy editor, proofreader, and indexer since 2003. Before that, she was a restaurant cook, a field researcher in industrial-organizational psychology, a concert hall box office manager, and a COBOL programmer, and held other seemingly unconnected jobs that nonetheless added up to useful experience. She is active on Facebook in the Cookbook Friends group. Email Suzanne at suzannefass AT pipeline DOT com.
(Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)