A guest post by Jennifer Kurdyia
Every editor is different, but as a cookbook editor for The Experiment Publishing, I’ve read enough proposals and cookbook drafts to have developed a few editor pet peeves. I know where the most common shortcomings among my writers lie.
Avoiding them requires a simple but challenging mindset that most first-time writers wouldn’t ever consider: You are teaching people how to cook. Pretend they know nothing about cooking, let alone have made your recipes as many times as you have. As soon as you accept that, your editor will open your email not with butterflies in her stomach, but with a grumble, hungering for what’s inside.
Once you start the editorial process, you’ll get to know some editor pet peeves probably faster than you’d like. To shorten the learning curve, here are a few of mine to help you make great first impression:
1. Assuming your readers know about cooking.
You have thousands of Instagram followers who write to you all the time about how great your recipes are. You assume they know how to cook if they’re eating so much of your food, right?
Wrong. Readers of your cookbook may have experience in the kitchen. But that doesn’t mean that you should assume anything in how you write your recipes. Don’t get a lazy with “pinches” and “drizzles” as measurements and other such vague approximations. Explain every technique and ingredient as you would to an alien who’s just dropped onto earth. Your more advanced readers will appreciate your clarity. You won’t annoy newbies who have to turn to Google to translate your recipe—and then get sucked into someone else’s blog instead of your book.
2. Assuming everyone’s kitchen is like yours.
There is plenty of space for specialty and more advanced cookbooks that require special tools, but for the average cookbook, minimize the number of gadgets and the amount of space required for your recipes. Again, speaking to the lowest common denominator of cooks makes you valuable to a broader audience.
You’ll also ensure more accurate recipes if you provide multiple ways of crosschecking for accuracy. Using metric/US measurements is one such check. Always including indicators of doneness as well. Not just how long something should cook, but what it should look like–color and texture–when it’s done, and even temperature if you’re really ambitious.
One of my first home ovens almost always needed 10 minutes more to cook things, and anything on the top rack got scorched. So keep in mind that readers need qualitative as well as quantitative accuracy.
3. Incomplete, untested recipes.
Most of the time, recipes come in with holes. The writer was assuming too much or didn’t read over her work before submitting. This tells me the recipes weren’t tested by others. It can be easy to get into a flow state while creating recipes. But somehow precision doesn’t make its way to the page, or prevents you from focusing on details you don’t normally take into consideration.
Review each recipe several times for completeness. Your editor shouldn’t have to redo them long after you developed the recipe. In general, recipes include a:
- Cook and prep time
- Yield (total amount and number of servings)
- Ingredients (in order of use, with metric conversions for weight/volume)
- Notes and/or tips
As any good cook knows, the answer to recipe reproducibility is testing. You make your recipe, test it out, and then test it again. Then ask your friend (or pay a pro) to try it in their kitchen. Then you do it a few more times just to be sure. Testing recipes with home cooks could help save many readers’ meals from inadvertent failure.
Sometimes I think editing is like recipe testing: I follow the directions and note down anywhere I get confused or something isn’t clear.
4. Writing a memoir instead of a cookbook.
If you’re writing a cookbook, you’re hopefully passionate about food and want to share with the whole world how to live a happy, foodie life just like yours. I love this so much about cookbook writers, because it makes them great friends, party dates, and self-promoters. And yet the story of your obsession with food does not always deserve a place at your table (of contents).
The days of the foodie memoir are just behind us, having boomed in the Age of the Blog. Nowadays, so many food stories are available to us at all times, so people buy cookbooks for utility and technicality, beyond what a fleeting social media post would offer. Instead of telling us your story as a reason to love your food, make us love your story through your food. We can more easily taste your dishes with a delicious single-page recipe than with a page-long personal headnote.
5. Fancy formatting.
Cookbooks are beautiful by nature. They are designed to make your mouth literally water. As you envision your book out in the world, you probably have some ideas about how you want it to look. But the proposal and manuscript are not the place to test out your amateur design skills with fancy typefaces, paragraph styles, and other formatting. At this stage, we’re still in utility mode. If the words and numbers aren’t right, then even the best photo and clearest layout won’t help. You’re already reigning over the kitchen, so leave the art to the design department.
If a blank screen or a heavily redlined document from your editor is getting you down, fear not! Remember that writing is like cooking—it’s an art, and there’s always room for improvement and improvising. Your best dishes probably resulted from a little rule-breaking, so take in these suggestions, let them marinade, then follow your gut to showcase your unique foodie flavor.
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Jennifer Kurdyla is a freelance writer, editor, publishing consultant, and 500-hour certified yoga teacher in Brooklyn. She is also an editor at The Experiment Publishing, where she acquires vegan and vegetarian cookbooks and self-help, wellness and health-based nonfiction. For the past six years, she’s lived a vegan lifestyle and strives to incorporate the principles of non-harming (ahimsa) and full-body nourishment in all of her teachings and wellness offerings. Visit her at benourished.me and on Instagram @jenniferkurdyla.
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You might also like these prior posts:
- Please Don’t Dumb Down a Recipe
- 10 Pet Peeves of a Cookbook Copy Editor
- Writing a High-Quality Recipe is Like a Report, says Real Simple Editor