A guest post by Kate Leahy
Writing a thriller requires writing a story that keeps readers turning the page. Writing a cookbook should require grabbing someone’s attention so they don’t skip the recipe headnote.
It’s not easy to do, but it’s worth the effort. Why? Sometimes a headnote includes important tips. Other times it’s a way to convince readers to take a chance on a recipe, even if it takes extra effort to make or uses unfamiliar ingredients. Some headnotes are all about a charming story while others give attribution to others.
Regardless of their content, every headnote makes a case for the existence of the recipe or cookbook. Here’s why:
1. Headnotes matter for all kinds of reasons.
Headnotes make your cookbook engaging and complete. Think of a cookbook as an album. Sure, you can listen to a Spotify playlist of singles. But sometimes you want to hear a whole album.
Headnotes serve several purposes. They might be:
- Part of the glue that holds the cookbook “album” together
- A case for why a reader should make this recipe and trust you
- A way to give readers a heads-up about a step that takes extra time
- An opportunity to instruct, advise or work with a specific ingredient or how to shop for it.
- An education.
Headnotes allow you to attribute sources of inspiration. This is even more important today. Attributing a recipe to someone else (whether it’s a dish from their restaurant, a recipe from a cookbook author that you’ve made for ten years and riffed on, etc.) does not diminish your work. Rather, it allows you to acknowledge someone else’s work while also telling the story about your connection with it.
I assume you are not taking someone else’s recipe and publishing it as is. If you are, you’ll need permission from the author and publisher, so ask for details before proceeding. If you were to get permission to publish someone else’s recipe, you’d still need a headnote that explains why it’s so great that you had to have it in your book.
2. A writing prompt might help create a great recipe headnote.
Most cookbook headnotes strive to engage, inspire, and/or instruct. But say you’re stumped. You have a recipe for a green garlic soufflé, but you don’t really know what to say about it in a headnote. Try one or two of these writing prompts:
- When did you become familiar with the feature ingredient? (What made you gravitate to green garlic?)
- Does the recipe require attribution? (Maybe you had an old Chez Panisse cookbook with twice-baked green garlic soufflés, and your recipe was inspired by that recipe.)
- Is this something from your family/childhood/upbringing/cultural background? (You come from a family of green garlic farmers.)
- What drew you to making it in the first place? (You had a craving for a savory soufflé with some punch.)
- Why is this the best version of the recipe? (Are there some little-known tricks involved in getting a soufflé to rise?)
- Did you learn how to make this recipe the hard way? (You made this 100 times and failed until you let the eggs come to room temperature.)
- Why should anyone care about this recipe? Sell readers on why they should try it. (Justify why they should seek out green garlic and Gruyere and spend time preparing soufflés at home.)
3. Your first draft will not be your last.
After you write your first draft of a headnote, put it aside and work on another headnote. Come back to this headnote in a day or a week or at some point down the road. Re-read and make it better. Read it with your other headnotes in the chapter. Consider the following:
- Length. Are some of your headnotes long and some short? Does the headnote length make sense in the overall context of the book? Give too-long headnotes a trim. This is especially important if you want your recipes to fit on one page. If you’re not sure, ask your editor. If short headnotes feel a bit thin or lack your voice or point of view, add more description or context. Think about how the whole book fits together. When I wrote A16 Food + Wine, the gelato recipes had short headnotes because of the overview about gelato at the start of the chapter. Even so, my editor checked to ensure the length was intentional, since the rest of the recipes in the chapter had long headnotes.
- Tone. Is the tone consistent? Reading batches of headnotes together can help you weed out the outliers in tone. Reading headnotes out loud helps check tone and ensures you’re sounding human. Tone is especially crucial if you are writing with others. When I wrote La Buvette with Camille Fourmont, some of my headnotes had too much instruction (“do this to get the best results” kind of thing). To Camille, this made the recipes seem too complicated. We solved this issue by including recipe notes at the end of the recipe. It was a simple fix that helped ensure the headnote tone was in line with the big-picture tone.
- Content. This is a relative of tone, but it’s about the substance. Are the headnotes consistent in the type and style of stories they contain? When I worked on the Burma Superstar cookbook, the editor felt there weren’t enough stories about people at the restaurant to make the headnotes cohesive. I added more to round out the book.
- Sameness. Ask yourself if too many headnotes start with the same word. Are too many headnotes educating readers on this or that ingredient? (Put repetitive information in a dedicated ingredients section.) Are there a few good, captivating stories? Mix educational aspects with personal story. Include a disaster story or a success story. Maybe one recipe took many attempts to get right. Maybe a recipe fell into place on the first try and you never looked back.
4. Build in time to edit.
Headnotes aren’t afterthoughts. At their best, they give structure and substance to the world you are building within the covers of your book.
To make them count, allocate time in your writing process to edit them. Remember to instruct while also telling stories that make you sound human. When headnotes tell a broader story, that’s the best way to encourage people to spend time with your cookbook.
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You might also like:
- What Makes an Award-Winning Cookbook?
- Paula Forbes Likes Cookbooks that Treat Cookng as Part of Life
- How to Find Inspiration in Recipe Development