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Advice for Future Food Writers

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Past

- Amanda

Nearly every week for the past decade, someone has written to me to ask for career advice. Except for those messages that went to my spam box, I’ve answered every one. I do it because I too have been in that wandering state, unsure of what’s next. People helped me then, and now I want to keep the karma chain going.

I also help for selfish reasons. Because I like meeting young people with fresh ideas and following their progress; it’s a narrative that I get to observe and enjoy in bits and pieces. A few of the people I’ve spoken with have written books, some have started companies, we’ve hired a couple, and many have succeeded in other fields like law, fashion, and architecture.

What has struck me recently, though, is how sharply and suddenly my spiel to aspiring food writers has changed. Five years ago, I would take people through what I thought were the best steps toward getting hired at the limited number of food publications, and/or putting themselves in the best position to write books. This usually involved suggesting they go to cooking school, or, better yet, work in restaurants. Then I offered a few tips for getting a foot in the door at a newspaper food section like the L.A. Times or national magazine like Saveur or Gourmet (getting a face-to-face informational interview so an editor will remember you; getting clips not in your local paper but the smaller publications, like Edible or Gastronomica, that these editors read; structuring a pitch letter so it will catch an editor’s attention; sending editors something you’ve baked – everyone’s a sucker for a home-baked good) – I let them know it would be a difficult road but encouraged them to dive in.

About 2 years ago, I stopped giving this advice: I can no longer responsibly recommend that you drop everything to try to become a food writer. Except for a very small group of people (some of whom are clinging to jobs at magazines that pay more than the magazines' business models can actually afford), it’s nearly impossible to make a living as a food writer, and I think it’s only going to get worse.

If I weren’t working on Food52, I would not be a full-time writer because, even as an experienced journalist and best-selling author, I would not be able to pay my bills. Just 10 years ago, food writers with staff jobs were able to earn $80,000 to $150,000 a year, and freelancers were regularly paid $2 a word; today, these jobs barely exist. Advertising revenues, already on a steady decline, plummeted online. Online, $35,000 to $60,000 a year and $.25 to $.75 a word is more like it. New publications simply can’t pay very well, if at all. Just ask our writers.

And the real problem with these figures is that they're static – you don’t start at $40,000 and work your way up to $80,000. You either happily stay at $40,000, or leave and let the next young, bright writer take your spot. This $40,000 also comes with many fewer perks – no expense accounts and little travel budget. In 1998, the New York Times sent me to France for two weeks to find some stories. Today, this would be unimaginable.

Future

So what happens now if someone comes to me wanting to become a writer? I don’t totally crush their dreams. I just step on them a bit -- before trying to help the aspirant re-imagine his or her future in a whole new way.

Start a blog, pitch magazines, go after a book contract, I say, but instead of relying on writing as your bread and butter – and instead of torturing yourself with the rejection and struggle for respectable payment that this will entail -- look to other interests in the food industry. We’re in a moment of great change. There’s never been more opportunity to make a difference, to shift the way we think about buying and eating food, to create something new, to start a business. This is what you should be doing.

Don’t feel glum; this new era is actually better. Everyone who can write well is now welcome to. At the time I got started in the 1990s, I was considering becoming a bread baker, but you couldn’t get anyone to hire you as a writer if you worked “in the field.” There was widespread snobbery toward non-professional writers, and an assumption that it would be a conflict of interest – or just too much self-interest -- for a chef to write about cooking or a farmer about raising chickens.

The observers kept out the doers, a system that never really made sense. Now people want to hear from the doers. Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef at Prune, is a sought-after writer with a best-selling memoir; David Chang, founder of the Momofuku empire, has launched his own hit magazine, Lucky Peach; and Tamar Adler, a cook and csa director, has written “An Everlasting Meal.”

Blogs changed this exclusionary system, both for the better and the worse. While they gave an exciting new platform to those formerly shut out of gatekeeper publications like Food & Wine, The New York Times and Gourmet, they also created a new, more democratic but competitive arena in which, ultimately, most would fail. The best blogs would grow into their own self-sustaining brands, and the rest would be left to struggle and starve, or subsist as an unpaid hobby. The brand-achievers, the talented writers and photographers behind SmittenKitchen, The Pioneer Woman, and Simply Recipes are able to make more money than I would have dreamed of earning when I was a staff writer at the New York Times (then considered the pinnacle of food writing jobs). They are earning this money in part because they began before the huge growth spurt in blogging, but mostly because they've successfully built a committed and large audience that advertisers are willing to pay to reach -- and they should be lauded for both their prescience and business smarts.

Blogs also turned content into an inexpensive commodity, which spread ad dollars thinner and put even more downward pressure on writers’ pay.

You can aim to become one of these brands, but the journey will be unpredictable. Better to see writing as part of a more personally-crafted career that will allow you to pursue an array of interests -- and a career that you will need to treat in an entrepreneurial way, inventing and reinventing what you do along the way. Your lifestyle may still not be that lavish, but it will at least be yours to shape. You will have the chance to have a much more varied and engaging career; I wish mine had begun this way.

And so, if you want my advice, here’s what I would do if I just graduated from college and wanted to become a food writer:

1. Right away: get your hands dirty, in as many places as possible. Skip journalism and cooking school. Instead, use that money to support yourself while you do mostly low-paying food jobs. Wash dishes in a restaurant. Work on a farm. Get a job in a food factory. Assist a commercial fisherman. Intern at a start-up (I know the perfect place for you…). Volunteer at a co-op.

2. Broaden your skills so you can control your destiny. Take a photography class. Learn to edit video. Study HTML and CSS. If you’re entrepreneurial, go to business school.

3. Never eat the same meal twice. If you want to be knowledgeable about food, you need to experience it yourself.

4. Later on, try to work at a place that’s making change, where you get to become expert in some area of our food system. (See Stone Barns, Five Acre Farms, Randwiches, Real Time Farms)

5. Create a blog and write about what you do.

6. Start your own venture. An online service for pantry staples a la Diapers.com. Start a network of small slaughterhouses (there's a need). Create a solution for distributing the goods of small farmers beyond farmers markets.

7. Last but sort of least: write articles or a book on the side.

Photos by James Ransom

Tags: food writing, blogs, career, pay, new era

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Comments (177)

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25 days ago Cinnamin

I loved reading this. I'vd read Cooking For Mr Latte and several of Ruth Reichl's memoirs, and it's so obvious how food writing and budgets have changed over the years. Your advice is practical and can actually be put to use; not just vague, up-in-the-air internet philosophy like "create content consistently and comment and share!!" (Which is, of course, important, but you need perspective beyond that.)

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24 days ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

Glad you found it useful -- I felt like people were shying away from the facts and was trying to share what I knew. Thanks, and best wishes!

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about 1 month ago nano zachary

Good morning Amanda...just sent a thank you to your editors...went ahead and contacted Pat Conroy for his permission to use a link for one of my favorite cookbooks, "Recipes of My Life"...his editor sent me a very nice response....thanks for the good advice!

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about 1 month ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

You're welcome!

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about 1 month ago nano zachary

So much fun to find this site. I had no idea I was reading the writing of an author of two of my favorite books. A few months ago I decided to retire..which has joyfully been unsuccessful. I purchased the domain name Virgin Baker with the dream to teach myself to bake...after spending many years working as a professional sous chef. ..and the idea that I would start a blog about the experience. I have been a writer all my life and thought this would be a good marriage. But I found myself researching and reading so many great blogs...which helped me achieve my goal of learning to bake..that my goal changed. I've decided to start a small catering company focused on creating interesting food for intimate sized groups. Many thanks for the excellent advice!

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about 1 month ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

You're welcome, and congrats! Glad you found Food52. Best wishes with your catering company, and hope it's as gratifying as it is challenging!

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4 months ago George Butler

I totally agree with this article. I've been a food writer for three years (if anyone wants to follow in my footsteps, the book I recommend is "How to Write about Food: How to Become a Published Restaurant Critic, Food Journalist, Cookbook Author, and Food Blogger" by S.J. Sebellin-Ross). If my partner didn't have a health plan and 401k and take care of big expenses such as holidays and our car, I could not pursue my dream. I love the work but I know I will never get rich.

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about 1 month ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

Thanks, George.

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4 months ago Ethan Mellor

Thanks for the article, Amanda!
I do not agree with the prices that you brought. In my company -http://assignmentemperor... writers receive $ 2. When analyzing the labor market, it is impossible to find cheaper.

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10 months ago Karl

Hi

Thanks for the great article. I have a small question. I am a science and health writer and Im planing to travel to Malaysia early next year as part of a feature story I have been commisoned. For the story I will be living among an indigenous tribe trying to capture a glimpse of their life in writing. Anyway, I was wondering if there would be someone interested in an article on the food enjoyed by this tribe. Do you perhaps know some potential magazines that could be interested in receiving a pitch for such story?

Thanks

Karl
https://www.linkedin.com...

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about 1 year ago Valerie Vogel

Hi Amanda, I'm interested in becoming a food writer. I hold a Bachelor's of Science from the Scripts Howard School of Journalism at Ohio University, I currently work as an Executive Editor for a magazine at a recovery center for people with disabilities. I have also taught gourmet cooking to the members of the center whereupon we fed 32 people a week. I'm addicted to the cooking channel and I cook daily. I've worked for magazines and newspapers and I've worked in the food industry. I welcome your opinion on whether or not I have any kind of viable experience to break into food writing. Thank you! Valerie Vogel

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about 1 year ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

Hi Valerie, thanks for your note. It sounds like you have a good amount of relevant experience, and that you should begin pitching food stories to publications. Good luck and keep with it!

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about 1 year ago 10 Legs in the Kitchen

Amanda - I am not sure if you are still answering comments for this post but I feel compelled to ask a question nonetheless. I grew up working in my grandparents' restaurant, went on to work in many restaurants in the Pacific NW and have had (and am still having) a long career in commercial interior architecture. I am obsessed with food and I love to write, hence, last year began a food blog. You mentioned that your advice was geared toward someone just out of college; what advice might you give someone like me who would like to switch careers mid-life, from design to food?

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about 1 year ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

Hi there -- I'm not sure I'd have very different advice -- although it helps that you have an established career to at least fall back on. Seems like the best thing to do would be to freelance on the side, and perhaps try to shift your architecture work toward kitchen design. But please understand I'm making a suggestion based on your short note -- I'm sure there's a lot to consider and I don't want to make any assumptions!

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about 1 year ago Gregory George

I constantly (and in fact, just now) add this realistic and memorable sage piece to my twtter feed. Truely words worth remembering and sharing. Thanks Amanda..

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about 1 year ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

Thanks, Greg!

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about 1 year ago Donna Barstow

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about 1 year ago Donna Barstow

I appreciate the actual numbers in this article! I've been in some of the venues you mention, yet here I am still, a little chocolate blog, with cartoons. It's not that I want to be a food writer, exactly, but I just love writing about desserts. And I'm practical, so I want to be paid. More.
Thanks for your sharing here, Amanda!

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about 1 year ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

Completely understandable! Thanks for your note.

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about 1 year ago Angel Laura

I have been seeking information on this topic for the past few hours and found your post to be well written and has solid information. Thanks for sharing such an useful advice for food bloggers... food delivery

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over 1 year ago sweetashoneynz

That is a beautiful article. The biggest issue is that everyone want to make money with food writing. I love writing about food on my blog but I do it for love and passion and I am selling my baking to pay bills. That is probably the easiest way !

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over 1 year ago Jason

I studied photography and journalism at uni, where I was struck with the cooking bug. I decided food writing seemed a good direction to head in, so got relevant work experience at magazines, with freelancers etc. When I finished my degree (summer 2012) I couldn't get any Journalism jobs, so I started photographing food, which thus far hasn't proved much easier in terms of employment. I have now been offered a year's apprenticeship as a chef, which would mean giving up the photography (for the moment at least) and a messy CV, but obviously I would gain knowledge and experience in the food world. What should I do? Thoughts appreciated!

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over 1 year ago Jason

PS - Thanks for this article; very informative! :)

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over 1 year ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

Hi Jason, thanks for your note. I'd focus on what you'd like to do in the food world (other than writing or photography) and work toward a good (and paying!) job in this area. Then you can later get back to writing and photography on the side. Having a specific area of expertise in the food industry will also help you build your knowledge and reputation so that when you do write, you'll likely get better traction. For instance, I've been seeing a lot of bartenders writing about cocktails in larger publications -- they established their reputations, and then began writing about their craft.
This is just one point of view, so please talk to a bunch of people and of course, listen to your gut, before you make a decision. Best wishes.

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over 1 year ago Jason

Hi Amanda, thanks so much for your response, that is indeed helpful. Best, Jason

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over 1 year ago ronaldjosephkule

How was it to play in the movie, Amanda?

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over 1 year ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

A little strange and very fun.

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over 1 year ago ronaldjosephkule

P.S. Your article is generous with its advice and works on several levels.

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over 1 year ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

Thank you -- I'm so glad to hear this. I'm sorry to tell you that I don't know where Elaine Tait is. I'll ask on Twitter and let you know if I hear anything.

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over 1 year ago ronaldjosephkule

Amanda, thanks for your reply. Elaine's whereabouts is a real mystery. Did you know her personally at all?

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over 1 year ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

I didn't know her, but Craig LaBan, the restaurant critic for the Inquirer, wrote me back on Twitter to say: Last I talked 2 Elaine Tait (4 Chef Tell obit) she was living on Md Eastern Shore painting & eating oysters

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over 1 year ago ronaldjosephkule

Amanda, thanks so much for your research with Craig. At least, I can focus there and see if I find a string to pull.

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over 1 year ago ronaldjosephkule

Amanda, would you happen to know where Elaine Tait is these days? She was the food writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1970's and 1980's, and a fan of my (late) brother-in-law, Chef Tell Erhardt. I wrote Tell's biography and would like to get a copy to Tait -- the book is dedicated, in part, to her for her inspiration.

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over 1 year ago Onil Chibas

Great article and very helpful advice to develop as a genuine food professional and not just a food celebrity. Thank you.

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over 1 year ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.


Glad you found it helpful!

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almost 2 years ago Patrick Hieger

It's nice to read these bits of advice and realize that you're already doing nearly 90% of this. First book due out December, and I'm seven months in on this beauty: www.comosur.com. Trained chef, writer, caterer, and so on... Promoting the food industry, not slaving in it!
Food52 is great. Keep up the good work.

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almost 2 years ago Amanda Hesser

Amanda is a co-founder of Food52.

Thank you, and congrats.

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about 2 years ago Deepak

Hello Miss Amanada,
it was nice to read your article and inspiring too.I am working in Dubai as a chef at the moment. The love for food and the passion to innovate has helped me develop the skills needed to prepare quality dishes with the right taste, texture, appearance and combination of the finest ingredients.However the urge to write about food,the magic behind each ingredient and healthy recipes and tips is what I am wishing to do.I would like to no as to go about this..Any help from you will be appreciated.