Do you harbor a secret (or not-so-secret) desire to become the vegan Julia Child, complete with your own culinary empire built on a foundation of cookbooks, television cooking shows, and beautifully designed kitchen gadgets embellished with your brand's logo? Odds are good you've already got your own blog, so how do you take it to the next level and get your work noticed by the right pair of publishing-pro eyes? Swell! interviewed two seasoned food editors--Vegetarian Times' Mary Margaret Chappell and VegNews magazine's Jennifer Chen--and asked them to share their vision on what makes a compelling story, to explain what ingredients go into a memorable pitch, and how they think the next big culinary star of the vegan universe might get her start.
Part of a food editor's job is fielding pitches from freelancers hoping to grab your attention with their great idea for a feature. What special ingredients make a pitch stand out from all the others in the slush pile?
Mary Margaret Chappell: For me, the best pitches are the ones that are concise and have a strongly developed angle or “hook.” The best example I can give is a pitch on beans I received a few years back. Beans are a staple in vegetarian cooking. Beans find their way into many, many recipes in Vegetarian Times. But beans can be pretty boring. The pitch I received from the freelance writer began like this:
“This New Year's, you can bring yourself good luck and good health all at once! Beans are a traditional New Year's dish around the world, from Italy (chickpeas) to Germany (lentils or split peas) to Japan (red beans) to Brazil (lentils).”
In two sentences, she piqued my interest (I didn’t know about Japan!), told me what issue she was pitching the article for (January – New Year’s), presented an interesting and unusual angle, and showed me she could write. The pitch went on to touch on a little more history as well as the health benefits of beans and concluded with “I propose an article on beans, with a focus on the tradition of eating beans on New Year's in cultures around the globe, and my own original recipes, including but not limited to those listed below." And that was it. A short bio, a few links to her work…I think I wrote her back within the hour.
Jennifer Chen: For VegNews, the only part of the food section that’s open to freelance pitches is the main food feature. My regular columnists write the rest of the food section. For me, I love it when freelancers have clearly read the magazine and know that I’m looking for six recipes based on a theme. I don’t need actual recipes, but what sells me is when a writer has a fun, trendy theme and gives me six recipe descriptions that totally wow me. Sell me on the food. Make it sound super delicious. For me, the vegan food scene is so incredibly creative, so make me want your recipes.
What are some of the common mistakes that would-be food writers make, either in their query letters or in the stories themselves?
Mary Margaret Chappell: The biggest mistake a freelancer can make is to not proofread and fine-tune a query. You wouldn’t believe how many pitches I receive with spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes, and mentions of meat (which show the query has been mail-merged to a bunch of different publications). I politely decline (and subsequently delete) these queries almost immediately. If a writer cannot turn in a pitch that is correct, how can I trust him/her to turn in copy that is not also riddled with errors? Plus, we live in a world of automatic spellchecks and grammar-correcting functions. You don’t even have to know the rules to get them right.
Another mistake is to not do the homework before sending a pitch. Again, we live in a world where a writer can look at the magazine’s website and even buy a single issue of Vegetarian Times on a tablet or computer. There’s no excuse for pitching a story that’s nothing like what would or could be published in the magazine. A quick look at both the magazine and the website will also save a freelancer from putting together a query on a subject that has already been covered in the magazine recently. For example, VT just did a big feature on veg restaurants in Paris, which means we won’t be revisiting Paris (or France, for that matter) for a while. That means: Don’t pitch me a story on Provence! Even if it’s the best pitch I’ve ever received, I’m just going to have to turn it down.
If a freelancer really wants a pitch to be read--and noticed--it should be as well crafted as a résumé. A writer really has one chance at catching an editor’s attention. If you blow it, it’s usually blown for good. So make the most of it and write the query letter and pitch as if you’re applying for a job. In essence, you are.
Jennifer Chen: The very basic mistakes I see are not spelling my name correctly (I’ve gotten “Dear Judy”) and sending me vegetarian recipes. We are an entirely vegan magazine so asking me if you could just use real cheese instead of vegan cheese doesn’t work for me. Lastly, I’ve gotten pitches that are very basic descriptions. For example, “I’d like to write a feature on this cuisine,” but then they don’t tell me what typical dishes from that cuisine are, how they would veganize them, and why this particular cuisine should be featured now.
What advice would you offer to a fledgling writer who dreams of developing a career as a food writer, editor, or cookbook author?
Mary Margaret Chappell: Take some classes. Both writing and cooking involve some talent, but they also require a lot of skill and practice. Classes stretch you, test you, force you to be disciplined and give you two things you don’t have if you’re just writing and cooking on your own: guidance and an audience. (Your friends and family will always tell you your writing is wonderful and your food is superb, but fellow students will be more ready to critique.) Classes also help you network by putting you in touch with other writers and cooks. Instructors are usually professionals who can help you network as well, or, at the very least, point you in the right direction when it comes to pitching stories and getting published.
Jennifer Chen: Develop a kick-ass food blog. The photos are important. Have fun writing it and it will show. Food blogs are often my first way of checking out a potential writer or photographer. It helps me see their writing style, what they’ve developed, and why I would want to work with them.
What specific writers, books, magazines, or other resources from the past or present would you recommend writers seek out as examples of really great food writing?
Mary Margaret Chappell: This is such a tough question! Right now, I subscribe to Texture, an app that gives me access to lots of different magazines so I can pick and choose month to month which ones I want to read. In terms of books, I’m a big fan of the American writers of the '70s and '80s--Craig Claiborne, Paula Wolfert, James Villas, Marcella Hazan, Diana Kennedy, Ken Hom--who were the pioneers when it came to introducing Americans to ethnic cooking. Their writing styles are clear but still so enticing--every word matters in what they write. These people were writing about cuisines and ingredients that are now the hottest trends in food circles--and they were doing it 30 and 40 years ago, but without all the sensationalizing. I also love the American-cuisine focused writers of that time like Marion Cunningham and John Thorne. And there’s no better food writer to read when you’re feeling blue than Laurie Colwin.
Jennifer Chen: I love the app Texture, which is like Netflix for magazines. It gives me access to hundreds of magazines and I often download Bon Appétit, Every Day With Rachael Ray, Saveur, and Food & Wine to see what the popular food trends are and what we can veganize. My food columnists are fantastic recipe writers and chefs, so check out their work (Brian Patton of The Sexy Vegan blog, Spork Foods, Julie Hasson, and Jackie Sobon of Vegan Yack Attack).
What's one food-related story you're hungry to read that no one's written yet?
Mary Margaret Chappell: I’m from the South, so I long for the day when grits will get the same star treatment as quinoa! I would also love for someone to come along who will truly deconstruct and demystify Indian cooking. I love Indian food, but making it doesn’t come naturally to me because the techniques are so different from the European ones that are most familiar to us all. Right now, I’m working on an online vegan baking class for Vegetarian Times, and oh, what I would have given for a vegan baking book or article that had the same research, insight and precision as Rose Levy Berenbaum’s (another great American food writer from the '70s and '80s!) Cake Bible and Pie and Pastry Bible! I think vegan baking has come a long way, but I also think it has a long way to go to be more than just a way to replace eggs and dairy.
Jennifer Chen: Vegan seafood. One of my food photographers, Erin Wysocarski of Olives for Dinner, is trying to perfect a vegan shrimp, which is incredibly hard to do. I would love it if we could feature vegan lobster, shrimp, and even a clam. It would be a culinary feat!
Inspired to begin writing and maybe even draft your irresistible pitch letter? Great! You can meet Mary Margaret Chappell in person at Swell!'s food-and-travel-writing retreat in Nice this April, where she'll be leading a workshop on (surprise!) food writing. Or, send her your most tantalizing food-related queries at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to appear in the pages of VegNews? Send your thoughtfully crafted vegan food-feature queries to Jennifer Chen at email@example.com.
"A writer really has one chance at catching an editor’s attention. If you blow it, it’s usually blown for good. So make the most of it and write the query letter and pitch as if you’re applying for a job. In essence, you are."
"Food blogs are often my first way of checking out a potential writer or photographer. It helps me see their writing style, what they’ve developed, and why I would want to work with them."