Writing is a lot like preparing a stew. It takes preparation, effort, time, feedback and seasoning.
Through these five simple steps, I explain why writing a blog post, academic article or longer piece of work is like cooking a stew. And at the end of this post, there’s a bonus step for writers with a sweet tooth.
Step One: The Ingredients
You can’t cook a stew with just water, just like you can’t write without having something to say.
Many cooks keep clippings from their favourite chefs and recipe books. If you want to write, consider keeping a record of books you want to read or quotes that inspire you.
Lots of writers also keep journals where they record daily observations about their lives or work. Essentially, these journals are where writers gather their ingredients for their next work.
You can do so on your phone or in a paper notebook (I like the over-priced Moleskine notebooks). A notepad and paper by your bedside is a good idea for when inspiration strikes at 4am. Alternatively, apps like Day One make it easier to journal on a mobile phone.
The habit of daily observations is a good practice for any writer. Even if these observations sound silly in hindsight, you may be surprised by the occasional meaty chunk.
Journalists sometimes receive ingredients for a story from their editor (i.e. here’s today’s news agenda) or a source (i.e. “I have information for you about…”). Journalists also spend time compiling lists of possible interviewees and deciding on questions to ask, just as a chef shops around for the finest ingredients.
Academics decide for themselves what they want their work to taste like, albeit with the help of a tutor. They also spend time reading academic papers in their area of study and conducting qualitative and quantitative research.
Bloggers gather their ingredients by signing up to various blogs, using a feed reader to aggregate content and by keeping up to date on industry trends.
Step Two: Prepare
Just a chef needs to wash vegetables and peel potatoes, a writer needs to spend time preparing his or her ingredients.
Lots of writers have various routines they follow before writing. Some people like to cook while enjoying a glass of wine. (I like to write and drink coffee).
Other writers describe how they disable their internet access when they want to get some serious work done.
If you are an academic, the preparation of ingredients for a paper may involve taking key findings from your researched papers and applying it to your area of study. This stage also usually involves completing a literature review.
If you are a journalist, this stage involves interviews with sources and newsworthy figures. It also involves collating relevant news articles and findings.
And if you are a blogger, this stage means focusing on one theme or topic and brainstorming or outlining your blog post.
Step Three: Cook
A good sentence, like a stew, isn’t going to write itself. Some pieces of work are light and easy to prepare. Other meaty pieces of work take longer to cook.
An academic will write several drafts of their paper or chapter, all the while assessing how it compares with current literature and weighing it against their central thesis.
A journalist will type out transcripts of their interviews, and consult with their editor or colleagues. They will search for a newsworthy angle and may even draw conclusions, depending on the tone of their piece.
A blogger will look for other relevant posts to link to and frame the topic in such a way that it appeals to readers. She or he will also consider supporting multimedia content.
Step Four: Season
Cooks recommend leaving a stew simmering for several hours before serving. A piece of writing is best left to marinate in a drawer (be that physical or digital).
This way, when you look at your work after a break, the words won’t be as hot, and you’ll be able to see if you need to season the piece with more facts or spice it up with some colour.
For an academic, this could involve letting a chapter rest for a few days and then making some quick edits before submitting to tutor for feedback.
A journalist, may have less time for their stew to prepare and will normally consult with their editor or sub-editor to finalise their piece.
A blogger has more leeway here, as they are normally their own bosses. They can take this time to season posts with relevant links, pictures, meta descriptions, ALT tags and a call to action.
The act of writing is more about turning up than it is about divine moments of inspiration. A lot of the time writing feels like drudgery, but there’s a pleasure in watching your sentences slowly improve.
Step Five: Serve
A good stew is best eaten in company. Lots of writers have this idea that they should write for themselves. Instead, it’s far better to share what you’ve created with friends, family and the wider public.
This essentially involves publishing your work. A blogger will upload their post onto their platform of choice and support it with social media comments. An academic will submit to an identified journal and a journalist will publish a story in a newspaper.
Writing in public forum carries a degree of vulnerability, but it’s a great way develop a consistent, recognisable voice. It also opens the writer up to criticism.
An editor or tutor will provide this anyway (it’s their job), but if you are writing for yourself, consider asking a friend or subscribers to your blog for feedback.
Some criticism may be constructive and some of it won’t help at all. Your fiercest critics could become your biggest enablers for better writing, then again perhaps they just don’t like the taste of stew.
And there’s always an argument for killing those sentences that give you the most pleasure.
Bonus Step: Dessert
Writing is hard work. If you’ve accomplished a writing goal, reward yourself. Journalists tend to get paid for this, but some academics and most bloggers don’t.
A reward could be a short break to watch a favourite TV programme or a walk in the park. If the work is more involved, it could be a guilt free purchase or even a holiday. These writing breaks are important because they refresh the writer’s appetite for new sentences.
And finally, don’t forget to eat out.
Just like dining in a fancy restaurant can give you ideas about what you’d like to cook next, reading other peoples’ works (especially outside your preferred genre) is food for inspiration.
What are your writing tips? Do you even like stew?
Please let me know in the comments section below.