I’ve always known that I could learn a lot about writing from the books on my shelves – both fiction and non-fiction.
Only recently did it occur to me that I could also learn something from my cookery books.
Zadie Smith, novelist and essayist. Portrait by me.
Before I dive into what I have learned from cookery books, a bit of context.
The other day, I picked up a copy of The New Yorker, a special issue devoted to food, containing fine writing by lots of writers – not all of them still with us. One page contained an essay by Zadie Smith, pictured above. It was a light piece, witty and droll in the classic New Yorker manner, comparing the food cultures of her native London and New York where she lives.
In writing about takeouts / takeaways, Zadie Smith draws multiple parallels and distinctions; while beautifully demonstrating that writing a comparison of two things1 needn’t be boring and listy.
I scanned the page on my phone, and highlighted bits I enjoyed:
- how she hooks readers into a subject that is hardly “must read”
- how even a single line of dialogue turns descriptive prose into a scene, a story – in short, brings the whole thing alive
- one example of many in which she says, essentially, “this over here, and that over there”
- her choice of a surprising word (treasurable) to describe what sounds awful
- how she starts saying “you” when she really means me, to put the reader in her shoes.
Smith’s essay in The New Yorker. Notes by me.
Smith’s writing about food culture, and the particular nature of that writing – the comparison of two things, taught for centuries as a fundamental part of classical rhetoric – got me thinking about the parallels between cooking and rhetoric.
Whether you are preparing words or food, you need to follow the same five steps:
- Invention (where you work out what you’re up to)
- Arrangement (choose and prepare your material)
- Style (fancy it up2)
- Memory (ensure that you don’t muck up the next bit)
- Delivery (you know what this means)
This weekend, I had the pleasure of delivering an in-person talk to an audience, my first in six months since publishing A Modest Book About How To Make An Adequate Speech3.
I did it in the open air, in front of Hampstead Parish Church, where a decently sized audience were browsing through boxes of second-hand books. At 12pm, just after the church bell stopped ringing, I started speaking.
My topic was not speaking but “The Art Of Writing.” All the same, I told my audience that by sharing my insights on writing I hoped to demonstrate an adequate speech, and that they were welcome to buy one of the copies of my book, which were piled on a table near me.
In the pre-amble to that talk, I described the task facing a writer as being, essentially, like catering.
First, you must have some idea of the occasion for which you are cooking, and who will be eating. After all, nobody gets up at 4am to roast a chicken or fry eggs for nobody in particular.
Does the same apply to writing? I think so, yes. I find it very difficult to write for nobody in particular. When I wrote for The Sunday Times – as I told the lovely people outside the church – I could easily have been overwhelmed if I thought about the million anonymous people who read the paper every week (million!).
And I lost confidence in writing specifically for the editor who had commissioned me because they tended to come back and tell me that the person they reported to wanted something entirely different.
My solution was to write with two specific individuals in mind, both relatives: an elderly great aunt and my own daughter, then aged around eight. Neither was particularly well educated, but both were naturally bright.
It didn’t matter that neither of them would (probably) ever read what I wrote. I just needed to have them in mind.
It should probably go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: on other occasions, I would keep other ideal readers in my head.
Having identified the guests at your meal, you can think about what to serve up.
You will get very different results if you cook the same ingredients using different methods:
- A wok
- A steamer
- A grill
And you will get very different results if, using the same method, you try different ingredients:
- Tofu, or canned tuna?
- Chili pepper, or vanilla essence?
Plainly, a writer’s ingredients are not the same as a chef’s.
A writer can achieve the same variety by altering (even slightly) the method or the contents:
- Prose, or verse?
- On paper, or digital?
- With dialogue or without?
- You can set essentially the same story in Tudor England or another planet in the distant future
- Your main character can be a man, or a woman (and so on)
- Your sonnet could be full of nostalgia, or jokes
Writing this, I’m suddenly overwhelmed by the thought that this is bleedingly obvious. If so: sorry. But another part of me knows that people often forget that they have this freedom.
In my experience working with people who are writing, I find that it can help to overcome stuckness when I suggest that they make a dramatic change along these lines.
Frequently, they tell me they “can’t” do this – that there would be outrage if they submitted a technical paper to a client in verse, for instance.
Well, maybe. For what it’s worth, that hasn’t been my own experience. Several times in my life, I have submitted something in the “wrong” format and been very nervous about doing so, only to be rewarded for taking that risk4.
But I don’t want anybody to take unnecessary risks, so allow me to give you this reassurance: just doing this at all, as an exercise, can be enough to free you from whatever was blocking you in your more conventional approach.
When I was little, walking home with my mother and my brother, and feeling hungry, I often asked my mother what we were going to have for dinner. Frustratingly, she replied almost as often: “Wait and see.”
Oops. I drew this the wrong way round5.
I mention this tantalising utterance because, a few hours after delivering that talk at HPC, I received an email:
I hope this finds you enjoying your weekend in the sunshine.
I walked past the parish church gates in Hampstead yesterday at around 1pm and noticed the sign about your event with there…that I had just missed!
I was absolutely gutted to have not known about this so I could attend, and it has been bothering me since. Therefore, although I know it is a strange request, and a long shot, I thought I would ask to see if there was at least any chance of finding out the answer to what “the two best ways to make your writing compelling” are?
Even if it is just two bullet points of a few words, I would be so grateful to know what, in your mind, those two best ways are!
I am trying to write my first novel, and it is slightly driving me round the bend.
My sincerest thanks in advance and warm wishes, V___
I should explain that my talk had been trailed with the promise that I would reveal “the two best ways to make your writing compelling”. The email from V___ was a wonderful demonstration of the power of the first of those two ways: the teaser6.
As I explained, during the talk which V___ missed, the teaser must be used with care because it can be irritating (it’s a “teaser”, after all). But essentially it boils down to this: tell people that something exciting is coming up, and hold off delivering it until you’re ready.
In practice, the teaser can be:
- quite obviously a teaser (“wait and see”, or “later, I’ll tell you later the secret of X”),
- less explicitly tantalising (“I was a little surprised by what I discovered”)
- presented as bare fact (“I’ll come back to that point later”)
The teasing quality of the teaser can be even more thoroughly disguised when you simply state something that you know will raise urgent questions in the mind of your reader:
- “It was just after midnight when I got home” (yikes, what did you find there?!)
- “The results of the analysis were unclear” (that’s odd, in what way?)
Every so often, you must let readers off the hook, by delivering what you promised, but not until you have introduced a new hook because if you resolve everything too soon, you’ll lose them. If you think about it, soap operas never end with all the plot developments resolved, because they want you to tune in again tomorrow.
Even the final episode of a Netflix series tends to leave a few things unclear, probably because the makers would quite like to do another series, if this one goes down well.
And what about the other “best way” to make your writing compelling? Well, for obvious reasons, I’m not going to tell you that yet. Wait and see!
I’ve given you the main course. If you want pudding, you will need to place an order. We’re a little busy tonight, but the waiter will be here shortly.
After the talk, I enjoyed signing and drawing pictures in my book3.
1 ↩︎ Comparison. Writing a comparison was, for students of rhetoric, a relatively (comparatively!) advanced exercise, coming only after the mastery of fable, narrative, chreia, proverb, refutation, confirmation, commonplace, encomium and vituperation. I share a sequence of those exercises, and the ones that come after, in the online How To Write course I created for The Idler Academy.
2 ↩︎ Fancy it up. You know what this means. But because this essay is about writing, I thought I might point out that this is a figure of speech that takes one part of speech (in this case, an adjective, “fancy”) and uses it as another part of speech (in this case, a verb). It’s called anthimeria.
3 ↩︎ A Modest Book…. I gave it that title because lots of others in the public speaking market promise to turn you into what seems to me to be some kind of smoothy-chops. I don’t like that. I just believe that we all have a voice, and something to say, and that we can all say it adequately. You can buy the book if you want.
4 ↩︎ Not my experience. For instance, I submitted half of my MA thesis in rhyming couplets (and got a very good mark, thank you for asking), while my exam to certify as an executive coach was submitted as a comic strip (ditto). In both cases, I sought and got permission beforehand.
5 ↩︎ Wrong way round. The drawing is by me, on a screengrab from Google Maps (thank you, Goog). As it stands, the picture suggests we walked home towards Notting Hill Gate. But that’s the way to school. We actually lived at the northern end of Kensington Park Road, so I should have drawn us facing the other way. Heigh ho.
6 ↩︎ Teaser. You could also call it a “trailer”, if you prefer, like the few minutes of film edited to make you want to watch a whole movie before it’s released. But the teasers or trailers I’m writing about here aren’t only to promote something beforehand: they actually go into the body of the work. In that sense, they’re more like the bit at the start of contemporary reality shows, where you get a glimpse of people falling over in high heels / getting shouted at / burning cakes.