If you have a good appetite and a way with words, food writing may be a career option to consider. Not only is doing research for food writing one of the more enjoyable tasks in freelance writing, but you’ll never be short of restaurant recommendations and potential free meals — though you may run short of well-fitting pants.
To become a successful freelance food writer, you’ll need to know how to describe food well. The key to description, at least in traditional literature, is to make focused, concrete comparisons. To see why, ask yourself which sentence you find more appealing: “It was the tastiest shrimp I’ve ever eaten,” or “The lime-pressed garlic shrimp, grilled over applewood, had a texture between the crunch of caramelized sugar and the soft resistance of a medium-rare salmon filet”?
The fundamental law of food writing is to make your reader wish that he or she had some of whatever delicious dish you’re writing about, to make the reader personally invested in the food. And there’s a strange quirk in the human mind: whenever we think about an object or activity, we activate the parts of our brain that turn on whenever we’re interacting with that object or engaged in that activity. In other words: if we think about throwing a baseball, the nerves in our arm twitch. Or, if we think about eating a thick steak, our stomach grumbles, and our mouth waters. When you’re writing about food, you want to activate those same parts of the brain to make your reader feel that he or she is sharing in the experience of eating it. Words like “tasty,” “delicious,” or, worst of all, “really good,” won’t do anything for your reader’s emotions. Only words related to food — or words and images with strong emotional connotations — will really get your readers’ mouths watering.
Once you’ve written your articles, where do you market your food writing? If you live in a large city, you can write for a local newspaper or an alternative paper (i.e. the LA Weekly, the Austin Chronicle, etc.). Millions of people read these papers daily or weekly, and a good portion of those millions read the food section. When anyone in a major city needs to make restaurant reservations for a date, business dinner, party, or other social engagement, they look in the food section of the local paper for hot new restaurant reviews. Stay on top of restaurant openings and closings in your city. New restaurant openings can be your “bread and butter.” Local newspapers and online city guides are always wanting to print new restaurant reviews.
If you have a favorite local hangout that not many people know about, write an article on it. Submit your article with a proper query letter to a local newspaper. You might be the first one to write about the place, throwing needed business their way. In the end, you collect a decent paycheck from the newspaper, along with a published clip, a byline, and hopefully more work and referrals.
Another option is to write for magazines dedicated to food, dining, city nightlife, general lifestyles, or for the tourist market. If you plan to write for magazines, your choice of what to write about becomes much broader. You can write how-to articles, interview pieces, cookware reviews, and so on. If you plan to write for local tourism guides, your best bet is to write restaurant reviews. Tourists may not know about any of the well-known restaurants or diners in the area. Tourism guides provide insight and guidance on what’s hot and what’s not in the area. This means that there’s a steady flow of potential readers for your restaurant reviews and other food writing.
If you don’t live in a large city, it’s much more difficult to become a food writer. The mom n’ pop cafe downtown may have some of the best omelets you’ve ever tasted, but how are you supposed to sell an article if everyone in town already eats at that cafe every Friday night? Consider selling your articles to regional magazines. The Department of Transportation in several US states often publishes a monthly magazine about regional news. The editors of these magazines often look at local restaurant reviews as a source of human interest or a way of boosting out-of-state tourism to non-traditional destinations.
Additionally, you might try writing sample copy for cookbooks, press releases for food suppliers, or ads for food companies. Companies and book publishers hire good food writers to help market anything from new varieties of pasta sauce to gourmet steak dishes. Even a nearby supermarket might be willing to pay for copy in weekly ad flyers.
Unfortunately for rural types, full-time food writing is more often than not an urban game. For urban types, food is one of the products that won’t ever stop being popular, especially when it’s offered as part of a good restaurant experience. Thus food writing means job security, and more importantly than that: it’s just outright enjoyable writing. So get to it!