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A friend emailed with a problem. Her gardening club loved her tales of digging in the dirt and her near-obsessive, homesteader-like canning and preserving activities that they asked her to write an article for their newsletter.

Then panic set in, so she asked me how write an article, which is funny for two reasons. One, that she asked me; I feel like I fumble through this. And two, her emails are already full of article-ready descriptions of her fruits and her labor, like this one:

I’ve been hanging out my bathroom window picking fresh figs. I’ve got a jar of figs in vodka. Will be doing another in bourbon later. Fig jam and chutney are on the list for this weekend. I guess there are worse problems to have.

But her question made me realize that we often want to know what steps to take for a specific endeavor. There is no lack of information out there but there is often too much and not the right information…for what we need. My brother, who is a great cook, once called to ask me how to fry an egg. See what I mean?

This is by no means comprehensive or in order of importance. But this is what I told her, and it’s a good place to start:

Trust your voice. Voice is important and one already exists in your emails to me. It’s too easy to sound stiff and awkwardly academic just because you have to write for publication. Don’t let that happen.

Read similar articles. Reread articles in your cooking magazines but with a new eye. Notice how they’re constructed and what devices are used. I just read one on butter, for example, and the author started with personal anecdotes and then went into history a few paragraphs in.

Write all the way through. Then go back and edit. Don’t rethink or fuss with the words as you go. It’ll stop ideas from coming. Really, DON’T.

Make it make sense. Hint at what you plan to cover in the first paragraph. If it’s a longer piece, add subheads. I find that adding subheads forces me to create a logical structure. Ideally, there should be an overall point; and not just be a rambling essay on your thoughts about growing and preserving food, mainly because there’s too much to say on that topic in one short article.

Add a quote or cite a reference. This adds credibility and texture to an article. (I looked back in one of her emails and she was one step ahead of me as she quoted Thomas Jefferson: “On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs of Aunt Sally’s cellar.” Note the brilliant metaphor!)

Be descriptive. As they say “Show, don’t tell.” Don’t just say fig. Instead, describe its texture and color, its squishiness. Like, “You’ll know a fig is ripe if it feels a bit like a woman’s breast.” Maybe not that, but you get the idea.

Think like the reader. What do you want when you read about the same subject? What makes you like an article? What tips do you find useful? It doesn’t hurt to ask the editor what their readership looks for.

I forgot to tell her two things. (Are you reading Eileen?)

Walk away. Then come back a day or two later. The same holds true for any creative endeavor (we’re both designers by vocation; picklers by avocation). You have to put aside your efforts and let the ideas marinate—not unlike figs in bourbon. Active thought, followed by incubation, followed by ah-ha moment…or so we hope on that last one.

Have fun.

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