Writing is like cooking. Well, not just any cooking. It’s probably more like cooking something special for a good friend.
Some people are born with a talent for cooking. They seem to know how something will taste, smell, and look like before even turning on the oven. Others can learn, by reading, watching, and experimenting. With experience, anyone can become a better and more confident cook. But one thing is sure: you have to love cooking if you wish to create a worthy dish.
Know Who You Are Cooking For
“Cooking is about creating something delicious for someone else.” — Ayumi Komura
When you are cooking for someone, you take them on a journey. Each bite they take is like taking a step on the path you have paved for them. If you want them to be with you every step of the way, you should know the people you are taking with you on this journey. You must know they are not only up to it but also that they will love it.
If your friend is a vegetarian, you’d better not cook a steak. No matter how delicious it is, your friend will not appreciate it. If your friend does not like chocolate (as strange as it might sound), you’d better take that into account when choosing the dessert. You have to know the person you are cooking for and aim for what they love. That is the precondition for taking this journey together. And when you design your content, you have to do the same.
When you consider an idea you wish to convey in your content, you must foresee how it will be taken. When you decide to go into a certain level of detail, you should ask yourself whether your audience will be able to follow. When you plan to use an example in your text, you’d better make sure it will contribute to how the reader will understand the idea and not make them deviate from the path.
You have to know the audience before you write a single word or even pick a topic to write about.
Knowing your audience doesn’t mean you will not challenge them and surprise them. To impact your audience (or cook a memorable dish for a friend), you must take them beyond their expectations. You have to stretch the limits of what they already know and lead them in uncharted territory. You have to add some twists or variations to set your content apart from what is already out there. But you have to do all that without surprising your audience with something too radical for them to absorb. If you insist on shocking your audience or challenging everything they know instead of just stretching their limits, you’d better do that consciously.
In writing, just like in cooking, any decision should be intentional, and to make a conscious decision, you must know the people you are cooking your content for.
Collect and Choose Your Ingredients
“Cooking demands attention, patience, and, above all, a respect for the gifts of the earth.” — Judith B Jones
The first thing you learn when you cook professionally is that the quality of what comes into your dish affects the quality of the result. You have to pick the best ingredients you can find to create a delicious, memorable dish. One poor ingredient can ruin what could have been a fantastic dish, and there is not much you can do in retrospect to overcome that devastating effect.
Writing also depends on ingredients. The bits of ideas, views, and statements you add to your content affect the overall result. Each of them should be perfect (or, more accurately, perfect for the goal you aim to achieve). An ineffective idea or an unrelated statement can ruin perfectly good content.
Collecting and choosing the ingredients for your content before you start writing is essential. First, you should collect as many diverse ingredients to have a variety to choose from. Imagine going to the market with only a vague idea of what you wish to cook. Going to different stores, looking for new and exciting flavors, exploring and buying interesting stuff to experiment with are all part of the broader cooking experience.
Knowing what to leave out is as important as knowing what to add. Not everything you see (or even buy) will go into your dish. You have to consider each ingredient carefully to verify its quality and consider how well it fits in what you plan to cook. Even a perfect ingredient can ruin a dish if it doesn’t connect well to the other ingredients. Every element should fit in the grander scheme and contribute to the impact you wish to create.
The balance between different ideas in your text also affects the quality of your dish. Too much gravy can kill a dish, like elaborating a side idea without proportion can ruin your content. There is no single formula for what works best. A good chef develops an eye (and a taste) for the perfect balance, which could vary depending on the effect they aim to create.
Fill your pantry with great ingredients and know when, how, and to what extent to use each.
Slice and Dice, Mix and Stir
“Cooking is like painting or writing a song. Just as there are only so many notes or colors, there are only so many flavors — it’s how you combine them that sets you apart.” — Wolfgang Puck
So, you know who you are cooking for, and you have found an idea for the perfect dish. You have a variety of ingredients to choose from, and you have carefully examined each of them, considering how it will fit in. Now, it is time to throw everything into a pot and wait.
Well, not exactly. What you do with the ingredients is as important as the ingredients themselves. The flow of how you add the ingredients, how you prepare them before they are added into the dish, and what you do after you add each of them affects the result. Even the simplest dish, like a bowl of rice, will turn out completely different depending on whether you add the rice to pre-boiled water or add water to the rice you have fried for a few minutes. Now imagine the various flows and variations when you have dozens of ingredients. You have to consciously decide what to do with each and how to use them together.
Processing the ideas you have collected is like preparing the ingredients when cooking. Some of them should be peeled. Some are better off chopped. And other ingredients need to be mixed together and given some time to absorb the different flavors. Think of each of the ideas you have collected, process them, play with them, and decide what role they should play in your text.
Next, find the right place in the flow for each idea. Often, you will have to process it further, so it becomes an integral part of the text. It is not enough to choose the right ingredients and prepare them for cooking. You have to know how to make them work together. The same idea can have a completely different impact depending on its context and how it resonates with other bits in your text. Again, there is no right or wrong way to combine the bits of ideas. You have to know what impact you wish to create and then experiment and ask yourself, “Is this the best way to achieve that impact?” With time you will get a feel for it, just like in cooking, but nothing will ever replace tasting your dish every now and then to verify it meets your expectations.
Spice it Up
“Cookery is not chemistry. It is an art. It requires instinct and taste rather than exact measurements.” — Marcel Boulestin
Compared to the primary ingredients, spices are added in relatively small doses. But when used correctly, spices become the heart of any dish. Spices enhance flavors, making them richer. Spices can fuse flavors. They can add new flavors and change existing ones.
Spices can make your dish unique and memorable.
When writing an article, designing a talk, or communicating in any other form, spices could elevate your content from a plain list of ideas to a memorable text that resonates with the audience. Having great ideas is essential, but spicing up your content will make these ideas stand out.
Stories, examples, metaphors, visuals, and quotes are the spices of any professional text. They can bring your ideas to life and make them more vivid. When you find the right spice, it can shed new light on the ideas you try to convey, giving them more depth and longevity. An effective metaphor will make your audience think. A good example will make your audience connect to an idea. You can undoubtedly communicate your ideas without these spices and maintain their value, but spices will increase the impact of what you have to say.
In writing, like in cooking, spices should be used with care. Add too much of them, and they will take over. You don’t want your audience to get emotionally attached to stories at the expense of missing out on your message, just as you don’t want your dish to be too salty. But as often is the case in cooking, you won’t find a formula for the exact amount of different spices. Eventually, it is a matter of taste. You have to develop your own taste and make conscious decisions after considering the impact of adding each spice.
Remember that not all spices are for everyone. Since it is a matter of taste, you need to know your audience to use spices effectively. Not every example, every metaphor, and every story will suit every audience. It depends on the context in which your text is delivered and the expectations of your readers or listeners. Don’t get me wrong, using a surprising spice your audience does not expect can turn an ordinary text into an amazingly effective one. But again, you have to make a conscious decision whether to use it, when to add it and how much of it to use. A too spicy dish might not be taken well by everyone.
“A recipe has no soul. You, as the cook, must bring soul to the recipe.” — Thomas Keller
Most people starting to cook do so using recipes. It is an excellent way to learn what works and what doesn’t and get ideas you probably wouldn’t have thought of otherwise as a beginner. All in all, it is a safe way to start. If anything can go wrong, it is probably due to technique, and practice will help you improve the technical aspect of cooking.
But people with a passion for cooking rarely stick to proven, accurate recipes for long. Soon, they develop their own unique taste and feel for things. It is not just about what works — it is about what they wish to create. And this is where they start to experiment. They try new ingredients and new spices. They play with new ways to prepare them and combine them. They sometimes push themselves and the people they cook for beyond their current boundaries. They take risks knowing that not every single one of them will pay off. But when such an experiment does pay off, it pays off big time!
People starting to write often look for templates and formulas. Novice content creators often want to know the ideal structure for an article or the perfect lineup for a presentation. And they do so for a good reason: there are by far more ineffective (or even bad) ways to design your content than good, effective ones. So as a novice, you want to learn from what works, and doing that by following simple rules and structures is more than reasonable. At first.
You can’t work with predefined templates forever. Not if you wish to create content regularly. You will eventually get bored, and your audience will probably get bored even before you do. To keep making an impact, you have to experiment with ideas and ways to deliver them. You have to keep looking for new spices and play with different combinations, fusions, and structures. You don’t need to start from scratch every time, but you should leave the templates and the “proven formulas” aside at some point and develop your own evolving taste for things. This will eventually become an integral part of your unique, memorable voice.
The more experience you gain, the more you can stretch your limits and experiment. It takes confidence and knowing the basics of effective writing. But more than anything, experimentation requires the willingness to let go of the known and familiar and try something new. You don’t have to make major and radical experiments. Just avoid doing more of the same time after time.
One way to ignite your imagination as to what is possible and what you haven’t yet tried is to consume a lot of diverse content. Read books and articles from various authors and multiple domains. Listen to keynote addresses. Listen to podcasts. Whatever fills your mind with possibilities, not just in terms of what to write about but also how to write it, will affect your ability and desire to play and experiment with your writing.
If you wish to be a good cook, you should probably love to eat.
“Cooking is at once child’s play and adult joy. And cooking done with care is an act of love.” — Craig Claiborne
To write in a way that creates an impact, you must love writing, no matter which forms it takes.
If you try to prepare delicious, memorable dishes without loving what you do (and the process it takes to get there), you won’t be able to succeed for long. Writing is no different. You can write well-articulated content without enjoying even a single moment of the process. Will it be effective, and will you be able to do that for long? I doubt it. With all the techniques, the superb raw materials, and the rich spices, your audience will know you wrote something without loving it.
You can’t expect anyone to love what you write if you don’t love writing it.
Writing is certainly not for everyone. Cooking isn’t either. But if you feel you have something to share with your potential clients, your colleagues, your friends, or the world in general, turning it into meaningful, effective, and engaging content might be just what you need to do. If you haven’t tried writing yet, why not start?
And if you love it, everything else will follow.
Think of an article, a book, or a keynote address you’ve loved.
Try to identify the core ingredients, the spices, and the passion of the author or presenter for cooking this content.
Before you write or design your next piece of content, consider what would make you love the topic and the process of writing about it more. What will make you enjoy cooking it?
Apply whatever idea you thought of and witness the difference in the result.