What Can Celebrity Chefs Teach You About Writing

nigellaWhether you prefer the seduction of Nigella Lawson to the improvisation of Jamie Oliver, your celebrity chef’s program will always contain

  • a clear idea of what to cook
  • a list of ingredients in easy reach
  • a recipe to follow.

There is a reason for this pattern.

It saves time, it focuses the chefs’ minds, and it allows them to create delicious dishes without the anxiety of the unplanned.

Imagine the chaos these chefs would end up with if they changed their minds half way during their preparations. “Well, actually, rather than a fish pie, what about a chocolate souffle’?”

Panic.

What if they suddenly realised that they have forgotten a basic ingredient and had to go shopping for it while some of the stuff is already baking in the oven?

Disaster.

What if they had no recipe to follow and started doubting whether or when they should add yeast to the mix?

Mess!

Writing is very much like baking a cake. And you can save yourself much frustration and time if you approach your writing like a celebrity chef.

baking-ingredients

What you need to make a good job of it is essentially the same:

  • a clear idea
  • a list of ingredients
  • a recipe to follow

Let’s look at each one in turn.

The clear idea represents the message you want to convey. Whether you are writing a chapter of your thesis, an abstract for a conference, or a research paper, you must have clear in your mind what it is that you actually want to say. Yes, well before you even start writing!

The ingredients can be anything from the figures and tables for one of your thesis chapters; or the references for your bibliography database; or the key papers that you need to refer to in you literature review. The simple trick of having everything available in front of you (either in paper or electronic form) will save you time when writing. Most importantly, it will avoid the distraction of looking for a missing piece of information. If you do happen to miss something despite your best efforts at preparing all your ‘ingredients’ in advance, just leave a place holder in your draft and return to it after you have committed all the key ideas to the page. Even something like “(INSERT MORE DETAILS HERE)” will be better than wasting time chasing after whatever you are missing.

The recipe is the structure of your thesis/paper/proposal. It provides the skeleton that keeps your writing together. Without a good structure, any good content will be lost and difficult to follow. Contrary to what most people think, good scientific academic writing is actually easier to achieve than other types of writing. That’s because it evolves around a standard, clear, and well tested recipe. Yet, surprisingly, getting the structure right seems to be one of the hardest things for most people to achieve. But this is a topic for another post.

Now. Next time you watch one of your favourite celebrity’s cookery program, pay attention to the how, not just the what. And if you happen to learn how to cook in the process… well, then you can have your cake and eat it!

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