book writing

How to Write a Great Cookbook

Do you have a passion for cooking? Are your friends and family always saying you should write a cookbook? If you’ve dreamed of having your recipes published, and you’re ready to make it a reality, there are a several things to keep in mind.

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Writing a cookbook worthy of professional publishing is not for the faint of heart. It’s an intense, time-consuming process, and can involve devoting a year or more of your life to recipe testing and writing (and maybe even photographing and designing) the book.

Also, we live in the time of celebrity chefs, so there is a lot of high-profile competition in the marketplace. Couple this with the fact that everyone and their brother are trying to get a cookbook published, and it’s clear you have to stand out.

Have we scared you off yet? No? Good! Read on for our tips on how to make your cookbook the best it can be, so it can rise above the competition like a soufflé. Yep, we went there.

Read, read, read

Do you think someone who’s only read a handful of novels could write a high-quality book? Nope. Same goes for cookbooks. Read as many cookbooks as you can, and discern what you like and don’t like about each one. Pay attention to all aspects of the book, from the layout to how the author’s personality comes through. Why is your favorite cookbook—the one covered in oil splotches, flour fingerprints, and unidentified sticky substances—the one you reach for over and over again?

Find your voice

Think about it—there are a heck of a lot of dessert (or pasta, or vegetarian, or dog food, or anything else you can think of) cookbooks out there. So why are some successful and others not?

Differentiating your project from similar books isn’t really about the recipes. There’s only one aspect of your book that’s guaranteed to be unique: the fact that it’s yours. If you imbue it with your personality and voice, there won’t be another book like it out there.

Think about how you want to present yourself through the design and photography, and, of course, the writing style. Make sure your unique point of view shines through in the recipes, headnotes, and section introductions. Make connecting with the reader your priority.

Build your audience

Start a blog. Like, right now. You may not be as famous as Rachel Ray (yet), but one of the best ways for us non-TV types to get a book deal is having a successful blog.

Blogging will give you time to develop your voice, writing style, and recipes, and to learn what your audience loves about you and the food you make. Run the numbers on what resonates with your readers, and replicate those successful characteristics in your book.

And let’s be honest—when it comes to books, the name of the game is sales. Publishers like to know their author is a marketing force of their own who can sell copies to their already-established fan base. Being able to say to an agent or publisher, "This many people subscribe to my blog, and I get this dazzling number of new page views a week" can be the defining factor in convincing an agent or editor you're worth their investment.

Give good headnotes

Your recipes’ headnotes—you know, those short paragraphs that introduce each recipe—are one of your best opportunities to engage with the reader and motivate them to give the dish a try. You might use this space to tell personal stories and anecdotes about the recipe. Did you get creative one night when there were only a few items in your pantry? Did Grandma make this every year for your birthday? Maybe you found yourself with a comical amount of zucchini and had to come up with an interesting way to use it. Tell your reader all about it!

Headnotes are also where you can tell the reader why Hoppin’ John is traditionally a New Year’s dish, where they can find that red curry paste the recipe calls for, and what they can use for a substitute if they don’t have any buttermilk in the fridge (because who does?).

Learn from your predecessors

It’s wise to study up on tips and potential pitfalls from people who have already been through this (often grueling) process. The Institute of Culinary Education has a great series on their blog called “So You Want to Write a Cookbook?” that takes you through just about every aspect of the process, including things you may not have thought about, like how much of the recipe you need to make at the photoshoot.

Several food bloggers who have been around the butcher block a few times have also offered their advice to anyone looking for it online, from how to write a proposal to how long recipe testing can take to the truth about how much money you’re likely to make.

If, after all this research, you find the how-the-sausage-is-made aspect of cookbook-writing discouraging, just remember the words of chef and cookbook author Brooks Headley: “... getting to hold in your hands a two-pound, 287-page manual of recipes with a foxy dust jacket is a rush the likes of which drugs got nothin’ on.”

3 Tech Tools to Make Writing Your Book a Little Easier

Writing a book might seem like a monumental task, and, well, it is. But there are tools out there that can make every stage of the process a little simpler and better organized, so you can focus on your ideas and the writing. Check out these handy apps, websites, and software tools that will make that mountain you’re climbing a little easier to summit.

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Brainstorming: MindNode

When you’re in brainstorming mode for your next book or writing project, mind mapping can be a great way to generate and record ideas. You can mind map on paper, of course, but MindNode helps you to organize and share your mind maps. It even takes care of the visual layout for you. Just type your ideas, and the app does the rest.

Also, unlike paper, you can easily reconfigure parts of your mind maps as they evolve. This is especially helpful when you’re first figuring out the basic outline of your story or a character’s arc. If you need to see your mind map in a more linear way, you can switch to outline mode and expand and collapse parts of your document as needed.

MindNode is free, and available for Mac and iOS only.


Writing: Scrivener

Writing a book, or any large document, can be a daunting task. Scrivener offers several features to make it go a little easier. If you’re like me, you don’t strictly write your story from beginning to end. This software allows you to break up your project by scene, chapter, or paragraph to make it more manageable, then edit as if it were one document.

At this point, you may be already done with the prep work. But even if you’re halfway through writing your book, it’s still easy to move your project to Scrivener to simplify the rest of the process. Import research or drafts from other word-processing software, as well as images, PDFs, sound files, and movies.

Some of the best assets of this software are its organization tools. Keep your ideas in one place—and move them around at will—with the corkboard. Virtual index cards allow you to organize and arrange characters, scenes, and plot points. The Outliner tool gives you an overview of your manuscript, or even just a section or chapter. You can drag and drop to reorganize anything.

With Scrivener, you can create templates, like character or location sheets, that you can use over and over. And you can use the app’s ready-to-go MLA and APA templates and footnote support for academic papers and non-fiction.

Different viewing modes can make your task easier, whether you need more information or as little as possible. There’s no need to switch back and forth between tabs. You can view up to four different documents in the same project window at the same time. Check a previous chapter for consistency, translate or transcribe a passage, or describe an image. You can also use full-screen mode to block out distractions and see only your text.

Scrivener even helps with motivation and productivity by allowing you to set word-count goals for your whole manuscript. Set goals for this week or just today’s writing session, and easily see how much you’ve written each day.

When your manuscript or paper is done, export your finished document to any file format and font you need, and even create an e-reader version for self-publishing or proofreading.

Scrivener is available for Windows and Mac. It costs $45 for a standard license ($38.25 for students and academics), and mobile versions can be purchased separately.


Proofreading: Natural Reader

Have you ever typed “had” but you meant “head”? Natural Reader will read your text aloud to you, so you’ll be able to hear those mistakes that spell-check isn’t smart enough to catch.

Your brain is the original version of autocorrect, causing you to miss mistakes in your writing as you read. Hearing your words read aloud is a useful weapon in the battle for typo-free text.

You can choose from dozens of voices with different accents, languages, ages, and genders for  a custom listening experience. Is the speaker in your story a young British boy? No problem. Hear your text as though the character were reading it to you.

If you hate robotic voices, you may want to sample Natural Reader anyway—it doesn’t get all the intonations and inflections of your text correct, but it’s certainly better than some auto-readers I’ve tried. It also offers a pronunciation editor if the voice just can’t seem to say your characters’ names correctly.

You can use Natural Reader on their website (with free, premium, and premium plus plans), or download it as software.