Five Commandments of Food Writing

It's 2012, people; the number of people writing about food is still growing, and the signal-to-noise ratio is getting worse and worse. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, but not all of those opinions are worth reading. It's not just bad writing, unedited regurgitation of badly written press releases, or an inconsistent publication schedule, though: many people simply don't know the basics of writing about food, whether for a blog or for a professional publication.

5. Thou shalt make judgments.

It's unbelievable how many food blogs out there are simply long strings of photos of food strung together with two-sentence descriptions of the food. Russ Parsons of the Los Angeles Times calls these "caption blogs," which is an apt description. Make judgments about the food; talk about what didn't work in quantifiable, visible terms. If the steak fries were underdone, say so; don't just say you didn't like the fries. Conversely, don't get carried away: very, very few restaurants are 100 percent great or 100 percent awful.

4. Thou shalt know thy stuff.

Of course, making judgments is predicated on knowing the food. That doesn't mean food writers have to be experts in every single thing, but research is a must, and an open mind is too. It's excruciating to read reviews of an ethnic restaurant that were written by someone who thinks foreign food is scary. Don't laugh--hatchet-job reviews are written every day of authentic Mexican restaurants for not having beans and rice on every plate, and of authentic Chinese restaurants for not having General Tso's chicken or beef and broccoli.

3. Thou shalt not make special orders or off-menu creations.

Readers of your restaurant reviews want to know what to expect when they go into the restaurant. If you're continually tweaking your order--no tomatoes, please no chicken, can you substitute double beans instead of rice--then you're not reviewing the chef's skill; you're reviewing the kitchen's ability to cook a dish you designed. If a restaurant's menu changes daily, visit a few times, talk about specific dishes, but talk in general terms about the kitchen's ability to design and create their offerings.

2. Thou shalt pay for thy food.

This is day-one ethics for food writers. A positive write-up of a meal that was comped is not a review; it's a paid advertisement; it's payola. Here's a hint: professional food critics and popular food bloggers never identify themselves to the restaurant. While no food writer can be 100 percent anonymous, and occasionally freebies come to the table, the question must be this: would a regular diner have received that comped dessert? Pay for your meal and, if you receive compensation for your reviews, either expense it or write it off.

1. Thou shalt try the dishes before writing about them.

If you didn't taste a dish, you have absolutely no business talking about it. Saying your friend's meal looked good is useless and makes for boring reading; even worse is writing your friend's opinion as though you had eaten the food yourself. Do your own research. If you didn't chew it, you can't review it.

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