By profession I am a writer, but I love to cook. I love the everyday challenge of making simple and delicious food, with whatever time and ingredients I have on hand. While I certainly enjoy the end results (usually a tasty meal), I equally enjoy the process and the feeling of absorption and flow that cooking offers. For me, the sensation of absorption and flow is akin to the feeling I get when work is going well. It’s a stress-free experience of being in the moment, but also thinking about the future – the next step, the other dishes to prepare, the optimal sequence.

I suspect that there are some parallels between cooking and writing that might be useful in allowing us to think about the writing process. These observations might be a little bit half-baked (pardon the pun), but here goes.

Working with what’s available

Both cooking and writing typically begin with surveying the ingredients or materials on hand. The invention or discovery phases of writing is, I think, akin to the rummage through the fridge, pantry, or garden. You often won’t have the time (or the resources) necessary to source all the materials you’d like or to search exhaustively for recipes. There is dinner to make and deadlines to meet.

Getting organized

Both cooking and writing reward organization and patience. Taking some time to organize your work station or mise en place – and your thoughts – will pay dividends later. Thinking through work flow and sequence will save you time and dishes. Sometimes when there’s time pressure it makes sense to start sautéing the onions or pulling out some promising bits from your notes, before you’ve completely settled on a menu or outline. I often find that taking those simple first steps is an opportunity to think through what will come next and to avoid panic.

Putting it all together

Both writing and cooking entail combining many smaller things into larger units (dishes or paragraphs) and ultimately into some whole, whether a meal or a piece of writing. It is important to think about how the parts will cohere into a whole and how you are creating an experience with consistency as well as variety or surprise. Too much sameness exhausts, while too many unexpected combinations bewilder. Somewhere in the middle there is a sweet spot that needs to be rediscovered each time.

Improvising and course correcting

With both writing and cooking you typically begin with a plan and then adapt and adjust that plan as you encounter the unexpected. You might start with a recipe or a standard dish that is then changed based on mood, season, or what’s in the fridge. The writer may start with an outline that evolves or changes utterly as he or she works through the process of translating a stepping stone path of ideas into sentences and paragraphs.

Of course, cooking and writing are not entirely alike. For one, it’s much easier when writing to go back and change something at the beginning than it usually is with cooking. And the metaphor frays in other ways as well. But, I find it useful to think about writing as a sort of cooking as it reminds me that ingredients matter, that organization and preparation are essential, and that writing – every bit as much as cooking – is an art of transformation and improvisation.


Quite a few years ago, at a friend’s wedding I had been chatting with a fellow guest when she declared, “You sure do use big words!” This caused me to reflect on what I’d been saying just then and for the previous years of my existence. I don’t remember my reply. I wish I’d said, “Thank you,” but I’m pretty sure that I stammered an apology.

This exchange got me thinking. Upon reflection, I am pretty sure she meant unusual words more than big words. And yes, I am guilty as charged – I do enjoy using unusual words, but hopefully only when they fit the situation. Both in our speaking and our writing unusual words are vital: they bring language to life, making what we say and write more specific and more fun. The regular use of unusual words preserves and cultivates the remarkable diversity of the English language and it can engage our listeners and readers.

A few caveats or qualifications. First, usually we want our communication to be transparent and inclusive so we need to make sure that our words are comprehensible. That can be done through contextual clues or a definition (i.e. “in other words” or a parenthetical explanation). Second, we want to make sure that we use unusual words for carefully chosen purposes. Unusual words provide variety, but if all our words are unusual that in itself a sort of monotony. Jargon, endemic to just about every subfield offers many examples of big words that have become dulled by excessive and sometimes imprecise use. Used carefully, however, unusual words keep things interesting for readers and writers alike and that is certainly a noble aspiration. So, here’s to unusual words in all their diversity and glory.


In much of the work I do I am faced with a wealth of information that I am asked to help distill and share in ways that will inform and engage broader audiences. One school of thought is to cram in as much detail as possible, given constraints of space and time. Explicitly or not, the assumption seems to be that we’ve only got one chance so we should say absolutely everything. This, however, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you persist in giving your reader as much information as possible he or she will almost certainly not want to come back for more – and indeed will likely just stop reading.

Given that the information saturation approach is not terribly effective, what are some better strategies? I like to think of much communication as an invitation to further interaction. You can invite readers to learn more and point them to that information. I also think about information as tiered, like a sort of pyramid. The top of the pyramid contains concepts and big picture ideas. You’ll almost always want to start with these. This sort of information piques curiosity and helps your reader get oriented. For instance, you might explain the inspiration or motive for a product, service, or piece of software.

As you move down the pyramid you get increasingly complex and as you do so your potential audience narrows. Often, you’ll want to share some of this more detailed information, especially if your audience is made up of technical experts. Other times, it makes sense to direct those interested to the full technical details located elsewhere, whether a white paper, some code, or quantitative information. I think it’s always a good move to let your reader know that this technical information exists, that you’re well versed in it, and where it can be found. This builds your credibility and lets your reader know that you’re not assuming that he or she won’t care or won’t be able to understand.

One key decision in communication is to decide on the appropriate level of detail. Each situation has its own best answer, but it is always worth thinking carefully about when to stop providing more explanation and detail and when and how to let your reader know how they can learn more and continue the conversation. If your presentation is clear and carefully tailored it is much more likely that your reader will want to come back for more.