What writers can learn from green bean casserole

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

This is my weekly installment of “writing about writing,” in which I scan the world to find websites, books and articles to help other writers. Today I discuss a blog post on green bean casserole….

Did you eat green bean casserole last Thanksgiving? You know, the dish made with Campbell’s mushroom soup? Or perhaps your family saved the recipe for Christmas dinner?

I haven’t eaten it in years, but my late mother-in-law used to make it regularly and my late father-in-law always tried to nab as many of the fried onion strings as he could get.

I recalled this bit of family lore when reading an excellent Ann Handley blog post on the subject of Dorcas Reilly, the woman who invented the recipe in 1955 (and who died in 2018, at 92.)

It surprised me to learn that this single recipe drives some 40 per cent of Campbell’s mushroom soup sales. Yes, 40 per cent! Why? As Ann Handley puts it:

Those 100 words [the recipe] perfected in Dorcas’s test kitchen tapped into the zeitgeist of 1955. What she wrote was a prescription for ease, convenience, and make-ahead freedom for US housewives suffering from the tyranny of mealtime. Because they embodied the spirit of the times, Dorcas’s words mattered.

And think about what goes viral today. The most recent example I can bring to mind is Chanel Miller’s 2016 letter to her rapist, which I’ve written about. Today’s spirit of the times relates to fighting sexual harassment and addressing the concerns of the #metoo movement.

No one writes in a vacuum. And if you want to reach the maximum number of readers, fancy words alone won’t get you there. You need to address issues that obsess readers, that inspire them to take action.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Dec. 16/19.

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