How writing is like making pickles

Reading time: Just over 3 minutes

If you’ve ever spent a weekend afternoon making pickles, you might understand the similarities the task has with writing…

I’m a pretty serious cook. In fact, I managed to turn my three kids into picky little foodies by the age of three. (I tried to see it as an accomplishment, rather than the detriment it truly was.) For one bleak stretch, we went through a time when one child would eat no pasta and the other would eat no chicken. Argh! And on top of that, they came to expect deluxe meals. Paella was a regular staple, even on weeknights.

But I gave up on another food-related passion because I simply didn’t have the time. I stopped canning. 

This was sad, because my mother had been an inveterate canner. The pantry shelves of my childhood were always richly lined with sparkling jars of cherries, peaches, plums and pears. And pickles. Most of all, pickles. My four siblings and I all loved the sour, salty, punchy taste.

I suspect that pickle lore was part of our DNA. Whenever my father thought I was being too much of a brat, he called me a Heinz pickle. His remark was based on the advertising tagline “you can tell a Heinz pickle by its crunch.” (I looked to see if the commercial was on Youtube. It wasn’t, but I found another very funny one if you want to have a look.)

Eventually, one of my sisters —when she grew up — opened a manufacturing plant to produce pickles and relish. That was handy for me when I didn’t have time to put them up myself.

But I decided to return to pickle-making a couple of weeks ago. I dusted off my long-ignored recipe, dragged the processing kettle and special funnel and tongs up from the basement and went to a local farm to buy cukes. 

As I pursued this long-forgotten process, it occurred to me that making pickles shares five rules with writing. Here’s what I see:

1-You need good ingredients

Whether amateur or professional, all chefs know that the success of their meal depends utterly on the quality of the ingredients. When my husband and I spent a month in Italy seven years ago, I could see my cooking took a giant step forward. It wasn’t that my skills had improved. The difference was the superb quality of the ingredients — much better than what’s found in most parts of North America. For that reason, when I wanted to make pickles again, I didn’t go to my local supermarket to buy cukes. I went to a farm. 

Writers should understand this principle. You can’t write a good story if you don’t have good research, interesting anecdotes, telling facts. If you’re ever sitting in front of your computer desperately wondering what to write next, consider that you might need to do more research, or more thinking and planning before trying to write. Ask yourself: Do I have enough good ingredients?

2-You need a good plan

When I re-read my old pickle recipe, a dim bell rang in my mind. Did I really have the correct processing time? (Processing means putting the jars of pickles in a pot filled with boiling water and letting them sit for x minutes.) I had vague memories that it might have changed. Foolishly, I ignored the thought. 

But as we were putting the cukes in the jars, I realized I didn’t remember how to pack them and I worried that I might be jamming them in too tightly for safety. I decided to phone my pickle-whispering sister. To my shock, she told me I didn’t need to process them at all. Instead, I just needed to make sure the jars were clean and hot and the brine was very, very hot. Then, after packing and covering the jars, I needed to wrap the bottles in a blanket for 24 hours. She assured me that two food scientists had reviewed and signed off on this instruction for our particular recipe. (Don’t try the same thing yourself unless your recipe instructs you to.)

For writers, especially those working to a deadline, I find failure to plan is also a frequent mistake. One of the most common issues is any absence of planning for how long the writing is going to take. People working on long-form projects like books or dissertations will often say something vague like, “I’ll do this by the end of the month.” (To learn how to start doing the basic arithmetic you’ll need to use to be more successful, see here.

Then, those facing shorter-term deadlines often think they’ll “save” more time by editing on the go. This is always a mistake and I encourage all writers to break the habit of editing while they write.  

3-You should work quickly

With pickle-making, it’s important to work really quickly. You need to get those cukes in the jars and the brine on top of them, while the jars and the brine are still very hot. 

For writers, working quickly is also important. There is absolutely no benefit to trying to write slowly and mindfully. Instead, write as quickly as you possibly can and then use any time you save on more editing, after the fact. As Truman Capote said, “I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

4-You need to allow plenty of incubation time

When our pickles were safely resting under their blanket, we knew we’d need to wait 24 hours before checking that they’d sealed. Worse, we’d need to wait at least six weeks before eating. And waiting even longer (say, until Christmas) will make them even better. Pickling takes fermentation time and you can’t rush it.

Perhaps you didn’t know that exactly the same principle applies to writing. Not only should you not edit while writing, you shouldn’t even edit directly after writing. Why? You’re too close to the material. You won’t have the necessary sense of perspective you need to be a really effective editor.

I tell anyone working on long-form projects that they should wait at least six weeks before starting to edit. And anyone working on short-form ones should allow as much incubation time as they possibly can. If it needs to be less than 24 hours, I suggest they do something highly distracting — writing another project, researching another project, processing email, going for lunch — before starting to edit.

Yes, incubation is that important.  

5-You should always do what works best for YOU

But don’t take my advice just because I’ve been writing and editing for more than 40 years. I mean this quite seriously. We are ALL individuals and we all need to tweak the tips and techniques we get from other people so they better meet our own needs. 

Whether writing or making pickles, make sure you consider your own challenges and limitations and develop a plan that works for you. 

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My video podcast last week addressed how to become a better reader. Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.  

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Have you ever made pickles? Did you find the job like writing? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Sept. 30/22 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy! 

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