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What Chopped can teach you about writing

"Whose writing is on the Chopping Block?" (Photo from Food Network)

“Whose writing is on the Chopping Block?” (Photo from Food Network)

One of my favorite TV shows is Chopped. I love the thrill of the competition, and I love learning about new food and ways to prepare it. (When I was at the WritersUA conference, I was one of the few people who recognized the dragon’s fruit on the buffet table.)

Chopped also provides great lessons about creativity beyond the kitchen. You can even learn a lot about writing from that show. Here are the lessons I learned.

Make the Most of What You Have

The object of Chopped is to take a basket of “mystery ingredients” and turn them into a sumptuous gourmet meal. Some of the ingredients are things you might not identify (like the aforementioned dragon’s fruit). Some ingredients don’t go together (like snack cakes and squab). You have to use all of the ingredients in the basket.

As writers, each of us have our own basket of experiences and influences we can put into our writing. In Offline, I turned “Bartleby the Scrivener” and my years in the computer industry into a novel. What is in your basket and how can you use it?

Get Training

How are those chefs able to take those ingredients and turn them into something delicious? Chopped doesn’t pull anyone off the street who looks good in a bathing suit and hands them a spatula. Everyone who competes in Chopped has years of culinary experience. Many have been to culinary school and work at award-winning restaurants. These chefs know their stuff. This is why I find Chopped exciting. I’m watching chefs who are the best in their field taking on incredible challenges.

As writers, we also need to gain training and experience so we can compete at the highest levels of our field. We have to keep perfecting our skills through classes, blogs, and draft and drafts of bad writing. Only then can we gain the ability to compete.

Focus on Presentation

Presentation is one of the areas where Chopped contestants are judged. A plate has to be pleasing to the eye before we can determine if it will be pleasing to the palate. More importantly, the arrangement of food affects how it tastes. Plate the food incorrectly, and it can be soggy and inedible. Plate the food correctly, and the textures and flavors can combine artfully.

Presentation is important in writing. Cover design and page layout can entice readers to open your book. We also need to keep our writing as free of typos, grammatical errors, and misspellings as possible. A clean, attractive presentation is as important in a bookstore as it is in a restaurant.

Get Expert Feedback

I admire the quality of the judges on Chopped. They always provide excellent examples of evaluation: start with the positive and provide specific, honest feedback for the areas where the chefs need to improve. (No Gordon Ramsay-style histrionics here.)  If you want to learn how to give solid feedback, Chopped is the show to watch.

As writers, we must look for mentors and editors who can give us that quality of feedback. Look for people who can reinforce the things you do well and give you specific recommendations to improve. Good feedback can energize you as it teaches you how to improve.

Get Chopped once in a While

Like any competition, somebody has to lose. But most of the so-called losers in Chopped still hold their heads up high. They don’t blame the judges or talk smack about their competitors. They also aren’t discouraged. They typically say things like, “I’m disappointed that I didn’t win the competition, but I still believe I’m a great chef. I’ll keep working harder and doing better.”

As writers, we will face rejection, lose competitions, and get negative reviews. We can’t let those things discourage us and cause us to give up.

Sooner or later, we will get chopped. We need to make the most of our experiences, get training, focus on presentation, and get expert feedback to become better writers. If we keep believing in ourselves and developing our skills, we have a shot of become the writing version of a Chopped champion.

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