Don’t Mince Your Words: Writing Lessons from the Kitchen


You may be a kitchen-master who looks at a pile of ingredients and whips up directions such as pinch, dash, estimate, a little bit, about a cupful, and whoa nelly! I, sadly, am not. I cringe when I ask for a recipe and someone says, “Oh, I don’t know, I just threw it all together.” “You did what?!”

Likewise, when someone says “I look at my cupboard and pull something together with whatever we have,” I laugh and confess that when I check a neglected pantry my response is, “We’re having takeout.”

I do try though. I just need order and clarity and some assurances of maybe not destroying dinner. The odds are not in my favor on this one. Recipes help, but even understanding them is overwhelming sometimes. The good news is that as I’ve become more comfortable in the kitchen, the consternation recipes produce has shifted. When I first started cooking, the nouns in recipes were my nemesis. First, the list of ingredients. I recall a recipe for some sort of dip that required water chestnuts. I must have strolled through three grocery stores trying to figure out where “water chestnuts” might be. Were they a fruit? A vegetable? A canned good? Exotic? Common? A nut? A sea horse? 

My grocery store prowess is better these days, but now I find myself stymied by the nouns of kitchen instruments. Blenders, pans, processors, steaming trays, and griddles. This may explain the American obsession with large kitchens – where else are you going to put 900 gadgets for basically heating or mashing food in 1300 highly specific shapes and sizes? I don’t know. It overwhelms me. I automatically disqualify a recipe if it requires a machine that I do not have and/or have no desire to learn how to operate. This may be neglecting my family’s tastebuds, but given that two of them are under the age of “We love trying new foods!” I’m not worried yet.

And then! The other day while congratulating myself on tackling my issues with cooking nouns either through slow acceptance or outright avoidance, I found myself face-to-face with the dizzying number of verbs associated with recipes. Seasoned kitcheneers routinely fold, mince, dice, cut into small squares, poach, blend, broil, baste, zest, skewer, dredge…glaze…as in “what? sorry, my eyes glazed over.” I didn’t even know you could “fold” something that was not a sheet. Isn’t poaching illegal? No? Not for eggs? Why are “broil” and “boil” so close? One night of missed sleep, your eyes drop the “r” and you’re in for a messy kitchen. How many words do you need for saying “cut that sucker up into really, really tiny pieces?”

I despaired. So I went to my happy place at my desk in front of an open computer and thought about writing  where I’m surely more comfortable.

Blast it all if nouns and verbs don’t confound me there, too. When I started writing I critiqued myself for not knowing specific nouns. “What do you call that?” This comes directly from my inhibitions about asking people when I don’t know something or from not paying attention when nouns are used because I don’t think I’ll ever need that information again. News flash: everything in life is fair game for writing. Pay attention!

Just as with cooking, once I got a grip on my nouns I had trouble with my verbs. Action verbs, right? Do something! Move forward! Go! Go! Go! I went to Pinterest and started pinning cutesy compilations of 400 ways to say “said,” and 903 great words to use instead of “go!” and so many other awesome, color-coded, alternates to the boring verbs of everyday living. Whew! After reading those lists I was exhausted on behalf of my characters. They were in for a real workout whether they wanted one or not. Sometimes something just “is,” someone just “went,” and the monster in my daughters’ room only “said.”

The reason that I make an effort to learn more about cooking is because I know it is healthier for my family and myself. Do I like to cook? Nope. Do I do it seven days of the week? Nope. Do I keep trying? Yep. Why? Because it makes me better, and it’s better for them. In the five years that I’ve been attempting to make something edible while not burning the house down I have learned to cut a mango, cut a pineapple, cut a pomegranate, ask questions, grill salmon, and make delicious homemade taco seasoning, and ask more questions. And not a single fire truck in sight! Is the grocery store still a scary place? Sometimes. Do I understand the nouns and verbs better? Eh. 

Do I like reading the thesaurus? Nope. Do I want to ask questions all the time? Nope. Do I keep trying? Yep. Why? Because it makes me better, and it’s better for my writing. Do I nail the decision every time it comes down to “said” vs “chortled” (I mean, yes, in that case, it’s always “said.”)? Said vs. noted? Not yet. Have I found the formula for the perfect blend of action verbs and being verbs? Do I know a “went” versus a “skedaddled?” Sometimes. Maybe. I do love a good skedaddling. 

Turns out there are a few common instructions in general recipes for cooking or writing.

  • Ask questions.
  • Pay attention. 
  • Practice! Practice! Practice!

Good luck! Write on! 

(Also: any tips for zesting a citrus fruit?)

5 Responses to “Don’t Mince Your Words: Writing Lessons from the Kitchen”

  1. A commonplace cook

    Zesting with a fork should work – use the tines (the pointy bits) not the side or the back. Tiny side of the grater works better. Best for me is my micro plane – exceptionally sharp and a finer texture than the grater.


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