If you’re seriously considering a career change, you’re probably familiar with the saying, “Do what you love and the money will come”. But what if you love to eat? Who’s going to pay you to do that? Well, if you’re happy to write about what and where you’ve eaten, being a food writer is a very realistic job option. That’s what former health psychology researcher Helen Graves (of the Food Stories blog) chose to pursue when she realised she’d fallen out of love with the 9-to-5 way of life. Here’s how she made the leap from being a health psychology researcher to a food writer.
Name: Helen Graves
Job title: Freelance recipe writer and editor
Years since changing career path: 4
TAP: Is working as a food writer the dream job it sounds like? What exactly do you do each day?
HG: It IS a dream job! I love it more than anything. There are two main parts to my job. My main role is as a recipe developer for websites and print publications, including Marks and Spencer and Great British Chefs. I’ve also just started work on a very exciting project with Central St Martins art college, making a cookery book for patients with renal failure. I’m working closely with the patients to develop a set of recipes that are culturally relevant and exciting. The renal diet is very restricted so this is important work – a lot of patients miss the flavours they used to enjoy so I need to find ways to make food exciting again. This is a new direction for me which combines my experience of working in the NHS and with people with long-term health conditions with my recipe work. It’s fantastic.
The rest of the time I write on a freelance basis for other people. I just finished a piece on Peru for Sainsbury’s Magazine. They sent me out to Peru to learn about the food and drink there. That was a tough gig! Being serious though, travel pieces are actually quite demanding because they take a large chunk of time and you’re not able to do anything else while you’re there as schedules are so packed. I used to do a lot more travel writing but it’s hard to make it work financially.
I also make Pit magazine with my friends Holly (the art director) and Doug (managing editor), which is about cooking over live fires and smoking foods – so barbecue from all over the world. We’re on our third issue at the moment, so it’s still a young magazine and we don’t pay ourselves yet! We do pay our contributors, though.
TAP: You haven’t always worked in this field. Tell us about your previous career and why you made the change.
HG: I used to work in health psychology research at King’s College London. One of the main goals of health psychology is to come up with interventions that motivate people to practice better health behaviours. In my last position, I worked on an intervention like that for diabetes. I’m actually just about to submit a PhD I never finished while I was there. It’s like a hangover from my previous life.
I decided to make the change for many reasons. Although I love psychology and found it interesting, I loved food and writing more. That was the main motivation – to turn my hobby into a career. I’d been writing Food Stories for years and I’d started to pick up other work, so I knew I could probably make a living from food writing. Another major reason was that I hated office life – the bitchiness, the pettiness, the building itself. I’m serious about that last bit. I think office spaces are really toxic with their strip lighting and scratchy carpet tiles. I hated being in an office so much. I also don’t think 9-to-5 working is a great thing: why does it matter what hours we work as long as the work is done? I didn’t have a long commute in my last job but that’s another awful thing about the rat race. I’ve always marched to my own beat to be perfectly honest and a regular job didn’t suit me.
My final reason for leaving academia was that I wanted a creative outlet. I studied art in Cheltenham, where I’m from, first doing an art foundation course and then starting a degree in ceramics but later dropping it when I decided to study psychology. I wanted to do something creative again and there are a lot of creative skills in my job now – from writing, editing and photography, to recipe development.
TAP: It’s safe to say that there’s no clear-cut path to becoming a food writer. How did you get from where you were to where you are today?
HG: There absolutely isn’t a clear-cut path, but this is how I did it. I started one of the first food blogs, Food Stories, which will be 11 years old this year. In the beginning, it was pretty rubbish but I just kept going! I learned the skills as I went and I just persevered. At first no one read it, but over time I picked up a large readership and then I started to get bits of work. One of my first paid jobs was with Lurpak butter. They’d seen my recipes and asked me to make a pie for an ad campaign they were running. I went along to the shoot and it was my first encounter with home economists and food shoots – very exciting! My pie was then on billboards all around London, which was ace. People would snap photos of it and send them to me on Twitter. It even developed its own hashtag #piewatch.
At first, it was mainly recipe work and because I had a full-time job I was only able to do the odd bit of work here and there. Eventually, I started to get more work and I then went part time in my psychology job, eventually giving it up completely. At first, it was hard to make ends meet because you need to have your fingers in a lot of different pies to make ends meet as a writer. One of the biggest stepping stones for me was being offered a job as food and drink editor at Londonist. I knew the guy who was in the post already and when he left he suggested me as a replacement. It was a job that taught me lots about planning content, thinking about what might appeal to readers, commissioning articles and managing budgets. I then moved on from Londonist to a position as editor at Just Opened London.
Now, I’m back doing full-time recipe work which is what I truly love. Although I enjoyed editorial roles there wasn’t much room for creativity (and there was a huge amount of admin involved!). I also missed the kitchen badly. I’m really excited about this new project with Central St Martins which lets me combine my former career with my current one.
TAP: What would you say was the most important thing you did or didn’t do to succeed?
HG: I would say the reason I’m successful at what I do is that food and drink is my obsession. It is my life. If I’m not cooking or writing, I’m eating. I would have done all of this anyway, even without payment and, let’s face it, I did do that for many years with my blog. I’m constantly working and I love what I do more than anything. I think that’s the key to being really successful at anything.
TAP: Let’s focus on money for a second. What can anyone wanting to do this for a living expect to make?
HG: I’d say that 40p a word is a good rate while anything less than 20p a word is a bit rubbish. Often people will offer a flat fee for a piece, regardless of length. You might earn a few thousand for a big piece of work but only £100 for a little one. It all depends on the budgets and they vary wildly. When I started out I did do some work for free, but there’s no need to do this and I certainly wouldn’t do it now. If you’re going to do stuff for free, do it on your own website.
TAP: Can you share three resources that you think are invaluable for breaking into food writing?
- Kerstin Rodgers has written a book on this very subject. It’s called Getting Started in Food Writing.
- Make sure you’re reading good-quality writing as often as possible. I love Noble Rot Gastro Obscura, Roads & Kingdoms, plus all the broadsheet food supplements. A particular favourite writer of mine is Diana Henry who writes for The Telegraph and Marina O Loughlin, the restaurant critic for The Sunday Times. It’s not just food writing that’s important though – read as widely as possible. If you can afford the subscription, The New Yorker is pretty unbeatable.
- Finally, nothing beats actually writing if you want to be a writer. I now write all day every day and that makes a huge difference. Write as often as you can.
TAP: What’s the biggest misconception about being a food writer?
HG: That you’ll be rich!
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