Eight hundred words: writing for the Metro
Between March 2010 and February 2011, I was the acting editor of the Metro newspaper's weekly Good Taste food and drink pages. The paper has a national circulation of over a million copies and a claimed daily readership of 3.5million. I was given complete freedom over what I chose to wriote about with no editorial interference whatsoever, and a budget to commission writers when I saw fit. In short, it was the dream job for a UK food writer.
During my stint, I produced over 50 double page spreads - at one point writing three in a week - and commissioned half a dozen more, all while scheduling, commissioning and editing the paper's daily 60 Second interview slot. After six years freelancing with variable success, it was an incredible luxury to have both a regular outlet for my work and a reliable, steady income.
The Good Taste word count is around 1500, split between two to three box outs, a one-liner 'top fact' above the headline and 800 words for the main feature. While at times I found that to be a frustratingly small number, the discipline of hitting the target week after week proved hugely beneficial to my writing and hopefully to the readers too.
I realised that in order to say what I wanted in the space available I had to make every word count, although I admit that I may well not have achieved that ambition a hundred per cent of the time. My aim was to produce entertaining, informative but above all useful articles. At the back of my mind was the question 'once someone has finished reading this, what can they do with the information?'. The academic, arcane and 'interesting' fell naturally by the wayside in favour of ingredient, technique or issue led pieces with a topical or seasonal hook, with the odd celeb or personality-led feature thrown in for good measure.
If I interviewed a chef (and I often did), it mostly wasn't because I wanted to know about them or their restaurants, I wanted their expertise on a particular area of cookery, be that vegetables or shellfish or specific seasonal ingredients. So a reader didn't just learn that there are many more varieties of tomato than they were previously aware of, but also what their characteristics were and how best to prepare them. Although that inevitably meant highlighting some artisan producers and often focusing on regional and seasonal food, that was not the central concern. The goal was to help the reader find new or improved flavours to enjoy.
Apart from a few exceptions such as a Christmas/New Year feature on trends in Champagne production and consumption, the articles often centred around one interviewee. The relatively short length of the pieces seemed to suit a single voice rather than a multitude which could seem cacophonous in such a tight space, and I was able to get into what I felt was a sufficient depth of detail for the given subject rather than have lots of passing comments.
It made sense on a practical level too. With the 60 Seconds daily deadline and scheduling taking up a surprising amount of time, I needed to use my time as efficiently as possible in order to meet the Good Taste deadline, write the additional material for the page and be planning and arranging future pages. I favoured face to face interviews as they allowed me to observe dishes being prepared and really get into the fine detail of the subject. I'd often spend a whole morning or afternoon with a chef gathering information. But the idea was not to overload the page with too much information; taking the time to see and talk through a process end to end enabled me to uncover the most pertinent and useful facts that otherwise may have got glossed over in a shorter phone interview.
I did allow myself indulgences however. I couldn't resist the opportunity to interview long time hero Marco Pierre White, even if it did mean playing phone tag with him and allowing him a shameless plug for the portable BBQ he'd put his name to. I did manage to prise a few cooking tips out of him though. I also jumped at the chance to meet Alain Ducasse even though the fact that he was launching a new book only emerged once I was actually in Paris. The interview was justified by a topical hook after all, but more by luck than design. My interview with Heston Blumenthal was another one that had no real practical value beyond informing readers about the most high profile UK restaurant opening since Ramsay opened up shop in Royal Hospital Road a decade earlier.
Despite the paper's broad readership, I aimed the pages squarely at food lovers. While I was careful to make everything crystal clear to the general reader, I chose subjects that interested me and that I knew would attract those similarly obsessed with food and drink. For the most part I avoided trends – I'm proud to say that I never wrote a word about whoopie pies for example but did cover the Sustainable Restaurant Association which I felt had a little more substance– concentrating on things that I felt would really improve readers gastronomic lives in the long term rather than short lived foodie fads. Yes, there was a touch of 'molecular mixology' but with a focus on flavour combinations and ideas for ingredients for making cocktails at home rather than just adding to the hype.
Having the job for a year allowed me to see through all four seasons, write my asparagus and oyster articles, my Fathers Day and festive features with the advantage of not having to figure out how I'd avoid repeating myself the next time around. But that would be a very small price and I'd be more than willing to pay it to say once again that I had Good Taste.