Writing Cookbooks, Food Plans, or Other Nonfiction How-to Books

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bookdoctorby Bobbie Christmas

Note my addendum regarding the capitalization of animal breeds, at the end of this month’s column.

Q: I’ve written a cookbook. I do not have any pictures of my recipes, but would like to have them in the final book. Do I need to hire a photographer myself, or does the publisher provide assistance with that?

A: If a publisher buys the manuscript and wants the recipes illustrated, it will take all responsibility for finding and paying a professional who specializes in food photography, an art in itself.

Q: I’m finally starting to write my first book. It’s about creating a healthy food plan for life. I have already organized my thoughts on paper, but I lack confidence in making my book interesting. This problem is mainly because I don’t know what order the material should come in. Do you have any helpful ideas or general guidelines for book layouts?

A: I’d like to point out one thing before I answer, and it has to do with terminology that most people don’t know until they are more involved in the book business. The word “layout” refers to how the book looks once it is printed: the visual aspects of the font type and size, choice of artwork, and location of page numbers, for example. Instead of layout, let’s talk about organization—that is, how best to organize the material so that it unfolds logically and in an interesting manner.

You don’t have to worry about layout unless you plan to self-publish the book, but all writers must concern themselves with organization, the structure of the material.

As to structure, you said you have organized your thoughts on paper, so chances are good that you organized the structure fairly well, intuitively. It’s okay to trust yourself as you go along; in fact it’s smart to do so. Computers make it fairly easy to move chapters around if later you realize something seems out of place, so don’t worry too much about it at this point. First you must get the material down, out of your head and onto paper, because it’s not a book until it is written.

As for making the material interesting, structure or organization alone won’t add interest. Instead, people are interested in stories. The best way to make a nonfiction book interesting is to add real examples and anecdotes about people who have used the method you explain and how it worked for them. Get quotations from real people (change the names if they prefer) who have implemented the techniques and food plans you discuss. Find out what happened with them, their lives, their weight, their cholesterol levels, and so forth. Talk to nutritionists and use their information and stories as well.

In this way, you can make a recommendation or point and then add an anecdote or example to illustrate each one. Continue to do so throughout the book. Those little vignettes are the things that spice up a book and make it interesting and lively.


Note: In a prior column I addressed the Chicago style guideline that calls for capitalizing only the proper nouns in the names of dog breeds: German shepherd, Cairn terrier, Scottish terrier, poodle, and the like. I received an enlightening e-mail from Darlene Arden, author of Small Dogs, Big Hearts, The Complete Cat’s Meow, Rover, Get Off Her Leg! and the coffee table book, Beautiful Cats. She wrote, “Several of us professional dog writers fought long and hard to have this [capitalization issue] changed. The breed name is a proper noun, and as such it needs to be written that way, Border Collie, Shetland Sheepdog, Yorkshire Terrier, etc.”

She continues, “If you open any of the dog books written in the past decade, you’ll see this [style] carried out. Some mainstream publishers may not have followed this [style] yet, but they will. I have also used this form in my cat books and sincerely doubt that I’m alone.”

I thanked Darlene, but responded, “I can certainly understand why breeders [and others in the animal and pet industry] would want the respect of capitalizing the names of breeds. Writers and publishers of books by breeders and others involved in the industry are free to create their own style guides, but book editors in general, unless instructed by a publisher to do otherwise, must follow the style set by The Chicago Manual of Style.

“Each publisher is welcome to have style guides separate from CMOS, but when I advise writers in general, I have to follow CMOS in my recommendations, because it is the standard in the book-publishing industry. As much as your industry would like to change the general style, I am unable to recommend that change to the general public until CMOS changes.”

Yes, writers have the option to follow a style different from Chicago style, but as an editor, I follow Chicago style, unless a client tells me to do otherwise on a specific book.
Bobbie Christmas, book editor and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Read more Ask the Book Doctor questions and answers at www.zebraeditor.com.

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