The Market, The Meal, and The Menu

I’m about to do two faculty writing workshops, aimed at slightly different functions. One, a half day, is about helping faculty members describe their research plans in an abbreviated form that will help others be interested in receiving a funding proposal for the work. The other, four days long, is more about helping faculty members select from their years of accumulated knowledge and wisdom to create a specific, bounded project. And because I generate metaphors, I woke up this morning thinking about those two processes as they relate to an entirely different profession.

A professional chef goes through both of those same endeavors. She starts her day in the market, in the wild profusion of produce and pasta, of aiolis and herbs, of breads and brisket. She’s capable of making a fine dinner out of any of that, but some combination suggests itself to her, some reduction of the fifty thousand items in the supermarket to the eight that will make its way into a single dish. Putting the whole market into a blender isn’t a meal; it’s a mess. The creation of a meal requires the assembly of a few finely related ideas, and the temporary setting aside of thousands and thousands of others. The fact that this particular dish doesn’t include avocado doesn’t mean that she doesn’t value avocado, merely that her deep knowledge of avocado won’t help this particular raspberry tart that has come to her mind.

So she uses her half-dozen chosen ingredients to make her fabulous, brilliant tart. But then she has to sell it. She’s not going to cut one into tiny little bites and send it out to every table to see who wants a whole one. No, she has to come up with a description of that tart that will fit in the menu, that will do the work of enticing the patrons to take a chance on it. The work of the menu (the work of any advertising) is future-oriented, predictive—it claims “You’re gonna love this!” It’s not merely descriptive, it’s creating an experiential image that a customer is willing to have some borrowed faith in.

Any form of writing, whether academic or popular, whether fact or fiction, goes through these same steps. We reduce the possibilities of the market, of our full and rich mental lives, to a coherent meal that we’d be proud to offer. And then we create a description of that meal for the menu—a pitch letter, an abstract, a proposal—that attempts to capture the essence and importance of the work well enough to entice a reader to choose it ahead of all the other alternatives.

The meal is always the goal. But my work as a writing coach has mostly been to help people recognize when they’re still in the market and need to leave good opportunities behind, and then to help them write a paragraph for the menu that will get their meal chosen.