Note: A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in our September 2015 issue.
Name: Zach Patton and Clay Dunn
Years blogging: 7
Genre: Food writing
Website: The Bitten Word at thebittenword.com
Featured: NPR, PBS, The Washington Post, Washingtonian Magazine
How do you balance a regular blog with full-time careers (Zach as a journalist, Clay working for the nonprofit No Kid Hungry)?
For us, blogging is a hobby and a passion project. We both enjoy really busy careers, but we still love to cook, and usually prefer to eat at home. We balance work and the blog by using the cooking we do for the blog as a reason to have friends over for dinner. And when we cook for the blog, we typically make a handful of dishes at once, which gives us content to share on the blog for the next week or two. It takes a little more advanced planning, but it’s really worth it.
Has running the Bitten Word led to additional freelance assignments? If so, any advice for other bloggers who want to use their blog to snag assignments?
For the blog we both write and photograph, but Zach is a journalist in his day job, and has freelanced for a number of publications over the years. Some of these trips show up on the blog, and we’ve also successfully pitched personal trips we’re taking as story ideas for publications.
Our advice for others wanting to freelance is to first get strong samples together. Then approach editors at outlets that you would enjoy writing for with solid story ideas that are specific and appropriate for that outlet.
The Bitten Word is unique in that it’s co-written by two authors. How does your writing partnership work?
When we started the blog, we experimented with voice. Back then, sometimes we signed the posts to let people know who wrote what. But pretty quickly, we fell into a style of writing that fits both of our styles.
We’re now in our seventh year, and we split the writing equally. For each post, one of us authors it and the other edits. We never take each others’ feedback personally. Sometimes if one of us is editing, he’ll do a rewrite in the process, and that’s A-OK.
In the end, our “goal” is to make it difficult to pick out who wrote what – sometimes we even have trouble remembering when we look back at older content. We do have a few guiding principles: We try to keep the voice of our blog conversational, upbeat, never overly serious (this is food we’re talking about, not nuclear physics). And we always recognize that in the end, we are – very enthusiastic – amateurs, along for the ride with all of our readers.
Your blog stands out for the large-scale projects you guys put on throughout the year. Last year you organized 500 readers to each make a holiday cookie recipe from all of the major food magazines as part of your annual “Cover to Cover” challenge. You also run “Magazine Club,” a book club for food magazines, and your annual mega-popular “Fakesgiving,” where you prepare a massive feast for friends and family a few weeks before Thanksgiving in order to review food magazine recipes for stuffing, turkey, pies and more. What made you start taking on these projects? How do they help your blog as a whole?
Every once in a while we get an idea for one of these projects, and we kick it around for a while, decide it will be too much work and will take too much time – and then decide to go ahead and do it anyway! We started most of these projects as a way to mix things up. We don’t [want] the blog to become stale or expected.
Our favorite of these projects has been the Cover to Cover challenges, which allow readers to do the same thing our blog is based on: make a recipe from a current food magazine (they’re randomly assigned, so participants are likely making something they would never have chosen), photograph it and write about it. That project in particular has created a more intimate experience with readers as they share their personal experiences in the kitchen. That’s the value they’ve brought to the experience.
Fakesgiving, interestingly, has taken on a life of its own. We started that 5 years ago because we wanted to feature Thanksgiving recipes but it didn’t make sense to wait until Thanksgiving day and then write about them in December. So we gathered folks in October for a full-scale Thanksgiving preview. Today, it’s become one of our most favorite events of the year – we cram a lot of our best friends and family into our little apartment, and it’s so much fun!
And Fakesgiving has actually gotten us more attention from other media than anything else we’ve done. We’ve been invited to talk about it on a few different podcasts and NPR’s All Things Considered, and the Washington Post profiled our Fakesgiving feast a couple years ago.
How has writing regularly for The Bitten Word made you better writers?
You become a better writer by writing more. The kind of writing we do on the blog is often a challenge, because we don’t want to just quickly tell readers about a recipe. We want to frame it with a story, share something of ourselves, and when you’re writing about roast chicken for the 12th time, that can be a creative challenge.
Sometimes the recipes you make turn out wonderfully, sometimes they’re mediocre and sometimes they’re a disaster. How do you approach sharing your honest (but negative) feelings about a publication’s recipe?
We are always honest about what happens in our kitchen. Sometimes — rarely — the recipe is a dud. Sometimes — more often — we are the duds and the problems are 100 percent user error.
So we may be snarky about a bad dish, but we try never to be mean. We know how hard it is to write recipes [we have written plenty of poor ones ourselves] and filling a magazine with 50+ recipes a month is a massive challenge. We don’t expect them to all be amazing. But when they are, it’s sublime. And when they’re not, we say so.
You’ve built an impressive community of readers, or “Bittens,” as you call them. Why is maintaining an active community important to you and your blog?
Our fantastic readers — we call them “Bittens” because a friend’s mother started referring to us as “The Bittens” and we thought it was funny — are absolutely the main reason that we still continue to blog.
We hear from readers every day, as people react to what we’ve published, or write to tell about something else that they cooked. Some share family recipes, or write to tell us about restaurants they visited. This ongoing communication with people has been such an unexpected, positive outcome of writing The Bitten Word. Any time we think of considering the end of the blog, we get a note from someone that is so wonderful and motivating. And so we keep going, and head back into the kitchen.