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February 06, 2008

A Pancake Maker's Guide To Writing Well

I'm always on the look out for different ways to think about writing, new sources of inspiration for the writing process.

I've had some fun with cooking analogies in the past and as yesterday was Pancake Day or Shrove Tuesday, (I believe it's also called Fat Tuesday some places?) I thought I'd have a look for any writing lessons we could learn from the makers of pancakes.

Now one thing I found was that there are lots of different sorts of pancakes... and lots of different advice on the best way to make them.  I'm not going enter into correspondence on the pros and cons of pancake making techniques... but I will share the writing lessons I got from my search.

This week's podcast (3 minutes 10 seconds) covers

5 writing lessons we can learn from making pancakes

# 1 Don't make it from a packet: use your own ingredients, plain simple store cupboard ingredients work best - plain English, everyday words, your experience and outlook

#2 Don't over mix it: apparently this can make your batter go lumpy :-( We can over mix our writing too, trying too hard to get it right - sometimes we need to let things go to get it written, to tap into our natural patterns of words and phrases

# 3 Rest your batter: a good 15 minutes is recommended... words sometimes need a little bit longer, time for ideas to settle so you can see the pattern and structure that holds them together; time to loosen up any writing blocks; time to sleep on it and check your writing means what you meant to say

# 4 Lots of practice: I found this mentioned in lots of places - don't expect to get it right first time.  And writing, like pancake making, improves with practice

# 5 The sacrificial pancake: this was my favourite tip!  Apparently the first pancake in a batch never works, but you use it to get the pan to just the right temperature.  Maybe some of our writing is like that too - a necessary warm up act, and we shouldn't expect to get it perfect first time round

So there we are... Strange as it might seem, I can find writing lessons anywhere!

If you've any ideas you'd like me to cover in a future podcast, or any strange analogies you'd like me to try and stretch, just let me know.  The format is 5 writing tips in less than 5 minutes.  Beyond that I'm open to suggestions...

You can listen to the podcast by clicking the play button on the radio box, following this link or going to my gcast page. For more audio writing tips, check out the archive of Confident Writing podcasts.

For more food and cooking inspired writing tips...

A Haggis Maker's Guide To Writing Well (+podcast)

The Plum Chutney Guide To Writing A Blog Post

Are you looking for some writing inspiration of your own?  I'm offering readers of Confident Writing  a 10% discount on my writing critiques and writing mentoring programmes during February.  Contact me if you're interested.

Joanna Young, The Confident Writing Coach
Because our words count


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Hi Joanna, thank you for the mouth watering post! In my neck of the woods we call it Fat Tuesday. We learned in church last Sunday that in the old days in Europe, people would give up eggs and flour for Lent, so they'd use all those ingredients up on Fat Tuesday by making pancakes. That tradition may have come from the Jewish tradition of removing leavened bread from the home prior to Passover. All this has nothing to do with writing but I thought it was interesting.

Hi Brad

The history and origins of these things is fascinating indeed. I fear that most of us nowadays enjoy eating the pancakes but don't go for the other part of the equation and give things up for lent!

I was interested to learn the phrase Fat Tuesday yesterday - it was the first time I heard it. Made a good change from all that "Super" stuff I was hearing about too :-)


What a wonderful post. I learned some great tips for pancake mixing, and I love how creative you made this comparison


Sylvia C.

I love the sacrificial pancake point! A couple of years ago, I read Annie Lamot's Bird By Bird, in which she talks about shitty first drafts, and that just really appealed to me. I can get so hung up on needing my first draft to be perfect that the project can become completely crippled. Being kind enough to yourself and permitting yourself a sacrificial pancake actually goes a long way to getting some words on the page which are genuine keepers.
Great post, and a lovely podcast, Joanna!

We always have family fights over who doesn't get the sacrificial pancake - I always try to palm it off on the kids because it is usually too fatty and stodgy!

You'll always get people's attention by talking about food - how clever, you are!

I really enjoy your food-related writing posts. They're awesome! And you always squeeze in so much advice and so many tips. :-)


Hmmm, think I'll make pancakes tomorrow. I love all these tips, especially #3. What a fun way to make a point. I thought I was the only one who had the sacrificial pancake. :)

Hi everyone

Such a pleasure to wake up to all these lovely comments!

@ Sylvia, thank you. It was fun looking about for pancake making tips (I learned something there too!) and then trying to find a way to apply them to the writing craft

@ Amy The sacrificial pancake was the key concept to me too. I think you've hit the nail on the head here :

"Being kind enough to yourself and permitting yourself a sacrificial pancake actually goes a long way to getting some words on the page which are genuine keepers."

@ Sarah S aha! you are clearly already a more experienced pancake maker than the rest of us!

@ Michele thank you :-) As I said to you before these food posts are really fun to do - it's like letting my more creative side come out to play. And I never know what she's going to come up with!

@ Deb, well there you go, you're not alone, in writing, pancake making... or anything else for that matter :-)


Good morning, Joanna. I find that I am unable to accept the concept of the sacrificial pancake (with pancakes and writing). It sounds good when you say it, but I can't tell you how many awful pancakes I've gamely choked down in my stubbornness. This week on our Dickens Challenge I posted, perhaps too eagerly, an extra chapter that flowed a little too easily. Then I got a constructive comment from a friend and went back to take another look at this pancake.

The "pancake" should have been sacrificed (rewritten), but I was too hungry and posted it anyway. I admitted my gaffe, and posted a response stating that I was going to toss the chapter and re-post this weekend. No dice...my fellow challengers have insisted that let it go and move forward in the spirit of the challenge. I reluctantly agreed.

Today, I am standing next to the trash bin, staring at this big ugly pancake while my griddle waits for the next batch . . . and all I can think about is the big ugly mess on my plate.

Hi Cynthia

Thank you for entering into the spirit of the pancake making analogy!

You raise an interesting question, about what we choose to do with the sacrificial pancake... I guess it depends on the context for our writing. Your writing challenge has a particular format, and your colleagues are probably right, you need to keep posting and listen to and learn from the feedback. It'll be a hard task-master - but you'll become a better, stronger, more skillful pancake maker in the end.

If you're writing in a public forum, for business, to get paid for an article... well sometimes the sacrificial pancake needs to be trashed...although hopefully we can still learn *something* from the experience while we scrape the gloop off the plate :-)


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