Elements of Style (Guides)

Or: Why freelance recipe developing gives me a headache

Until I started working as a recipe developer, it had never occurred to me that publications had things known as style guides that dictated how to write and format a recipe. Of course, style guides are not unique to the world of recipe-writing; there are a host of widely-accepted style guides for writing generally, such as the MLA Handbook, The Chicago Manual of Style, and the AP Stylebook. But I fell into journalism ass-backwards (and I’m not sure I’ve actually stood back up yet). Since I never went to J-school, my prior experience with style guides was mostly limited to the use of William Strunk and E.B. White’s Elements of Style in grade school.

And until I stopped working for one sole publication and began writing recipes for a wide variety of venues as a freelancer, it had never occurred to me to consider that every venue has its own house style guide and no two are alike. Of course, duh, obviously each organization would have adopted a unique and idiosyncratic way of writing recipes, but OMG is it no fun at all having to tailor each of my recipes to the particular style guide of the house it is destined for.

Adopting a house recipe style guide is much like learning a new language. I worked at ATK for 11 years, and it took me nearly all of those 11 years to finally absorb the ATK way of writing recipes. (I’m a slow learner, especially when it comes to languages.) But once I did, recipes just came out of my head sounding the way they should—I just couldn’t hear them any other way.

For example, ATK does not use articles in recipe steps unless absolutely necessary for clarity. (“Melt butter in large saucepan over medium heat.”) This makes sense when your primary medium is print, and every word printed has costs both in ink and in page numbers. Leaving out “the” and “a” is a perfectly reasonable way to get recipes to fit within the limited page real estate of a magazine, or to cut down on the total number of physical pages in a book. Online, however, space is essentially limitless and free, which is why most venues that exclusively or primarily publish online do use articles in recipe instructions.

But having essentially learned to “speak” in a recipe language that lacks articles, it’s really hard to start using them elsewhere. Not only does it just sound all wrong, it’s really difficult to train yourself to remember to insert them into the recipe instructions, even when in every other place you write or speak, you use articles by default.

What’s worse, no two venues seem to agree on where or how often to use them. One place I write for has you use articles for tools but not ingredients (“Melt butter in a large saucepan…”), others use articles in front of all nouns. (One even has you use them the first time a specific item occurs, but leave them out on subsequent appearances.)

Whether or not to include articles in recipe steps is admittedly a minor thing, no matter how hard or annoying it is to sort out when jumping from one venue to the next. There is another example that is far more consequential (and far more annoying): ingredient weight-to-volume conversions.

I’ve said it here a million billion1 times: Volume measurements of ingredients are inherently imprecise, while weight is weight is weight, no matter where on Planet Earth you happen to be. Thus any list of weight-to-volume conversions is by necessity a set of approximations. On top of that, no two publications agree on exactly what the “best” set of approximate conversions should be.

When I develop baking recipes, I work in weights exclusively up until the time that I need to share the recipe with someone else, at which point I convert the ingredient amounts into volumes, using whatever conversion factor the particular publication utilizes. The more I do this, the more I realize the futility of the exercise. If 1 cup of flour can weigh 120g in one instance and 157g in another, then it clearly is neither; if using an exact amount of flour matters to the successful execution of a recipe (as it almost always does in baking) then having that amount vary by 25% or more is highly problematic.

Which is why when it comes to my own developing “style guide” here at Wordloaf, I’m going to eliminate the problem entirely and implement the following approach from now on:

  • For ingredients in amounts greater than 2 tablespoons or 5 grams (meaning those things that are easily and accurately weighed with a decent kilogram electronic scale, like this one), I will only be giving metric weights. I happen to believe that measuring ingredients by weight is both quicker and more efficient than measuring by volume, even before you consider the imprecision of the latter. If you don’t have a scale yet, I hope this is the incentive you need to finally get one. (In the meantime, or if you really don’t or can’t afford to buy one, you can always consult my own Handy-Dandy Conversion Chart, which I am constantly revising to be as accurate and detailed as possible.)

    Handy-Dandy Conversion Chart
    The first non-recipe post I wanted to share is an updated version of my volume-to-weight conversion chart. Except in certain instances, I’m not going to give volume amounts for bread recipes, because……
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  • For ingredients in amounts less than 2 tablespoons or 5 grams, I will give both metric weights and tablespoon/teaspoon amounts, with the assumption that if you have a decent milligram scale like this one, you will use it. I believe precision in smaller quantities matters too—especially for things like salt, yeast, and chemical leaveners—but chances are you’ll be fine most of the time if you do stick to teaspoons/tablespoon amounts and are careful about leveling.

  • In certain instances, where the standard amount is more often portioned by volume and where a little variation in the total won’t make or break a recipe, I will give volume amounts preferentially to weights. Good examples of this would be the butter in a biscuit recipe, or whole eggs in pancakes. In the U.S., butter is easiest measured by sticks or tablespoons, and eggs are obviously the sort of thing you want to use in whole numbers whenever possible. (I always try to round to the nearest tablespoon of butter or whole large egg when developing recipes anyway.)

I’ve already started implementing this new approach to recipe-writing, starting with the work-in-progress recipe for easy drop biscuits that I sent out to subscribers yesterday. (Reading it, you may note that I’ve also started using articles in my recipes, though I’m positive I’ve forgotten one or two out of habit.)

E-Z Drop Biscuits
As I hinted at last week, this is the first of my new subscriber-only “work-in-progress” recipes. This recipe is pretty solid, actually. What is a work-in-progress in this case is that it is part of a……
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This is a precise figure.