I noticed something interesting as we made our way through New Orlean’s restaurant scene last spring, and it’s transforming the way I think about my writing career: the highest rated restaurants were known for one good dish.

New Orleans is an old city, and many of the highly rated dining establishments have been around for 50+ years.  Clearly they’re doing something right. But at a first glance you’d never guess there’s anything special about Hansen’s Sno-balls, Central Grocery’s Muffeletta sandwiches, Casamento’s oysters, Domalises’ Po-boys or Café du Monde’s beignets—besides the fact they all have lines out the door.

At Hansen’s, the building needs a paint job and the floors are cracking.  At Casamento’s and Domalises’s the tables are 1960s cafeteria quality and so are all the serving dishes.  And almost all of the restaurants; interiors use fading newspaper reviews as their wall décor, proof they’ve been well loved by critics for years but haven’t a clue when it comes to restaurant ambience.

Here’s are three things New Orleans’ restaurants taught me about writing:

1. Perfect the burger first; add sides later.

I started dabbling with the idea of pursuing a writing career soon after graduating college. The problem was I didn’t know what I wanted to write about or how to go about making any money.  As I started to tell people about my writing dreams, I was approached with some interesting freelance projects–everything from ghostwriting a book, to editing, to boring copywriting assignments. Some of these projects were paid; many of them weren’t. At first I said yes to everything. Soon I realized that I was helping other people pursue their goals without ever defining my own. Good restaurants, and good writers, establish one good dish before tackling the sides.  Are you too busy focusing on the sides before you’ve established who you are, and what you want to write about?

2.  People won’t notice a hole in the wall if their face is buried in the food.

I used to live in Sacramento, where there’s a great dining scene, but plenty of restaurants crashed and burned over the years. I remember one hip Japanese fusion place that opened a few years ago to lots of positive press. The interior had undergone a major remodel with specialty lighting, fancy furniture and an impressive bar. But the food was—eh—not so great. The restaurant closed in less than six months! I’ve seen the same thing happen with blogs. These days it’s very tempting to focus on designing a beautiful blog before creating great content. But while the look of a website is important, it’s not what people remember. People remember how your words make them think differently, look at the world with hope, or change their perspective.  Are you more focused on ambience or food? Does your perspective need to change?

3.  Know when it’s not oyster season.

New Orleans is known for great oysters, and you can certainly find them on most restaurant menus year-round. Except at Casamento’s. Every summer, Casamento’s shuts down for a few months because it’s NOT oyster season. I think it takes big guts for a restaurant to temporarily close each year, but it doesn’t seem to have affected the restaurant’s popularity.  I’d imagine the time off allows owners to refocus before coming back with greater purpose and pleasure. A few summers ago I took extended time off from blogging because I’d lost my mojo.  I spent time journaling and reading, two hobbies that actually help my writing process but I wasn’t making time for. I came back to my blog with more creativity and passion than I had in a long time. Have you ever thought about taking a sabbatical from your normal writing routine?

Do you have any simple tips for improving your writing? Do share!


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