Cookbooks – a different flavour of technical editing

Normally, when you think of technical editing, what comes to mind are documents such as journal articles, doctoral theses, government reports, software manuals and guidelines. You probably don’t think about cookbooks.

Cookbooks, however, are pretty technical beasts. Editing and proofreading cookbooks needs a terrier-like nose for inconsistencies. The big items to look out for are how to treat ingredient names, measurements and conversions, and how the methods are phrased.

For example, is it feta, fetta, or feta cheese? Yogurt, yoghurt or yoghourt? Cups and tablespoons or grams (ounces)? Are you placing the pasta (wholewheat or wholemeal?) in a medium saucepan over high heat? Are you sprinkling fresh coriander (cilantro) over the dish, to serve? How many fluid ounces are in 100ml? 3, 3¼ or 3½? Should it be 1 cup sliced strawberries or 1 cup strawberries, sliced (noting how these quantities will be different)?

Each of these decisions must be applied consistently throughout the cookbook. This is where a detailed style sheet is essential. Many publishers have in-depth style sheets and conversion charts but, where one isn’t supplied with a job, I’ll always make up one from scratch, including a word list (with alternative names), the preferred order of units (e.g. cups/metric/imperial), and details about heading hierarchies.

There are also structural decisions, which relate to how the book will be used by the reader/cook. Is this recipe in the correct chapter, or would it be better served in another chapter? Has there already been a similar recipe in this book? Is there something glaring that’s missing? Will the reader know what this ingredient is, or where to find it, or if it can be substituted?

Also needing consideration is the order of ingredients and phrasing of the method. Are the ingredients included in order of appearance in the method? Is there anything missing/extraneous? Does the method follow a logical order – are you preheating the oven before making the biscuit dough, for example? When should you be greasing and lining your cake tin? Does the recipe for Chilli Sauce that’s cross-referenced in the ingredients list exist, and is it named consistently throughout?

Perhaps most importantly, even though a cookbook is basically a technical food preparation manual, there is a certain magic to the culinary process. I don’t want to edit the life out of a cookbook, but I do want to make sure the reader keeps coming back for more.

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