I write long. A 2,000-word article or even a 4,000-word article? No problem.
What I have trouble with is saying everything I’d like to say in a limited space. That’s what I’ve been forced to do recently in two stories I’ve written, one on my hometown of Colorado Springs and one on Omaha, Nebraska. Each was 1,000 words plus sidebars.
That leaves little room for waxing on. I found the biggest challenge to be the “food” part. For the Omaha piece, I wanted to recommend five restaurants. But much of my word-allotment had already gone to describing the character of the city and what there is to see and do there.
I could devote only two or three sentences to each restaurant. And in that space I needed to provide a description that would give a reader a concrete feel for each place.
Luckily, I had in my notes exactly the fodder I needed.
That’s because I’d talked some time back with Kyle Wagner, Travel Editor at the Denver Post and for 15 years prior a restaurant critic.
She gave me her short list of what to look for when you’re dining out. Because you can’t simply tell a reader what there is to eat in a restaurant or that the food is “good.” You have to show him what the experience is like. You have to pass along to him the character of a place.
And to do that, you have to take note of a few critical things. Here’s what you do:
** 1) Pay attention to the way you’re greeted at the door. Your first impression can reveal a lot and set the tone for the meal. Do they come and greet you? Leave you standing there? Ask you to wait? Escort you to the bar and give you a complimentary cocktail to enjoy until your table is ready?
** 2) Try the signature dishes and the specials. The daily menu is “the grind.” A chef puts his soul into those special dishes. So sample them. If you’re eating in a region known for a particular dish, order that.
** 3) Familiarize yourself, ahead of time, with the retail prices of major wine labels. That will give you a benchmark against which you can gauge the prices on the wine list. There’s always a mark-up, of course. But if a restaurant is selling what you know to be a $10 bottle of wine for $60, you can bet that the prices on the food menu are similarly inflated. If that $10 bottle is on the menu for, say, $13, you’re looking at a good value.
** 4) Assess how you feel, overall, about the service. Was it efficient, friendly, pushy, neglected?
** 5) Think about how you’d describe the menu. Are you having a hard time picking something because it all sounds so good? Or do you have too many choices and find it overwhelming?
Kyle says that often when she leaves a restaurant she asks herself, “What would I tell my best friend about this place? If I were to go home right now, how would I describe it to her?” Answer that question, and it will often provide you the text you need.
Travelers are looking for a specific experience. They have an idea about what they want in a restaurant for any given meal. They know what they’re “in the mood for.”
It’s up to us, as travel writers, to give them a description about a place that’s engaging and accurate enough that a reader can scan it and say, “That sounds perfect”… and not be disappointed when they go.
If, while you’re dining, you pay attention to the five items Kyle highlighted, you’ll have some specifics in your mind. And with those specifics, you can build a description that’s engaging and accurate and helps a reader distinguish one place from another.
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]