HorrocksPhotoWriters are connoisseurs of criticism. At least, this is how I justify some of my love for the television program Top Chef. Each week the show’s “cheftestants” compete in cooking challenges judged by professional chefs, restaurateurs, food critics and celebrity guest-judges. Every episode features moments of creation and revision, as the chefs plan, execute and second-guess their dishes. After the food is consumed, the chefs appear before the “judges’ table” to receive criticism and advice. Watching these chefs is a lot like watching a writing workshop, if workshops involved more knives.

Happily they don’t, and unlike the dishes prepared in Top Chef, an essay is never irrevocably burnt or over-salted. A writer’s ingredients—our words—are endlessly malleable. Some days, this offers us hope; on others, it promises madness. No one will do you the grace of taking a problematic essay off your hands by eating your only copy. Sometimes you might wish someone would. But assuming you’re stuck with it, you need to be able to navigate revision advice. In the morass of reader comments that most writers have encountered—“What’s at stake for this character?”; “Where’s the ‘so what?’”; “It just didn’t come together for me,”—cooking competitions offer a useful lens for looking at revision. Sometimes a workshop leader will tell you to add salt; more often, everyone sits around and talks about how your essay tasted kinda weird. Analyzing your writing in culinary terms may help clarify your next steps (or it may just make you hungry).


1: “This wedding cake had no potential whatsoever,” or “It’s a great, big pile of suck.”

 – Judges in episodes 1.8 and 6.15

Translation/response: Your reader (or your own self-doubt) is wrong or lying, or both. Everything has potential. Everything serves a purpose. Your most terrible pages are the pages you needed to write to move on to the next ones. Learn what you can, salvage what you can, come back weeks or months or years later and see what you can do with it.


2: “It’s just this funky product that… shouldn’t exist.”

                                                – Chef Elia, on American cheese

Translation/response: This is doomed in its present form. Go back to the beginning. What made you want to create this particular piece? What ambition or need or experiment did it address? How can you answer that question again, having learned something new via this failure? Does the poem need to be a story? Is the novel really an essay?


3: “It’s a strange choice.” “It’s boring.” “It is so boring.”

– All of the judges, referring to the use of boneless, skinless chicken breasts in a dish meant to represent a turning point in the chef’s life

Translation/response: Time to put the re-vision into revision. There has been a failure of imagination here, a lack of ambition or effort. You might have made something palatable, but it isn’t worthy of you, of your subject, your characters, your skill. As Samuel Beckett would urge you, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”


4: “Why did he serve it in this giant bowl? The sauce ran all over the bottom of the plate. It was impossible to eat.”

– Multiple judges, multiple episodes

Translation/response: You’ve got a problem with form or structure or genre, but probably not on the level of, say, a story that needs to be a novel. Does the container you originally chose still fit the contents? Does changing the container suggest additional revisions? This isn’t as simple as swapping out plates, but changing the container can help the form and content evolve in interesting ways together.


5: “The dish approached the consistency of doll head.”

– Anthony Bourdain, on a lobster dish

Translation/response: There is something pretty wrong with your piece, on enough levels that your reader won’t or can’t separate them out or suggest a course of action. But “doll head” is probably not fatal. The concept and ingredients aren’t necessarily the problem. This was about execution. “Doll head” is about consistency, but it’s probably also about taste, texture, even temperature, all indicating that various specific things went wrong at specific points in the cooking process. Can you take a step back and think about which parts of your piece are involved, and how they’re co-creating, or failing to ameliorate, the doll-headedness? Do you need to pursue a radically different direction, or re-balance the current elements?


6: “The fish needed to be a little… brighter.”

– Multiple judges, multiple episodes

Translation/response: This is closely related to #7, and the difference may lie more in your readers than in your piece. Is the reader too uncertain or timid to make a more specific diagnosis? Or, maybe the usual solutions won’t quite work this time.

This is probably the most common type and level of revision. There is something your work needs, and it’s more than a garnish but less than fixing doll headedness (although see #13 on garnishes). It can be frustrating to emerge from a workshop or read-through with a sense of the gaps, but not what might fill them. But with experience, this can also be the most fun, rewarding kind of revision. As long as you accept that “brightness” is a worthy goal (and make sure you do before taking action—just because one person requests something doesn’t guarantee it’s necessary), experience will teach you ways to try and integrate that brightness into the work, or to make it arise from existing elements. You may attempt and discard multiple solutions, but you will teach yourself more in the process than any first draft will teach you. Revision is writing, especially this kind.


7: “The fish needed more acid.”

            – Multiple judges, multiple episodes

Translation/response: Hallelujah! If someone tells you all your piece needs is lemon juice, go slice a lemon. Even if your reader is wrong, the lemon may add a new flavor, or may suggest another fix. If the lemon actually makes the story worse, just revert to an earlier version, since you were smart enough to save your revisions as different files. Knowledge gained, no harm done.


8: Guest judge RuPaul: “Now, is this low-cal?”

Cheftestant: “Yes, there’s no butter, there’s no saturated fat.”

RuPaul: “Everything is organic?”

Cheftestant: “Everything is organic, right down to the chocolate.”

RuPaul: [tasting cheftestant’s dessert] “Needs butter.”

Translation/response: ______ is exactly what this story needs, even if your original concept was an experiment in excluding ______. If you trust the source, discard the experiment. Even if you don’t, try discarding the experiment. You’re likely to be the last person able to see when a beloved concept isn’t working. Yes, you need to have faith in your own strange or difficult ideas, but be wary of just falling on your sword. This revision hurts. Try it anyway.


9: “He went all over the place. He wanted to go for seven different textures and he really made white chocolate cauliflower foam. And I think that’s all I’ll say about that.”

– Chef Dale, about a fellow cheftestant

Translation/response: At least white chocolate cauliflower foam is interesting, right? I’d take a bite. I might not have a second bite, but I’d have one. Take heart. This dish is salvageable. Which is the most promising element? The cauliflower, or the chocolate, or the foam? At risk of sounding obvious: Do more of what’s working, less of what isn’t. Bring seven textures down to the strongest five, or three, or two. Save the other ingredients for a later dish.


10: Cheftestant: “It rose, but then I dumped a bunch of tortillas and stuff on top of it that made it drop.”

Anthony Bourdain: “I gotta say, you were clearly way out of your comfort zone and scrambling around for some way out of a bad situation right out of the gate. But the last thing a soufflé needs is more weight on top.”

Cheftestant: [shrugging] “I made glorified nachos. I’m not proud of it.”

Translation/response: Oh, you are so, so close. This is actually really good news! One of the great things about writing is that unlike soufflés, you can remove the tortillas and let the air back in. If you’re working at this level, you know how to engineer repairs, and you can see when the repairs didn’t do what you intended. Brush yourself off and get back to work. If you know what went wrong, you can figure out how to fix it.


11: Judge: “Why did you make a dessert?”

Cheftestant: “I thought the diners would be expecting one. I wanted to end with something sweet.”

Judge: “You didn’t have to make a dessert. We didn’t tell you to make a dessert. You know that’s not your strength.”

– All of the judges, nearly every time anyone makes a dessert

Translation/response: Writers, feel sorry for yourselves, because you always need to be able to make a dessert. That is, you always need to be able to finish off your piece in a manner that will satisfy the reader, whether that’s your strength or not. Many writers are terrified of endings. But when a reader says she doesn’t like the ending, the real issue usually occurs earlier in the piece. The ending probably isn’t going to get fixed by only tinkering with the ending. Try going earlier in the meal to figure out how you set up for that satisfying dessert.


12: “This plating is a mess.”

            – Multiple judges, multiple episodes

Translation/response: Your work had a great concept, great ingredients, great execution right up until the end, when you carelessly slapped it on the plate. Work on your line-editing skills, and put them to use. Have the loyalty to your own words and ideas to present them as perfectly as you can.


13: “Is this a garnish? What is it? Am I supposed to eat it? Why is there something on my plate that I can’t eat?”

– Multiple judges, multiple episodes

Translation/response: There should be nothing in the piece that doesn’t serve the piece. There should be nothing left on the page that is not essential. If you’ve kept some metaphorical parsley sprigs around because you liked the way they looked (or sounded), they need to go.


14: “I’m not needing to lick my plate… and that makes me sad.”

– Lorraine Bracco, guest judge

Translation/response: Well, she ate it all. So it must have been reasonably tasty. But now she’s looking for that extra-special something. Maybe, you do nothing. If the piece is solid, that desire for an extra something is going to vary enormously from reader to reader. Some will likely enjoy the piece as-is. Some will think it’s missing more than a little extra. This is a time to dig deep and ask yourself whether you think it’s still missing something. If you suspect it is, try to get your reader to help you by being more specific. If you don’t perceive any shortcomings, it’s possible that your piece is essentially done, and/or that you don’t have very useful readers.


15: “It’s about choices. Someone’s gotta say, ‘Hey, that looks like Pepto-Bismol! We can’t serve that. Let’s fix it. Let’s fix the problem.’”

– Chef Tom Colicchio, head judge

Translation/response: As Ernest Hemingway famously put it, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” That nagging suspicion you have that something is wrong, but you’re hoping your readers won’t notice it? They will. Don’t publish work you don’t feel good about, even if an editor is willing to take it. Hold on to readers who are willing to tell you if something isn’t right. Let yourself hear the things you don’t want to hear. Seek out the things you don’t want to hear.


And lastly, learn to walk away and celebrate sometimes, too:


16: “I can dig that flavor that’s got a hip tang to it. If it has flavor nicety of the highest order, and it has tang nicety that mixes in? Killer sauce. When I hit it, I can’t quit it.”

– Dr. John, musician and guest judge

Translation/response: But what exactly about the “flavor nicety” did… Oh, never mind. Thank you, reader. Glad you enjoyed it. (Go celebrate.)


Eventually a piece is finished, whether that moment comes when something is published or when, as writer Kevin McIlvoy has described it, you have put into it everything you know how to do, and taken from it everything it has to teach you. Sometimes that moment happens when the work feels perfect; sometimes the moment comes when the work feels anything but. Embrace both as parts of the process, not just for this piece, but for all the ones ahead of you.

Caitlin Horrocks is author of the story collection This Is Not Your City. Her stories and essays appear in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, The Pushcart Prize, The Paris Review, Tin House, One Story and other journals and anthologies. She is fiction editor of The Kenyon Review and teaches at Grand Valley State University and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.