Advice for Writers

by Len Wilson

One of the most important lessons I try to impart to aspiring writers is that what is unique is your framing of an idea or concept, not the concept itself.

Let me explain through a story about cooking.

The other day I was texting our young adult children about a summer plan to help them learn some basics about cooking. Three of our four are about to leave the nest, and as the family chef I am eager to make sure they have the skills they need to cook on their own. As I considered how to teach them what I’ve learned over my last 15 years of serious interest in the culinary arts, I remembered hearing about a four part rubric which I had found particularly helpful a few years ago. It took me a minute to find it online.

Here it is: 

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

A Simple Mnemonic Makes It Memorable

I hadn’t realized until I looked it up that it is also the name of a book, written by Samin Nosrat and published by Simon & Schuster in 2017. From this wonderful article by the National Post:

Chef and writer Samin Nosrat arrived at her theory of the four elements of good cooking through practice, using it as a mnemonic device to guide her.

Nosrat named what she discovered were four essential elements to cooking. 

Of course, none of this was new. It was her mnemonic device that was unique. Mnemonics are systems, often wordplays, to help memory. But good mnemonics are more than test cheats; they facilitate understanding. What she calls a mnemonic, I call a schema: a basic outline or model that represents an entire theory. When done well, schemas are incredibly valuable.

Critically, she describes in the article that her realization came to her in her apprenticeship as a chef. She recalls,

"Nosrat had only been cooking professionally for a year, at the esteemed Berkeley, Calif. restaurant Chez Panisse, when she first mentioned her four-element theory to a more experienced colleague, chef Christopher Lee."

The mnemonic helped her in her own budding understanding of the knowledge she was gaining. She saw a pattern in the knowledge she was gaining, and the pattern helped make the learning more memorable.

The timing here is important. It is often when we’re just getting to know a discipline that we can see with eyes that are experienced, yet still new. 

Experts May Think Your Observation is Too Simple…

More experienced voices may not appreciate such schemas, or dismiss them as too simple. The experts may not be wrong. Schematics are, according to most definitions, insufficient to fully address the complexities of the subject matter. 

She goes on:

"It was just one of those moments where I really felt like I’d stumbled onto something and I brought it to him and he just laughed,” she says.

"He was like, ‘Oh, you think you’ve figured something out? We already all know that.’ But for me, what was so shocking in that moment was that I felt like I had come to this great realization. It wasn’t a great realization because they already knew it, but nobody had ever told me.”

Catch that last line: Nobody had ever told me.

I love this! Nosrat realized something unique. It wasn’t the use of any of the four elements, which have been around forever and each have numerous books on them. It was her simple articulation of the four of them together which, in her own development, personally unlocked for her a profound new understanding. 

In my professional role as an editor and publisher, I once heard an academic, a well-respected professor of missiology, dismiss the success of a popular writer on Christian mission as a “popularizer.” He was complaining that the popular writer was not bringing anything new to the discipline. What he clearly was bringing, however, was a schema that helped facilitate learning. We should all be such popularizers.

…But The Simplicity is the Brilliance…

I have not been to culinary school. As an amateur, I have found her four words quite helpful, and I plan on using them to teach my children. I will start with heat, then move to salt and spices, then fat, then acid. BOOM! Personal curriculum, done. 

By the way, even if I had been to culinary school, I might still find her four words to be a good introductory framework. 

Others apparently think so, too. Nosrat’s book has over 22,000 Amazon reviews, was named Best Culinary Book of 2017 by over 19 publications, and she now teaches everyone from beginners to professionals. I wonder what her old colleagues at Chez Panisse think about her success. 

…As Long As it Covers the Majority of It

While any schema, like any metaphor or other literary device, eventually breaks down, good ones cover enough of a discipline to warrant understanding.

For my friends who are Christian writers, consider some of the most popular mnemonic devices or rubrics of the last century: Chapman’s Five Love Languages, Neibuhr’s Christ and Culture, the Enneagram. The value each one brings is the simple summary of a complex topic.

This doesn’t mean the mnemonic is perfect. In fact, it’s probably missing something. But it spurs conversation, which in turn reveals understanding. Newbies and amateurs benefit from it. Experts use it to help argue counter positions, even as they may complain about its pop culture sensibilities.

Cooking is a discipline that is thousands of years old, but Nosrat’s framework is helping me to learn and to teach my children. What more can you ask for?

Takeaway: What Has Helped You to Learn What You Know?

Now, to apply this to your work of writing. What has helped you to learn what you know? Back to the Nosrat article, which says,

"When Nosrat started at Chez Panisse, she dove into the restaurant’s list of seminal cookbooks. What surprised her, she says, is that these guiding principles weren’t articulated in any of them. She knew then that she would eventually write a book on the subject. The only problem was, as a 'baby chef,' she needed the expertise to back it up.

'I got out a notepad, I started writing and I didn’t have much to say,' she says with a laugh. 'So, it stuck with me and it became the system that I was filing everything I learned into. Whether or not I was actively paying attention to it, everything seemed to naturally fall into these four elements, more or less.'”

“It became the system that I was filing everything I learned into.”

As I think back to my education in various disciplines, such as communication, biblical studies, theology, and writing, in every endeavor I have created mental schemas, or frameworks to facilitate my own understanding. Rarely did I ever think that what I was doing for personal benefit may actually help others. This article is an attempt to articulate a method I have used my entire intellectual life, and in whom I found a kindred spirit in Samin Nosrat.

I encourage you, writer, to think about your own mental frameworks. How have you come to the understanding that now defines your expertise? What simple schemas might you have employed that would actually facilitate learning for others?

What helps others—what sells and garners awards—usually isn’t a revolutionary new thought, never before discovered by anyone, but your framing of it. 

Salt, fat, acid, and heat—so simple, aren’t they?