A Masterclass with Jay Rayner

Want to improve your food writing? Sign up, as I did, for an online class with the guv'nor himself, Jay Rayner. There is no such thing as food writing, he declares. Well, that's me telt.

He is, of course, quite correct. There is writing on the subject of food. The best proponents of the art can stimulate your appetite, can magic you into far flung dining rooms, can make you swoon with vicarious pleasure. They are never boring. And that despite the fact that they are discoursing on the same topic week after week after week after week.

I don't plan on spilling too many beans. Leaving aside the fact that it would be an inelegant thing for a food writer (sorry, a writer about food) to do, this is a course which Jay may stage again. In that case I would encourage you to shell out the few quid which it cost for a couple of very entertaining hours. I missed the live session and caught up the following day. As it happens this was fortunate, since the original suffered a few technical hitches which were largely resolved by the Sunday. The scheduled 90 minutes turned out to be two hours' worth. The man gives value for money.

In addition, a good number of fundamental truisms. The first of these is the most sobering. Remember, he intones gravely, that no one has to read a single word you write. Ever. Ain't that the truth? There are weeks when even L, my editor and number one critic, has to be cajoled or threatened to open the blog and thus double my readership. I jest, but in the early days the limited number of hits on the site was enough to make me think seriously about jacking it in. I don't pretend fully to understand the Google Analytics which makes interesting graphs in the background, but there are more than two of you these days, for which many thanks.

After the session is over, I scan my back catalogue with increasing anxiety. How striking are my first lines? Not very. Do I use lots of parentheses - you know the sort of thing - with dashes (or do I mean brackets) or both? Oops. And what about ellipses? The three dots... These should be used only to indicate omitted text, says Jay firmly. They do not denote some kind of suspense. Do I agree with him on this? Hmm... Where I am with him 100% is in his aversion to exclamation marks. They are for screaming, not to tell your reader you've said something interesting or witty. And for those of you who are commenting on the titles Tom's Food!, Tom Cooks! and Tom Eats! I respond that if such wondrous blogs aren't worth shouting about, I don't know what is. Well, at least that's one Rayner test which we passed.

Good writing is, I think, very much like good food. It's indefinable, it's transient and you enjoy it very much at the time. And bad food writing? It turns the stomach more certainly than a dodgy mussel, and there is far too much of it around. But in a few days it will be Sunday. The Sabbath day has many pleasures: one of the finest of these is Jay Rayner's food column.

Out of courtesy, I sent Jay a link to an advance copy of this article. To be truthful I didn't think he'd have time to look at it, never mind to respond. But within the hour he replied- 

Thank you Tom. That's very much appreciated. And your point about me possibly staging the class again is a good one. If I do, I now have elegantly written promotional material.

Thank you, sir.


  1. Janet Trewin on 24th March 2021 at 5:51 pm

    Really interesting, Tom. I’m with you about the dots… not entirely convinced that they should only be there for the grammatically correct role of denoting omitted words. As for explanation marks, when I wrote my first book on the subject of journalism and presentation, the sub editor went through it and did very little to change it…(see what I did just there?!) except remove a shed-load of exclamation marks. They have the effect of down-grading or undermining the meaning if you put in too many. However, I freely admit , even to this day, I have a radical and apparently incurable case of exclamationosis!!!

    • Tom Johnston on 25th March 2021 at 9:10 am

      I had a fairly grumpy old English teacher in second year. With hindsight, he was actually a pretty decent teacher and did encourage creative writing. One day he ripped into us all for using exclamation marks, making exactly the same point as Jay. I’ve been fairly averse to using them since, though I sometimes give my guest contributors more leeway than I should. Speaking of which, you’re a journalist. What about a pithy, witty 800-ish word piece on something food related, preferably something I could use for Tom Eats!?

  2. Michael Greenlaw on 24th March 2021 at 11:20 pm

    I am not surprised by Jay’s response to your advance copy of the article – very acute and quite right to incorporate it into the end result – says a lot about him – and you.

    • Tom Johnston on 26th March 2021 at 5:41 pm

      Aw shucks.

  3. Jill Blair on 26th March 2021 at 5:59 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed it too, Tom, I got so much out of it. I emailed Jay with a couple of questions afterwards and he was just lovely with his responses. An absolute gent.

    • Tom Johnston on 26th March 2021 at 6:16 pm

      I couldn’t agree more. I’ve been to a couple of his live events to promote his books. The scripted first half is always fun, but the second half with a Q & A session is even better. At one of them I was buying a few books as presents. He insisted on signing them all and chatted happily about my scribblings.

  4. Irene Hunter on 28th March 2021 at 7:22 pm

    Glad to know that Jay recognises an excellent fellow-writer when he reads one!
    Well- deserved recognition, Tom!
    When I see Jay, I am also reminded of his Mother, the late, wonderful Claire Rayner, who was a legend in her time.

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