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How I Write and Learn

Mise en Place: What Does Cooking Have to Do with Writing Anyway?

By Rory, a Writing Coach

Like lots of people, during the height of the pandemic I got more interested in cooking. One of the things I learned about was mise en place – basically all the prep work before you start cooking. A chef will dice up all the vegetables, pour out and measure their oil and broth, and weigh out the spices before starting a recipe. Each ingredient is in it’s own bowl, laid out in easy reach, and each utensil is on the counter, ready to be grabbed when the recipe calls for it. Having everything laid out and in its proper place would make the cooking process so much less stressful for me. I could just focus on cooking and bringing the recipe together into a delicious meal. 

I never thought cooking and writing would come together until I started writing my dissertation and found myself daunted by the task ahead of me. Writing something the length of a dissertation is something that I have never done before, and I can find it to be incredibly overwhelming. I realize every now and then that this is something that is supposed to be the length of a book – how am I ever supposed to complete something that large, and where should I even begin? I keep having this vision of the completed dissertation existing somewhere in the future – it already exists in its completed form, and all the little pieces of writing that I am doing somehow are a part of it, but I can’t quite see how they will all fit together. It’s like groping for the lightswitch in the dark. I know it is there, but have no idea if I’m above it, below it, or even facing the right direction.

To help manage this feeling of helplessness, I have started to apply my experience with mise en place to writing. This takes the form of setting specific goals for myself as I write. 

Every week, I plan out when, where, and for how long I will work on my dissertation. I spend at least fifteen minutes writing out on a notecard specific sections I want to complete, and when I will get them done. I came up with this strategy as a way for me to feel like I am making tangible progress on the larger project that is my dissertation – if I have specific small goals written out (usually these take the form of SMART goals), that means I get to cross them off once I have completed them. There’s something incredibly satisfying about scribbling through a goal that I have met – it means I have made progress (no matter how small it might be) on my dissertation, much like finishing up organizing all my spices in individual ramekins so they are ready to go when I start cooking a recipe. 


Papers piled up on a pink background
That serotonin boost that comes from crossing off an item on the list


Another benefit of this strategy is that as I am putting this list together, I will realize in order to complete one specific task, there is something else I will have to do first. This helps me avoid the thing I hate most about working on a research project – sitting down to write one thing, only to realize that there’s a lot of prep/legwork that has to be done first. Usually I get really demoralized and frustrated and end up not doing a lot of work. By using my goal-setting time to preemptively find these moments though, I can make sure that I don’t get derailed when I sit down to write later. Tracking and hunting down that source I need is chopping up my carrots, copying and pasting my direct quotes from my notes page into my dissertation draft is dicing my onions, and understanding where this section fits into the rest of my dissertation is getting all the pots and pans ready. That way, when it’s time to write (or cook), I can focus on the task at hand. 

I’ve also made goals a crucial part of how I finish up a writing session. Once I’ve reached a point where I feel comfortable stopping for the day, I wrap up by planning out what my goals for the next time I sit down to write will be. I see it as doing future me a favor – if I have some headings about what specific paragraphs will be about, or have quotes and citations already in the document, that will make the next writing session less painful. These basically lay out all the controlling ideas (this idea is discussed more in our paragraphs handout) of my next few paragraphs, which means that when I sit down next, I won’t be starting from nothing and be facing the vast blankness of the dissertation. Instead I will have specific goals prepared and ready for me.  I will have already done my mise en place work ahead of time so I can focus all my attention on writing my draft. Like a delicious meal, a good draft only comes together with the right preparation. 

While that dissertation may not be done yet, thanks to goal setting I have been able to begin to start to imagine it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it takes the form of a completed meal. The introduction is the cocktail served with dinner, complementing the entire meal and preparing the taste buds for what is to come. The roasted beets of Chapter 1 brighten the tang of the goat cheese and walnut salad that is Chapter 3, which in turn offers a refreshing contrast to the richness of the braised short ribs that make up Chapter 2. Each dish is an individual chapter; each is unique but when paired on the plate together they bring out the best flavors of each other.


This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach, a peer tutor, or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here.

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