How the Great British Baking Show Made Me a Better Writer

Who doesn’t love reality TV? Add in some tasty-looking bakes, delectable British accents, and splashes of dry humor, and the Great British Baking Show is a nearly irresistible Netflix binge.

For the uninitiated, the show (known as the Great British Bake-Off, or GBBO, in the U.K.) features twelve amateur bakers competing against each other in a well-worn culinary reality show format: three challenges, two judges, and one eliminated contestant per episode.

What’s less familiar about the show is the warmth it brings to the messy process of creating, critiquing, and ranking creative products. As I indulged in (an undisclosed number of) episodes over Thanksgiving, I found striking parallels between the experience of the show’s bakers and my own experience as writer.

If you’re looking to justify your own GBBO addiction, look no further. Here’s what I found:

Creatives support creatives

Almost immediately after I started watching, I was struck by how often bakers helped each. This is a competition, right? Most reality shows play up competition, rather than compassion. But on GBBO, seeing one baker help another plate tortes in the waning minutes of a challenge is hardly rare.

This camaraderie between creatives reminded me of how often I see writers support each other, either online or in real life. As I’ve become increasingly serious in my writing, I’ve found writers eager to help—by giving critique or lending a listening ear or sharing tips of the trade—at every turn.

More often than not, I’ve seen creative types empathize, rather than compete, and give more than they take. Remembering that helps me feel safe in sharing my work with other writers and makes me feel all warm and gooey (not unlike a great pudding) about helping other writers.

Critique is kind

Speaking of sharing one’s work—critique is an intimidating process, and a huge part of GBBO and culinary reality TV in general. While I’ve gotten more comfortable with it over the years, I still don’t exactly savor the (very necessary) process of having my work’s ugly undersides pointed out.

Where GBBO differs from most shows of its kind is in the delivery of the critique. It’s not just that the judges tend to compliment sandwich (that is, burying the critique between layers of positives). It’s the dispassionate, clear-eyed objectivity they bring to the task. A baker’s torte citron is underdone, never “bad.” A bread is underproved, but perhaps still delicious. The judges key in on the exact areas for improvement, rarely describing a bake with an overarching adjective.

As a writer, I’ve often feared that critique would lead to a rendering of my work as being “bad”—as if a critiquer has a tiny gavel that will sound a final judgment. This, however, has never been my actual experience with critique. Instead I’ve learned that my meter is off here, that my plot lags there. This kind of critique is a gift (and the topic of my next blog post).

Faces tell stories

If I can read faces at all, I’m pretty sure the bakers of GBBO aren’t too keen on critique either. Like many reality shows, GBBO delights in tightly framing the contestants’ faces as they bake, encounter obstacles, and especially, wait for the judges to give feedback.

For a writer, this is an incredible opportunity to practice describing facial expressions. Is Luis chewing on his lip? Is Richard rocking back-and-forth between his heels and toes? Is Martha rubbing the cuffs of her shirt? Paying close attention to the bakers’ non-verbal cues helped me think through how I could describe characters’ emotional states through telling details.

Knowing when to press on and when to start again

Almost every episode features a dilemma familiar to every writer—what to do with a creation that isn’t turning out as hoped. Press on and hope for the best, or toss it in the trash and try again?

For the bakers, this decision is often based on the ever-limited time remaining in the challenge. For us writers, the decision can rest on the potential we see in our work. For both groups, starting over can be a heart-wrenching, but necessary, exercise to achieve the best product possible.

While the time lost on a first attempt can feel wasted, it is a natural part of the creative process. Businesses lose merchandise; we all lose socks in the laundry; no one is able to produce great work 100% of the time.

You are not your bake (or story)

Finally, remembering that we all have stumbles and duds helped me remember that I am not my writing.

Writing, like all creative pursuits, is a form of self-expression. This simple truth can be overextended into the (absolutely untrue) idea that we are what we create. On GBBO, bakers excel in one challenge to falter in the next or pull out a show-stopping finale to save themselves from elimination. Nothing about the bakers—certainly not their value as people or as creators—has changed from one challenge to the next.

An awful bake does not make an awful baker. A lousy story does not make a lousy writer. We are, and we do. These things are connected, but not the same.


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