How Cupcake Wars Can Make You a Better Writer

I am addicted to the show Cupcake Wars on the Food Network. If you are not familiar with it, the format is basically this: Four bakers come onto the show and compete over three rounds of baking. At the end of each round, a baker gets cut. In the final round, the two remaining bakers have to bake 1000 cupcakes and create a display (they have help) for them. The winner gets 10,000.00 and then takes their cupcakes and display to a high profile party of some sort.

If you’re on Cupcake Wars, it’s a pretty big deal. Your business can benefit from the exposure and the money.

Cupcake Wars has three judges. Two of them seem to always be the same, and the third is someone who represents the event the winner will be attending. Judges give feedback on exactly what you would expect – the way a cupcake looks and tastes as well as decorations and how well it all fits into the theme of the event the bakers are competing to attend.

It was in watching Cupcake Wars recently that I had an epiphany: Doctoral students need to watch this show – or something like it (Chopped would be a good alternative). Doing so could help them with their writing.

Say what?

I know, it seems to be pretty removed from writing, but I assure you it’s not. In fact, it might be super helpful because it isn’t about writing at all. And since it’s not about writing at all it can help students connect to larger ideas about the writing process. Here’s how:

  • In Cupcake Wars, everything matters – every single little thing. It starts at a global level (is the cupcake dry? do the flavors work? is the icing melted all over the cake?) and then gets nuanced (what do we think about these decorations? are they too small? too large? do they look appropriate?)


  • In writing a manuscript everything matters – every single little thing. You start with the big idea. Eventually you get to the point where you are making edits at the section level, then at the paragraph level, then the sentence level, and finally the word level. Everything in that manuscript has to serve the purpose of your argument or it must go. if you want a spot in a coveted, top-tier journal, everything has to line up. Just like Cupcake Wars. Just like Chopped.

If I was teaching a class of doctoral students how to write, I would have them watch one of these two shows and pay attention to what they notice. What increases your chances of winning? How do competitors handle feedback from judges? What do competitors do with that feedback? How well do their decisions serve them?

The key here is to use something other than a piece of text to get students thinking about issues in their writing. By placing them in a different environment, and asking them to identify how a cooking competition can inform their writing, they have to look at something familiar (writing) in a strange environment. We’ve made the familiar strange.  Once you make the familiar strange, students can let go of preconceived ideas because they don’t have anything to hold on to and start to think about some of the larger issues around writing and what makes a good manuscript.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t have students look at mentor texts – we totally should. But there is real value to forcing them out of their box and having them think about writing in a context that looks nothing like writing and yet still carries similar aspects. They still have to be engaged with considering what it means to create a high quality product.

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