Writers, lose your notebooks


No, I don’t mean that all of you should literally throw them away right now. In fact, I keep all of my notebooks, going back years, officially for libel-defense purposes but really out of superstition. But that’s not what this post is about. It’s really about the following anecdote.

I happen to live next door to Michael Lewis, an author of several bestsellers (Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, et cetera). He and I were walking down the hill once to get some lunch. We got to talking about the time that he came back from a big reporting trip for a book, only to discover …. that his notebook was gone!

“And it turned out….”, I began asking.

“Oh, much, much better,” he said.

And we both cracked up.

When my notebook lost me

Here is a brief description of my early years as a journalist, which is the experience that made me laugh at (ie, understand) Michael’s response.

When I started, I was so enthusiastic about observing every last detail and capturing every quote by everybody I met that I agonized over my note-taking. I could not write fast enough. In the evenings, I took a night course in shorthand (Teeline). I was the only guy; all the others seemed to be young ladies training to be secretaries (somebody should have told them that this wouldn’t prove so useful in their careers). But even that didn’t help. I never got fast enough.

So I had the quintessential writer’s predicament: Do you live, absorb, participate, think, see, hear, smell, act? Or do you stop life, and write it all down?

Recording interviews, with one of those little gadgets, didn’t help either. I didn’t like fiddling with them, and they usually intruded into the conversation, pointing at my interviewee like a dart that might be poisonous. Those things distracted me, and I threw them away.

Even so, I did capture quite a lot. I observe well, and I get “good quote” out of people. So, for a while, I was writing my articles quote to quote, detail to detail. Today, I believe that was the worst writing I have ever done.

At least close it

Around that time I heard John Micklethwait give somebody advice. The lady was having writer’s block, and John, the quintessential British cavalier, said, roughly:

“First, close your notebook. Then trust that it will come.”

(These days, John is The Economist‘s editor-in-chief–ie, my boss–so the trick must have worked for him. ;))

Relax and trust

Writing, and all storytelling, is necessarily a two-step process: 1) You live. 2) You pause, re-live and tell. You can’t merge the two artificially by writing everything down as it happens. If you try, you only interfere with Part 1).

Instead, good writers know how to relax. Only when the brain is relaxed does it make the lateral connections, the quirky associations that we call creativity. And only when you are relaxed can your interview partners relax as well.

Good writers then trust. They trust that ‘it’ comes back to them. And ‘it’ does. What is ‘it’? It is whatever comes back!

By the time it comes back, it is like water that has percolated through sediment and become pure and clean and potable. A writer’s memory is therefore like a filter, provided the writer lets it be that. What it filters is the entire overwhelming world of detail, so that only a few–the right ones–run onto the screen and become life-giving, texture-giving color.

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Meaningless quotes by non-entities

Good things happen whenever I clean out my old emails. Here is one from our editor at The Economist, John Micklethwait, regarding the use and misuse of quotations in writing:

At our meeting on Friday I read out part of a letter … by Alan Parker, who used to work for us in the 1970s, and its main point was to explain – in a touchingly matter-of-fact way – that he had just discovered that he was about to die (which he did indeed do two weeks after he sent the letter). … I still think one part of it is worth passing on:

“I shall continue to read The Econ for the rest of my life, as my sub will outlast me. I shall enjoy it of course, but I should enjoy it even more if my death-wish could be granted: viz, that the editor decrees that henceforth all meaningless and trivial quotes should be excised before the copy gets anywhere near him. I cannot abide the constant oscillation between (a) serious reporting, and (b) meaningless quotes by non-entities. All I want is the story, clear and concise and preferably with a bit of style. As soon as I get to “Joe Bloggs, an accountant, says ‘these are big numbers'”, I turn over the page….”

I think he had a point. One of our hallmarks has always been avoiding the gratuitous quotes that slow down our rivals. Obviously, we should quote people when they are saying something new and refreshing – just as we should credit other news organisations. And I also accept that good sources occasionally need some form of payback; but, if you want to bring them into the story, make sure they are saying something that is original, which does not slow down the piece.

In general, our rule with quotes should be that either the singer or the song should be interesting. Thus “America is in trouble in Iraq” is worth using only if, say, the speaker is George Bush. But I would add three particular bugbears of mine. The first is beginning a paragraph with a general quote from an uninteresting source (“America is in trouble in Iraq” says Dwight Smith of the Foreign Policy Institute), when we are really just introducing a new part of our argument – and very little of what follows could be seen as Mr Smith’s unique insight. Quote Mr Smith later by all means if he has uncovered a new fact about National Guard numbers, or use him as an example of one side of a debate; but don’t hand over the paragraph to him – unless he deserves it. Second, where we do quote, we should whenever possible simplify intrusively long titles (so “Professor Dr John Smith, head of special research projects at the Joe. A. Doe  Global New Media Centre at Massachessetts Institute of Technology” becomes John Smith of MIT). And, lastly, one word is often preferable to a full quote: “This research strikes me, on the basis of available evidence, as dubious,” said Professor John Smith etc can happily become, “The research is “dubious”, reckons John Smith of MIT”.

The alternative is more people turning over the page.

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