Olivia on ideas and writing

Olivia Judson

Olivia Judson, a science writer and New York Times blogger, used to be a colleague of mine at The Economist in London when I started there in the late 1990s. She then left and went on to do lots of very interesting things. This always thrilled me vicariously because it offered proof that there is indeed life after and outside of The Economist.

So I enjoyed reading her final blog post, in which she muses about her writing process as she leaves to take a book sabbatical. It’s a good read for any writer, whether the subject is science or not.

(Thanks to Dan Braganca over at the Renaissance Roundtable for the heads-up.)

About her job, Olivia feels rather as I feel about mine:

It’s like owning a pet dragon: I feel lucky to have it, but it needs to be fed high-quality meat at regular intervals . . . and if something goes wrong, there’s a substantial risk of being blasted by fire.

Which is in part why she’s decided to take some time off:

to ensure a supply of good meat in the future [by] reading, reflecting, and replenishing my stash of ideas.

Ahhh. Replenishment. I have my moments of yearning for that, too.

She also talks about how she gets and nurses ideas and writes. And again, I might have used the exact same words for myself:

For me, ideas are capricious. They appear at unpredictable (and sometimes inconvenient) moments — when I’m in the bath, falling asleep, jumping rope, talking to friends. They are also like buses — it’s never clear when the next one will come, or how many will arrive at once. So it’s important to catch them when they do appear: to that end, I have a list. It’s not well-organized — my desk is littered with scraps of paper and post-it notes, covered in scrawls like:….

The only difference for me is that I recently disciplined myself to move my list from scraps of paper to a Google Doc, which I share with my editor and colleagues so that they can see, whenever they please, what my list looks like at a given moment. (However, they never remember actually to look, so perhaps I’ll end up back on paper.)

She also touches on some of the things that I like to talk about here on The Hannibal Blog, such as the issues of length in writing and the risks of investigating and developing story ideas without knowing whether they will work:

having an idea is one thing; developing it is another. Some ideas look great from the bathtub, but turn out to be as flimsy as soap bubbles — they pop when you touch them. Others are so huge they can’t easily be treated in 1,500 words or less, or would take two or three months to prepare. Still others — luckily — are just right. But I don’t usually find out which is which until I begin to investigate them.

Best of luck, Olivia.

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Birthday eulogy to Darwin

Olivia Judson

Olivia Judson

Still apropos of Charles Darwin, whom The Hannibal Blog named runner-up for the title of greatest thinker ever: Olivia Judson commemorates his 200th birthday today with this fantastic biographical sketch of the man as well as the scientist. And a great man he was.

Olivia, incidentally, used to be a colleague of mine at The Economist. As a prank, she once dressed up as Dr Tatiana, a sultry sex expert, and apparently duped a senior editor just long enough for it to be embarrassing (to him) and memorable (to us). This led to a widely read Christmas Special in The Economist in which she plays agony aunt to critters from bees to spiders and counsels them on their sexual problems. This then led to an entire book.

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