Slowing down to save time


“I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.” So Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician and philosopher, allegedly excused himself once. Or perhaps it was Mark Twain or George Bernard Shaw.

It’s witty, it’s ironic, it’s true: that’s why any of them might have said it.

Here is how I know that: I write for The Economist, and most of our articles are short. I’ve opined on the subject of optimal length in writing before, but in this context, let’s just say that it is the shortening that takes all of the time.

Because I have so little time, I got into the bad habit of not shortening, and not cleaning up, my emails. You see, there were too many emails, and I was too busy to take time for any one of them. (Bear with me. You’re supposed to find an irony building.)

But why were there so many emails in the first place? Oh yes, because all sorts of people (mainly PR people, but also others) are writing me emails. And those are all busy, busy, busy people, with very little time. So their emails are long and sloppy. They refer to an attachment that is missing. They invite me to an event on the wrong date, or omit the date, or the place, even as they somehow find paragraphs of other things to say.

So then, since we are all so very, very busy, we shoot the emails back and forth to clarify this and rectify that, and the threads grow and take more of our time, making us even busier and requiring us to write even faster, thus making our emails longer and sloppier….

So, for a few months, I’ve been trying an experiment. I respond less fast, and often not at all. When I do email, I take more time. I actually read through emails before I push Send. I check that phone numbers and dates are correct, and that all the information is there. I think about what is extraneous and what I can cut.

Lo, the threads are getting ever so slightly shorter, the iterations fewer, the decisions more decisive.

Fewer words → more meaning
Less activity → more action

To my surprise, I am finding that, by slowing down, I have more time. If, like Pascal, I need to write a letter, I might now be able to make it … shorter. I hope I can keep this up.

The Atlantic on the success of The Economist

Michael Hirschorn

Michael Hirschorn

Our success at The Economist continues to baffle and intrigue an entire industry.

Where some postulate that it is our tone (analogous to coffee beans “shat out be a civet cat“), others are analyzing our position as simultaneously niche and global, which is no longer oxymoronic but suddenly à la mode.

Michael Hirschorn in The Atlantic is the latest. As he puts it,

The Economist has become an arbiter of right-thinking opinion (free-market right-center, if you want to be technical about it; with a dose of left-center social progressivism) at a time when arbiters in general are in ill favor.

This is the American part of any article about us, which is always amusing, since there is a one-word synonym for the convoluted phrase “free-market right-center, if you want to be technical about it; with a dose of left-center social progressivism”: That word is liberal.

But Hirschorn is really interested in why we are doing well when Time and Newsweek, which are trying to copy us, are not.

The easy lesson might be that quality wins out. The Economist is truly a remarkable invention—a weekly newspaper, as it calls itself, that canvasses the globe with an assurance that no one else can match. Where else, really, can you actually keep up with Africa? But even as The Economist signals its gravitas with every strenuously reader-unfriendly page, it has never been quite as brilliant as its more devoted fans would have the rest of us believe. (Though, one must add, nor is it as shallow as its detractors would tell you it is.)

Here he is expressing what I’ve observed to be a persistent sour-grapes, cringing, squinting snobbishness toward The Economist from American journalists at the “good” publications: They always feel compelled to call us “smug”.

Indeed, he does:

At its worst, the writing can be shoddy, thin research supporting smug hypotheses.

I don’t actually disagree. But Hirschorn then comes around to what I’ve been saying internally at The Economist for a while now:

The Economist prides itself on cleverly distilling the world into a reasonably compact survey. Another word for this is blogging, or at least what blogging might be after it matures.

This of course leads to an irony that we at The Economist all savor:

For a magazine that effectively blogged avant la lettre, The Economist has never had much digital savvy…. most of the magazine’s readers seem to have no idea the site exists. While other publications whore themselves to Google, The Huffington Post, and the Drudge Report, almost no one links to The Economist. It sits primly apart from the orgy of link love elsewhere on the Web.

As it happens, this missing “link love” was the topic of my presentation at our internal powwow last fall in Danesfield. The title of my talk was “Google Juice”. I was offering thoughts on how to increase our link love, but Hirschorn thinks that our relative dearth of it

turns out to have been a lucky accident. Unlike practically all other media “brands,” The Economist remains primarily a print product, and it is valued accordingly. …

By that he means that we are really friggin’ expensive. He then signs off with an interesting thought:

General-interest is out; niche is in. The irony, as restaurateurs and club-owners and sneaker companies and Facebook and Martha Stewart know—and as The Economist demonstrates, week in and week out—is that niche is sometimes the smartest way to take over the world.

I like that. That’s exactly what I might try to do when my book comes out.

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Slowness and the young author

Orville Schell

Orville Schell

I recently caught up with Orville Schell, a great Sinologist, former dean of Berkeley’s Journalism School (where he asked me to teach) and author of, wait for it, fourteen books! (To me, of course, Orville is above all one of my three mentors.)

Since then, I’ve been pondering what Orville told me about book editors and book editing, and indeed the entire fascinating change inside an author’s mind that occurs between the initial delivery of the manuscript and the printing of the final product.

The reason, of course, is that I am currently in exactly this phase. It has been almost two months since I sent my manuscript to Riverhead, the publisher. The book industry runs in a parallel time dimension, so I knew this would take a while. So I’m absolutely (and in a very positive way) fascinated by how my own mind is filtering the long (110,000-word) text that I just sent off. And of course I’m eager to hear how my editor will react.

Some editors, Orville said, don’t edit at all. That’s a good thing only if they are terrible editors. The best editors, says Orville, see the manuscript as a long and detailed outline, a sketch of what is to come, the genotype of the phenotype that will result. That’s because so often–at least in Orville’s experience–the real book emerges during this waiting period, as the author’s mind, with help from his editor, digests its own product, tests it, does violence to it, stirs it up, cleans it up and finally emits … a thing of beauty.

This, therefore, is one of the big differences between blogging, magazine-writing and book-writing: Time.

The blogger disdains time. The magazine-writer by turns battles, fears and overcomes time. Only the book writer learns to love, savor and appreciate time. (I happen to be all three, of course.)

Time can do good things to a text, especially if the author’s immodest hope is that it become timeless.

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Time: you might have sooo much of it

Clay Shirky

Both in my “day job” at The Economist and in my new role as aspiring author, I spend a lot of time thinking about people’s … time. Do people who might read my book when it comes out even have the time to do so? Would they volunteer to spend it reading?

Somebody who makes good sense on the topic is Clay Shirky. He is an NYU professor and consultant and a new-media thinker.

Why do I find his perspective refreshing? First, because he takes a loooong historical perspective to understand our current situation, which is exactly what I do in my book, even though it happens to be about a different topic. So Shirky starts with the “information overload” problem posed by the Library of Alexandria, exacerbated by Gutenberg’s printing press and (wait for the surprise) soon to be solved in our own time.

More to the point: In the talk at the bottom of this post, which I attended, he exposes, with an ironic anecdote, the flaw in the widespread hypothesis that we have too little time to deal with our alleged information overload. He is talking to an American TV producer, who asks him what cool things on the internet he has seen lately. He begins to talk about the fascinating evolution of the Wikipedia page on the planet Pluto. She says nothing, then pops the question:  “Where do people find the time?”

And Clay loses it:  “I just snapped. And I said, No one who works in TV gets to ask that question.” That’s because that time that people find comes in large part out of the “cognitive surplus” you [ie, the TV industry] have been masking for the past forty years!

A short calculation to illustrate his point:

1) All of the articles in all languages of Wikipedia, by Clay’s estimate, took 100 million hours of human thought to compose.

2) Americans watch 200 billion hours of TV a year. They spend 100 million hours a weekend just watching the ads on TV!

So there is actually a huge surplus of thought and creativity, and we are only just discovering how to use it.

A Renaissance of reading?

His thinking extends fluidly to the context that I care more about, book-reading. Shirky is mildly bemused by the widespread fear about the alleged “end” of literary reading.

First, the medium to blame, if any, is not the internet but TV, forty years ago. See above. “What the Internet has actually done,” he says in this interview,

is not decimate literary reading; that was really a done deal by 1970. What it has done, instead, is brought back reading and writing as a normal activity for a huge group of people. Many, many more people are reading and writing now as part of their daily experience. But, because the reading and writing has come back without bringing Tolstoy along with it, the enormity of the historical loss to the literary landscape caused by television is now becoming manifested to everybody.

And so, in twists and turns, you get a lot of the current hysteria about the internet, which emanates not from twenty-somethings on Facebook, who are a lot savvier than their parents ever were, but from those parents who now hold down jobs in, say, the TV industry. They are the new Luddites, like that woman who interviewed Clay. Luddism, he says, “is specifically a demand that the people who benefited from the old system be consulted before any technology is allowed to disrupt it.”

Long story short: Turn off–better: throw away–your TV set; then read my book as soon as it’s published. 😉