What’s a piece of writing advice that’s held true for you?
Kill your darlings. Not as a hard-and-fast rule, but a guideline to double check yourself. If you feel inordinately proud of your own cleverness, there’s a real chance you’re being too cute.
What’s the thing you read when you want to remember how to write?
I know this is the most obvious cliché, but Joan Didion. Pick an essay. She’s just an incredible writer, on a sentence level. She’s so good that zillions of young liberals seem to have never really picked up on the fact that she was a conservative. She’s so good that she makes it genuinely pleasurable to read things I vehemently disagree with on an ideological level. Hard to be a better prose stylist than that.
What’s a writing strategy you’ve developed that’s worked for you?
Just start writing. It doesn’t have to be perfect from the jump, just get the thought in your head down on the paper, and then the next one. Explain it to the reader like you’re explaining it to yourself, even if it sounds dumb, even if you rewrite it later, even if it just ends up being a really verbose outline of the eventual thing. Editing — or even completely rewriting — is a million times easier than writing something for the first time, so do whatever you can do to pull yourself to the other side of that draft.
What do you do with all the writing ideas that pop into your head? Where do they go?
I generate a lot of story ideas, and they are sort of… everywhere. They are in my Notes app, they are in my day planner next to my laptop, they are in a series of notebooks next to my day planner. The really good ones, I Slack to Paul, my editor, whenever they pop into my head. He will usually tell me to put them in a Google Doc we have for my story ideas, I think with the understanding that I am probably not going to do that. But then they are in Slack history, and they are in Paul’s head.
Do you actively think about ways to grow your audience? If so, how? If not, why?
No. I write because I want to explore things that I think are interesting or important, and if I’m right and I make my case then hopefully the people who read it will trust me the next time I ask them to read something, and maybe they will share it with someone else. Even during my years of freelancing, when I had a regular day job to pay my bills, my attitude was always that writing takes a lot out of me, mentally and emotionally, and it’s only worth it if I’m able to do it on my terms. So if there’s an audience for it, great. If not, I was pretty good at selling appliances, and people are always needing new appliances.
What’s your one tip (that doesn’t get discussed) for a writer trying to improve in 2022?
There is enormous value in listening to and understanding how people talk. The worst writing feels written — in the words themselves, you can feel the agony of the work’s creation. Good writing feels like someone is talking to you from the page. There’s a confidence to it, an ease that comes from understanding how real people communicate with each other, how their sentences round out, how they move between ideas.
Is there a thing you’ve written and have actually enjoyed going back and reading?
I got really obsessed with the boat that got stuck in the Suez Canal last year. Work let me write a blog about why I loved the big boat, which was really sort of about how thrilling I find it when the netherworld of global logistics accidentally makes itself visible to the people who aren’t supposed to notice it. For some reason, I ended up rereading it about a month ago, and not only do I think it’s actually a pretty good quick-and-dirty overview of how containerization changed the world, it’s also got one or two genuinely good jokes in it.