Creativity in a box

Trapped-in-a-box
Not so bad. Dan Machold

As a writer, I suffer from a disability that I suspect isn’t unique. I am never pleased with anything I write. There must be, my critical self nags, a better idea to write about or a better way to write what I just wrote.

Perhaps it is this disability that has forced me to work as a journalist, rather than, say, a novelist. For example, both the aforementioned problems go away when I’m on an assignment.

The first disappears because once my idea has been accepted by an editor, I know that’s what I have to write about. The second vanishes because the acceptance comes with a deadline, which I’m forced to honour so it keeps my easy-to-distract mind on a leash.

This it turns out isn’t a bad way of learning to be a writer. As it happens, Neil Gaiman, a best-selling English author of fiction and comics, found that the restrictions placed on him as a journalist were great for learning to be a creative writer.

In an interview for the Financial Times, he said:

(After school I went) straight into work, as a journalist – a wonderful thing for a writer. You learn you can ask questions, you learn compression and you learn probably the single most important thing for any writer: delivering more or less on time.

Of course, the idea of tethering your mind to a task at hand isn’t a new productivity tool. What is counter-intuitive, though, is that putting yourself in a box that is governed by self-set rules does not kill creativity. If anything, it is enhanced in a way that may produce more results.

Redefining the notion of a book

Two months of failing to fulfill my reading goals towards the #100bookschallenge has made me rethink the purpose of taking up the challenge

Less than a decade ago, it was easy to recognise a book. It was anything that could be printed, bound and put on shelf of a library or a store. Now, though, things have gotten messy.  There are ebooks, Kindle singles, Atavist originals, Matter stories, and the list goes on.

In many parts of the world, digital has become the primary platform for the written word. The advantages are plenty and this trend towards digital is no surprise. But it disrupts how ideas get shared, and sharing ideas was the main reason for books to come into existence.

While it was with the classical definition of a book that I began my #100bookschallenge, the main reason behind taking up the challenge was to be able to learn about the greatest ideas out there. These are increasingly being communicated not just in books. A lot of the ideas are long conversations that have been running on a blog, or those that appear in longform writing/journalism like the New Yorker or The Economist’s special reports.

Thus I’m revising the definition of a (non-fiction) book that can count towards my challenge of 100 books. Apart from the classical definition, all pieces of writing that will fulfill all the conditions below can be counted towards my target:

  • Longform writing that has a clear-defined message or explores a topic in a significant amount of detail or has a central theme.
  • Has been written by a single author (‘classical’ books may have more than one author).
  • Is more than 10,000 words long as a single piece.
  • A series of blog posts won’t count if at least one of them is not close to 10,000 words long and explains the main idea of the series.
  • The writing should be so dense (full of ideas) that I cannot stop myself from writing a review of what I read.
  • (UPDATE) The work should be not just newsworthy ie it should still relevant and worth reading after, say, many months or sometimes years.

As to why just 10,000 words? Because it’s not too short and it feels like the right length to have a comprehensive look at a topic. I’m open to revising my definition, so please feel free to make suggestions.

With so much good writing, is it worth struggling to write some more?

An editor at The Economist once remarked, as advice to me on how to write: “Aim to write a piece that gets featured on The Browser.” Edited by Robert Cottrell, The Browser is a website that recommends only five to six articles everyday, which it considers are the best of all that is published on the web that day.

Cottrell, who spends every possible hour of the day reading new content on the web, has written an article in the Financial Times that has some important lessons for young writers like us (if you can’t get through the FT paywall try this). I’ve distilled them for you here:

  1. Only 1% of all writing on the internet is great writing, and even that is an “embarrassment of riches”.
  2. Great writers produce great writing, and the bad ones cannot be rescued.
  3. His golden rule is: the writer is everything. And a corollary: the publisher (with a few exceptions) is nothing.
  4. We live in a world of ideas and they are not restricted by source or medium.

All of the above taken together paints a rather depressing picture for young writers. The honest truth is that the market we’ve entered is full of great writers who produce ever more great writing, leaving ever little time for us to find a readership for our work. Despite the difficulties, there are some ways to overcome these huge hurdles.

The antidote

To cheer myself up, here are two things that I read/watched after Cottrell’s article:

First: Robert Krulwich’s 2011 commencement speech to the Berkeley Journalism School

Krulwich shares some of  Cottrell’s views, but he serves them on a kinder platter. Krulwich says that journalism has reached a point where there are no guarantees that any big publishing house will give you a safe job, irrespective of how good you are. So if you are waiting to get picked, your chances are pretty low. Instead go out there and start doing. “There are some people who just don’t wait,” enthuses Krulwich. This is not a fanciful advice. There are examples like that of Ed YongBrian Switek and Alexis Madrigal, who’ve managed to build a career on their own terms.

Second: Avi Steinberg’s article in the New Yorker: Is writing torture? (on Gilbert vs Roth)

The article tells the story of Julian Tepper, a wannabe novelist, who was told by Philip Roth, an accomplished novelist, to quit writing. Roth said, “It’s an awulf field. Just torture. You write and write, and you have to throw most of it away because it’s not any good.” In response Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray and Love, wrote that there are few professions that come close to the pleasure that writing can give.

But it was Avi Steinberg’s take on the whole matter that most convinced me. He says that authors like Roth are correct in that writing can be a torture, especially if it is something that you want to make a living out of. And what Roth tried to do by dissuading Tepper was perhaps good too, because it is better to be aware of the harsh reality of being a writer than to go in to it being ignorant. It is those who can say: “Listen, I don’t care what you tell me. I know it’s a bad idea, but I’m determined to do it, and I will do it,” are those who will be able to succeed in this profession.

Science writing is not fiction, but it is still writing. And at the heart of our profession is our desire to convey thoughts and ideas, mostly through scientists’ work. But we do it because we enjoy it. We are fascinated with the world of science and we want to share stories that amaze us. That to me is enough reason to keep trying.

So what can we do get to that 1% of great writing?

Somewhere in Cottrell’s article I can smell the rotten stink of the innate talent hypothesis, which says that great writers are born to be great writers. I’m sorry but I don’t buy it. I hated English in school, but that was because fiction was not my thing. My education was structured in a way that fiction was given undue importance in writing. Then when I finally realised that non-fiction writing is just as great (if not better), I started to work on it. If I read my blog posts from two years ago, I can see myself in that writing but mostly I see how much I’ve improved since. Of course I have a long way to go, but great writing can come from lots of practice. Period.

I’ll also argue that, while the publisher may be nothing for Cottrell, it is a great place for young writers to vie to be. Great publications are great because they have fantastic editors. Even now articles that I submit to the same editors come back with lots of red marks. Every time this happens, I learn what it is that I need to improve the next time. And I’m not the only one, even accomplished writers have their work decimated. So writing for publications is not just a way of reaching an audience but also it is the secret of rapidly improving your writing.

Finally I would say that while there is a lot of science stories out there, most of them aren’t written well. For instance, it kills me a little every time when I see someone share a link to sciencedaily.com or physorg.com, which are news aggregating websites that share press releases, when some science writer has actually written a story about the same piece of research. And while Cottrell is right that we live an age where ideas matter not the source or the medium that carry them, there is a lot of value that writers can add to make the ideas clearer and spread faster.

Cottrell’s article was a nice slap in the form of a reality check, but it only makes me want to work harder and write better. And someday I know I’ll have an article featured on The Browser.

First published as a guest post on scientificamerican.com (SA Incubator blog).

Thumb rule for using hyperlinks

In an excellent article Robert Cottrell makes a smart point about online writing:

It helps, too, that when you’re writing online, there’s no need to introduce and source every person, place and fact you mention, and no need to fill in the backstory for those new to the subject. You can link out to the source document or the related story – or just assume your reader knows how to use Google and Wikipedia.

It is very annoying to read articles that have too many hyperlinks. I think a thumb rule for hyperlinks should be: use no more than 1 hyperlink per 200 words.

PS: In case you can’t read the linked FT article, try this.

Nothing beats a good analogy

One of the characteristics of a great writer and thinker is the ability to bring a beautiful analogy to explain a complex idea. Here is Ludwig Wittgenstein on how language is an organic entity:

He talks about being in a city and starting in a square and moving into different districts and coming to know some of them and reencountering them from different directions. And realising that the city doesn’t have buildings of all the same period of time but that it’s been laid upon again and again with new architectural styles and finding one’s way into these different periods of time and space is one way which we see the organic growth and outgrowth of language.

Who’s your audience?

A writer writes for an audience. What comprises that audience is, or should be, one of the most important questions.

Are you writing for a man standing in the subway in the middle of a 15-minute journey back home after a long day at work?

Are you writing for an old lady that sits and knits at home on most days?

Are you writing for an internet-savvy person who spends 12-hours of his waking hours in front of a screen (just like you do)?

Are you writing for a professional who turns to your publication to keep abreast with the latest in his field of work?

Science writers have a tendency to say write it as you would if your grandma reads it. And yet, is she the kind of audience you are aiming to write for?