The Writer’s Transition

One benchmark in a writer’s maturity is facing the harsh reality of his or her reader. It’s a really important moment, and for many writers this will not happen until college (or later). Good editors are especially valuable because they help an author come face-to-face with these unforgiving realities. But every writer must reach this point of maturity. What follows is a transcribed fragment from something said by the late David Foster Wallace, at the time a creative writing prof at Pomona College, speaking in San Francisco in 2004:

“This will sound really nasty, but when you’re teaching undergrads, they’re not generating literature. Most of them are coming out of a high school experience where they were taught a model of writing that is fundamentally expressive. That is: ‘We want you to write, therefore anything you write is good. It’s good because you did it.’

Well, I’m making it sound cruder than it is, but it’s a big problem, especially with bright undergraduates — shifting them from a mode of expressive writing, where every reader is your mom, to communicative writing where you assume a busy adult [reader you’re trying to reach] has her own interests and time commitments. How are you going to make it worth it for this person to read your stuff?

You can start talking about that as early as freshman comp.

My experience is that it’s a heavy headtrip to students, the terror of suddenly realizing: You know it’s not good just because I did it, and the reader isn’t automatically interested in what I’m interested in. And how, in fact, am I going to make this interesting? As a discipline it’s really, really interesting. . . .

There’s nothing wrong with self-conscious writing. The trick with students is to make them realize that the consciousness they’re conscious of is simultaneously less and more interesting than they think it is. The two lethal kinds of students are the paralyzed ones who think anything they could have thought up has no interest to anybody else. And then there’s the other side, who are literally unable to imagine a reader not being as entranced with their stuff as they are. Both types of students can make good writers after a few years, but they both require a delicate combination of bedside manner and boot in the a**.”

How I Research Books

I’m grateful for several recent emails from writers and pastors asking how I used research in writing 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. First, thanks for pointing out all the research. This new book is my most ambitious investigation to date, and hopefully a pattern I can use for future book projects on technology and media.

On my process, here are some quick thoughts for the interested in the form of a public email.

Once I have a serious idea for a book project, which is about every week, my process begins. (My wife said last night: “If I had a nickel for every time you bring me a new book idea . . . .”)

But about 95% of my book ideas die for some reason or another, many of the better ideas simply get turned into longform feature articles for DG.

Once I settle on a workable book idea (like smartphones), and after a three-month process of evaluation with my wife, friends, and publisher, I’ll begin by reading about 50 articles and studies (mostly non-Christian ones) to get a general sense of the broader cultural conversation on the topic. From this, and from a biblical worldview, I’ll pen a very basic outline for the book based around questions to answer and a central thesis. This becomes my book proposal.

Once I get the publisher’s thumbs up, I first inspect-read the ten best books in the field I can find, usually by non-Christians. After this point I’m ready to begin drafting paragraph seed-thoughts within 1st drafts of the chapters.

The book begins to grow organically.

In the next six months, my goal is to produce chapters with ~four detailed paragraphs, ~four related points of interest in seed form. Once these major paragraphs are all written for every chapter and the intro and outro, it goes out for initial review at the conceptual level. At this point my goal is to have a 6,000-word draft of major fragments.

Once I see cohesion in these seed paragraphs and I like the way the chapters are organized and structured, and based on early confirmation from others, then I can begin using these paragraphs to “hook” my present and future research discoveries. This is why I have to get seed paragraphs down asap. These paragraphs may move around in the book, but they comprise for me a framework matrix, a skeleton of ideas, for me to pin the bulk of my research work, which is yet to come.

My writing is always driven by curiosity. I want to learn, grow, and know things myself. And because I love to tackle massive problems and get my arms around as many tricky issues as possible, and to get myself in waters too deep for me, I cannot manage full-throttled research until this point. I must have a matrix of core ideas around me. Only now can the bulk of my research, the other 80%, ensue. Once the governor is taken off my research (because I now have places to pin relevant discoveries), those seed paragraphs grow quickly into subsections, with refinements to my own thinking, and with confirmation details (sources, texts) now getting applied to particular sentences as footnotes.

Those growing seed paragraphs will begin asking me questions, showing me gaps in my own thinking, they will help frame my interviews, and they will prove themselves in value simply by helping me decide what WILL NOT fit in the project.

At some point in the process, maybe half way through writing the first draft, I dedicate two weeks to reading Scripture cover-to-cover, merely looking for anything and everything related to my theme.

Again, it all grows organically, refinement happening all along. Meditation, writing, deleting, editing, refining, rewriting, rethinking, course-correcting — it’s all happening all along the process as I labor towards cohesion.

It’s amazing how much content you can net if you take your time to slowly read and think and watch for online articles. I must write books in my free time (weekends), so my projects cannot progress quickly. I’m confined to think of book projects in a three-year pace, which actually seems to be the right amount of time to thoroughly think through one significant issue to sufficient depth.

And since pastors often email me this research question, I should note that this same principle I use for chapters is useful for developing future sermons. I’ve heard Mike Bullmore encourage pastors to make folders for each sermon several months out ahead, and then keep your eye out for illustrations and points, and seed paragraph ideas you have, that you can intentionally file away for future use.

For me, creating an early framework by which you can process everything else you later encounter is vital to a large research project. And of course there’s no substitute for patience with a project. Don’t rush it, wait, watch, read, be clear in your mind what you’re looking for, discern what you read online, and know where to put things as you come across them in life.

I wish everyone could read the web with a three-year research project in view. It brings incredible clarity to your priorities.

This is a great question, thanks to everyone who emailed me.


PS: As for specific research sites, I really don’t have any secrets. JSTOR articles and The New York Times appear a lot in my research. Pew Research, too. Lots of books, many of them by non-Christians. Honestly, one of the greatest helps are my online followers who, once they know I’m working on a book project, will email me hundreds of related links and leads during the process.

More Important to Writers than Orgs and Outlines (On Writing)


I listen to a lot of podcasts but few are more consistently good than Longform, a series for serious journalists and non-fiction writers. The most recent episode featured Kathryn Schulz, a staff writer for The New Yorker who wrote “The Really Big One,” an article about the Cascadia fault line which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. Host Max Linsky asked her about how to find good stories, tell good stories, and what’s more important than outlining. Here’s a transcribed bit from the end of the conversation.

(Source: “199: Kathryn Schulz,” [June 29, 2016]).

Max Linsky: You sent this tweet: “A mere million years into my career and I have finally figured out the secret of writing: Find a killer story.” At this point in your career, a million years in, what are you looking for in a story? You are in a position here, it feels like, where you can kind of write about whatever you want.

Kathryn Schulz: I am looking for stories, which is a shift for me. I am always drawn to ideas. I notice big, abstract things in the world and so I have always registered ideas, and now I find that I am very interested in stories. I would love nothing more than — this will never happen — I dearly wish that my next book were going to be just a yarn, like The Perfect Storm. I’m not kidding. I actually think that book is incredible. So part of me, I have got an eye out for a really wonderful yarn.

The story of Louie Tamale was a great yarn, and I was so happy to find it, and I would love to tell some more of those. . . . The risk of something like that earthquake piece as you get a little taste of, for instance, how much more people like to read about natural disasters than literary criticism. And it is easy to be seduced by that. And I know I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to go chasing things that I think are kind of hot stories.

Linsky: Why?

Schulz: Oh, because there is so much else in the world. And because part of what make a story beautiful is the fact that you are dying to tell it and that alchemy, the story that you are dying to tell, in my case doesn’t always, or even often, line up with the kind of obvious popular story or great story. And, again, I don’t mean this disparagingly. I am grateful for other people who tell those stories well. But I think it is distracting.

I am glad that there are people at this organization who crunch the numbers on what stories get the most hits, because I would like for The New Yorker to survive and remain economically viable and so on and so forth. But I don’t want to become that person. I don’t want my own choices to be dictated by what I think is going to fare well with other people. I am interested in the things that I would love to write either because they land squarely in the stuff-Katherine-is-obsessed-with category or because they push the boundaries of what I feel like I know how to do.

Linsky: Those feel in slight tension to me. The stuff you really know well and the stuff you don’t know at all.

Schulz: Absolutely, sure. I mean I will tell you, frankly, I have never written an easy book piece, but it is easier to write a book piece [book review] than any other kind of piece, for a very simple reason, which is you don’t have to explain what you are doing there on the page. You are on the page because someone else wrote a book and you are writing about it. I don’t have to justify my presence of mind taking up room in the magazine.

Every other story you need to explain: What are we doing here? Why are we learning a piece of history from 1909 in nowheresville frontier Wyoming? You have to kind of justify your existence. In every story you have to figure out: What am I arguing here?

For a long time I thought my problem as a writer and why I was so slow and everything, took so long, was I didn’t outline and if I only knew the order the piece was going to go in, I would write it much better. And so I started outlining and it still was a disaster and took forever and I realized, no, the issue isn’t outlining. The issue is you have to do the very hard work of stepping back and thinking: What is it about? Truly, what am I claiming here? That’s the guiding light that is going to pull you through the piece? Not like this section and then that section and then that section. You needed to know that at some point. You have to put things in order, but order is irrelevant if there is not a worked out, coherent idea that you know you are writing about.

Linsky: Do you think it is only recently that you have been able to take that step back and see that consciously?

Schulz: Well, it takes various forms. I mean, like a lot of things I think we all have the same revelation over and over. I always know that I need to figure out what the heck I’m writing about, and not like this is interesting because x, y and z, but, literally, this is the heart of this piece and I can articulate it for you in a sentence. That is hard work and it just takes time.

I would say that the thing that I am figuring out now is how to use reporting in service of idea driven writing, of rich and linguistically interesting writing. For a long time those things felt intention to me. I love to report, but then I had all this material and I couldn’t figure out how to marry it to the kind of writing I like to do. And I think that is what I am trying to sort out now.

Linsky: You say it is hard work to do that thinking and to figure out what the story is about. How do you think about that work? What is that work?

Schulz: It is literally thought. It is the work of the intellect. I never experienced this more clearly than while writing the book where I could feel it. It was a muscle I had worn out. You are just trying to figure out: Ok, I am writing about wrongness, truly what would be the logical structure for a book like that? What is the claim? How then do you lay out the idea? Why do you decide to put x chapter first and y chapter next?

And those are questions about logic, and they are intellectual questions, like even in something a “straightforward” as a book piece.

Part of this is an issue of length. I really admire Dwight Garner, one of the daily book critics of the New York Times. That man can write a one-thousand-word piece about a book and it doesn’t need a lot of structure and it doesn’t need a grand claim. He is very witty and all he is doing is telling you what the book is about and how it works and he is smart about literature and it is a pleasure to read.

I am often working to the tune of 5,000 words. And if you are going to convince someone to stick with you for that long, you damn well better be making a point. And my job is to figure out what that point is. And it is shockingly hard. I mean it really is like: Why this book? Why does it merit attention when the 99 other books in my TBR stack, my “to be read stack,” are getting ignored right now. And what am I trying to say about it? And am I making a deep point about literature? Am I making a deep argument about literature? I don’t know how to explain it better than to say that it is actually the work of thinking, of trying to clarify first for yourself and then for your reader an idea . . .

And maybe you never even see that stuff in the piece. Maybe it is scaffolding that drops away because once as a write you know what you are writing about. You don’t need to hit the gong. The gong sounds all on its own, if you do your work right. But you have got to know what it is.

Linsky: Does that work get easier?

Schulz: I don’t think so. I keep waiting for it to. I wish it did. I think some things about writing get easier. I have gotten better at “murdering my darlings.” I can let go of stuff quicker when I realize it is in my way. I can iterate a little bit faster. I have gotten better at realizing when I actually do need to just go think. But the thinking itself, it can’t get easier, because it is bespoke every time. You are not thinking in the abstract, like lifting a 20-pound weight this week and a 25-pound weight next week. You are thinking about a particular thing and so it is always novel. If it were the same answer as last week’s answer you would be writing a boring piece. You would have already written it. So, no, I think it is just really hard every time.