Monthly Archives: May 2009

Book Notes: Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide

Sometimes it’s helpful to look to other fields and disciplines for insights you can apply to your own. Frans Johansson wrote a whole book called The Medici Effect on how to combine ideas from different fields.

I think businesspeople, for example, should study journalism to gain insights on how to conduct interviews (market research) and how to tell stories and create narratives (all marketing is storytelling).

I recently read the book Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’s Guide. It is the assorted wisdom from many long form non-fiction writers. Below are my notes.

In my notes you’ll find out the best question to ask when interviewing someone (it’s the same question you should ask after a long lunch with a mentor), why Malcolm Gladwell writes 10,000 word profiles after spending only a few hours with the person, why to embrace your writerly quirkiness at the outset, and Robert Frost’s golden rule of writing.

All are direct quotes from various writers.

Profile Writing

After I have edited a profile, it must pass a test before I consider it finished. I ask the writer to give the piece to a reader who knows nothing about the subject. That new reader must be able to answer two questions, each in one sentence. First: How would you characterize this person? Second: At the end of the piece, do you know whether or not you like the person?

Often, I can get what I need in the first few hours I spend with the subject. Anything more than that is unnecessary and could even be harmful. I write ten-thousand-word profiles of people with whom I’ve spent only a few hours. – Malcolm Gladwell

Psychologists talk a lot about the difference between samples and signatures. For example, you would need only about five seconds of a Beatles’ song to identify it. Their music has a signature. With a very small slice you can know something profound about it.

I write profiles about ideas because I’m deeply skeptical of the legitimacy of writing only about the person. Profiles need to be more sociological and much less psychological. Many profiles that are written about individuals ought to be about subcultures. The individual is a means to examine another world—the world in which that person lives. When we limit ourselves to the individual’s personality, we miss the opportunity to consider larger questions about society and subcultures. – Malcolm Gladwell


The best question a reporter can ask a source: “At the end of the interview always ask, ‘Who else should I see?'”

While reporting, you must lose control so you can accumulate the facts. While writing, you must exert maniacal control over those facts. You begin by being laid-back and hanging out. Take the great inhale so that when you exhale, you will have among your notebooks that detail that conveys so much, so economically. Weave that detail into the warp and weft of your hard facts.

“Curiosity is a muscle. The more you use it, the more it can do.”

Observation, the art of watching, is one of the most underrated elements of reporting, especially in newspaper journalism. The natural impulse is to ask questions. Sometimes that is wrong. It makes the reporter the focus of attention. Be humble. It honors the person you’re trying to observe.

Non-Fiction Writing in General

Start with your quirks—the idiosyncrasies, stubborn tics, and antisocial mannerisms that set you apart from others. To establish credibility, resist coming across as absolutely average. Who wants to read about the regular Joe? Many beginning essayists try so hard to be likable and nice, to fit in, that the reader—craving stronger stuff, a tone of authority—gets bored.

“A hen would fall asleep in her hand as she drew the hatchet back to chop its neck.” – Great description

The book’s language had to suit the occasion. You don’t “hype up” in the wake of tragedy. You underwrite, letting the events speak for themselves. You treat everyone with respect.

Read good detective fiction. I don’t think anybody does narrative structure better than good detective writers.

I wanted to spend more time with people who were not necessarily newsworthy. I believed then—and I believe now even more—that the role of the nonfiction writer should be with private people whose lives represent a larger significance.

This is the type of nonfiction that I indulge in, hanging around people. You don’t necessarily interview them, but you become part of the atmosphere.

Using Quotes

That’s my first rule about including a subject’s exact words: Do it sparingly. Using fewer quotes makes me a more disciplined and thoughtful writer. It forces me to think harder about my job and take better control of the story.

The best quotes, of course, aren’t stand-alone quotes at all, but dialogue. I try to include dialogue even in stories about the city council. Dialogue is easier for people to read than straight narrative, because that’s how we listen to the world and how we communicate. Dialogue opens up a bit of space on the page, gives the story some breathing room.


The way you tell a story over dinner is true to who you are, whether that is deeply analytical or extremely witty. At such moments you aren’t self-conscious, and you aren’t thinking about your editor. You can’t invent a voice. And you can’t imitate someone else’s voice, though trying to can be a good exercise.

Voice is—as the word itself tells us—the way a writer talks. You are speaking to your readers.


Joseph Conrad, a prolific writer, said there are only two difficult things about writing: starting and not stopping.

Robert Frost said it best: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

Good writers are most often plain ol’ writers who go the extra mile and then a few more.

On Criticism

A few thoughts and quotes on criticism.

1. Seth Godin says ignore your critics (you can never make them happy) but also ignore your fans (they don’t want you to change and change is often necessary). I say, Listen to a few select critics and a few select fans — the informed, thoughtful ones — and ignore all the rest. Let me know if you figure out how to do this.

2. Tucker Max muses on haters and worshippers and thinks worshippers can be as dangerous as your critics. He says ignore your critics who are usually fueled by envy:

No matter what, someone is going to try to put you down or tell you that what did sucked, or that it’s not good because of [insert spurious logic here]….You cannot be all things to all people, and no matter how great you are, someone will hate you. Even if you are perfect–literally perfect, with no reason for anyone to do anything other than love you–some people will hate you simply because you ARE perfect. Such is envy; it is all about how the envious person sees themselves and ultimately has nothing to do with you.

3. “Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger.” – Franklin P. Jones

4. “To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” – Elbert Hubbard

5. If you feel too tied up in the good or bad opinion of others, perhaps it’s time to declare your own independence day.

6. One of my all-time favorite quotes is from Theodore Roosevelt:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

7. We value feedback more when it comes from someone who knows what you’re going through — whose face is also marred by the same dust and sweat and blood. Basketball players respect criticism more when it comes from a fellow player. Authors respect book criticism more when it comes from fellow authors, not because another author is necessarily going to be more perceptive but because a fellow author has an appreciation for the effort and the process and as a result delivers the criticism with due decency and empathy. Most bloggers, when entertaining broad criticism about their approach or style or rigor, probably value less feedback from those who do not publish themselves — people who are not putting themselves out there in a public and permanent medium every single day, not putting forth half-baked ideas in pursuit of the whole idea, not writing just reading, not engaging just lurking, not joining the conversation in the ring but rather shouting from the sidelines whenever they happen to feel particularly irked or impressed.

The lesson, then, seems to be that if you’re giving criticism to someone do so in areas where you can relate or have credibility or shared experience — if you don’t, and most of the time you won’t, then precede your critique by proactively acknowledging your distance to the matter. Then you needn’t feel like you must water down the critique itself. The chance your feedback gets listened to goes up exponentially.

You almost always need to do this when giving criticism to a self-styled “busy” person. Busy people — yes busyness is as much a matter of identity as it is a matter of time availability and schedule — tend to think they are uniquely, extraordinarily busy, and that this busyness affects all aspects of their life. Proactively say, “You must be really busy in ways I don’t understand,” observe the knowing nod, and then get to the criticism.

What Did You Learn at the Meta-Level?

Qualifying questions with "at the meta-level" means that the answer should be quite general in its implications.

You might ask me after I returned from Switzerland the other week, "What did you learn at the meta-level?"

A wrong answer is: "Zurich is a pretty city."

A possible answer is: "National pride is unaffected by the health of the economy." Or: "56 percent of the value of a trip is in the memories, not the actual travel."

Asking people what they learned from an experience is always illuminating. It tests how reflective they are (do they even ask themselves this question?), whether they are able to abstract general lessons from a specific experience (that is, answer at the meta-level), and whether they can separate out and discount the lessons rooted in unique circumstances (the lessons not generalizable).

(Hat tip Tyler Cowen, in an email, for this insight and the travel example above.)

Farmers Didn’t Invent Tractors. They Were Busy Farming.

There's a cliche in innovation / entrepreneurship which says, "Scratch your own itch." That is, solve problems that you know really well. Choose markets you know really well.

But a lot of innovation doesn't come from the people who know the industry the best. That's because the closer you are to how something works now, the harder it is to imagine a new and better way of doing things.

In pondering why millions of dentists haven't been able to figure out that flaxseed oil helps your gums, Seth Roberts channels Jane Jacobs in this excellent observation:

For a long time, Jacobs says, farming was a low-yield profession. Then crop rotation schemes, tractors, cheap fertilizer, high-yield seeds, and dozens of other labor-saving yield-increasing inventions came along. Farmers didn’t invent tractors. They didn’t invent any of the improvements. They were busy farming. Just as dentists are busy doing dentistry and dental-school professors are busy studying conventional ways of improving gum health.

Jacobs also writes about the sterility of large organizations — their inability to come up with new goods and services. On the face of it, large organizations, such as large companies, are powerful. Yes, they can be efficient but they can’t be creative, due to what Jacobs calls “the infertility of captive divisions of labor.” In a large organization, you get paid for doing X. You can’t start doing X+Y, where Y is helpful to another part of the company, because you don’t get paid for doing Y. A nutrition professor might become aware of the anti-inflammatory effects of flaxseed oil but wouldn’t study its effects on gum health. That’s not what nutrition professors do. So neither dentists nor dental-school professors nor nutrition professors could discover the effects I discovered. They were trapped by organizational lines, by divisions of labor, that I was free of.

Bottom Line: Sometimes the big improvements come when you scratch someone else's itch.

When to Trust Your Gut

Trust your gut instinct the most when it tells you not to do something.

If your intuition is to work with person X, maybe it's right, maybe it's not. But if your intuition is not to work with a particular person, you should probably heed it.

Positive intuitions are more easily corrupted by biases such as wishful thinking.

For example, when assessing a potential hire, you may be sexually attracted to the person. This is going to positively affect how you view the person and may contribute to a positive hunch on the person's qualifications, even if you consciously know your desire to have sex with her/him shouldn't affect your decision.

On the other hand, if you're not sexually attracted to the candidate, you're not going to have a negative intuition on the person. It's neutral — a non-issue. Any negative hunch you do have is probably going to be grounded in something meaningful or relevant.

Bottom Line: Listen to your gut in the negative more than in the affirmative.

Related Post: Asking Questions in the Negative: What Do You Regret? How Did You Fail? There is a penetrating quality to negative framing.

(The above insight comes from Auren Hoffman.)

Lessons from the Tropicana Rebranding Disaster

PepsiCo has been trying to rebrand the Pepsi, Gatorade, Tropicana and Mountain Dew products. How's it going? Try this: "It represents perhaps the largest and most cavalier destruction of brand value we will ever see," says Grant McCracken, in his excellent analysis of what's gone wrong.

Peter Arnell, the Pepsi man assigned to the Tropicana orange juice rebrand, described his job thusly:

The objective was very, very clearly laid out.  We needed to rejuvenate, reengineer, rethink, reparticipate in popular culture. 

Here's McCracken:

But let's look at what Peter Arnell…thinks this means.  His first act of office, apparently, was to embark upon what BusinessWeek calls a "five-week world tour of trendy design houses."

This is where he went searching for culture?  In design houses?  Dude.

Classic. Spending time in design houses instead of spending time with your customers.

Tropicana rolled out a new design for its orange juice container — the old design on the left, the new design on the right. Consumers were furious and sales plunged 20%. It's since been pulled from the shelves.6a00d8341c4e2e53ef011570396118970bJUICE

McCracken goes on to playfully mock the hip design types who think reparticipating in popular culture means just being "cool" and for ignoring the emotional needs of the 99% of the population who do not wear black thick rimmed artist glassses:

If you want to "reparticipate" in popular culture, well, you have your work cut out for you.  Going to design houses, that's a good idea…. And then, well, really, why not get out of the design houses into the lives and the homes and the kitchens of the other Americans?

The problem is simple.  When Arnell thinks design, he thinks cool.  When we ask him to redesign a Tropicana package, he's going to bless it with notions of cool now circulating in his own and other design houses. 

The trouble is that culture is only marginally about cool.  Cool may be the most active, the most talked about, the most flattering part of culture, but it is also a relatively small and evanescent part of culture.  Let's call it 20%. 

When you are told to put the brand in touch with popular culture, touring design houses won't do it.  Really, what you want to do, Peter, is talk to the owner-operators of this culture, Americans…living by the millions…out there…

Peter, here's the thing.  It's not about you.  It's not what you think is hip and happening.  It's not about cool.  It's not about New York City or design houses or startling images of the future, or breathtaking mastery of the design vocabulary, or breakthroughs that reinvent the brand.

It's about Americans at their breakfast table.

Bottom Line: For entrepreneurs everywhere, it's about the customer. It's about the customer. It's about the customer. Tropicana "branding experts" were wandering the halls of hip design houses instead of sitting at the breakfast table with Americans who at the moment are hurting for cash and craving stability and familiarity.

Does Travel Narrow the Mind?

Does travel narrow the mind?

First consider Emerson:

Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

But the rage of travelling is a symptom of a deeper unsoundness affecting the whole intellectual action. The intellect is vagabond, and our system of education fosters restlessness. Our minds travel when our bodies are forced to stay at home.

Then Chesterton:

… There is something touching and even tragic about the thought of the thoughtless tourist, who might have stayed at home loving Laplanders, embracing Chinamen, and clasping Patagonians to his heart in Hampstead or Surbiton, but for his blind and suicidal impulse to go and see what they looked like. This is not meant for nonsense; still less is it meant for the silliest sort of nonsense, which is cynicism. The human bond that he feels at home is not an illusion. On the contrary, it is rather an inner reality. Man is inside all men. In a real sense any man may be inside any men. But to travel is to leave the inside and draw dangerously near the outside.

Andrew Sullivan summarizes:

The proper conservative resistance to travel is not, therefore, a blinkered resistance to the new; it is an understanding that we have never fully absorbed or understood what we already know; that the places we love are still mysterious, and understanding of them should never be mistaken for simple familiarity. Seeking new superficialities at the expense of familiar depths is a neurosis, not an adventure.

I find the above ideas fascinating but unpersuasive. As one of Sullivan's readers writes, "Inward and outward journeys are simply not opposed, and to pretend that they are in order to adhere stuffily to the superior excellence of the inward journey is just irritating."

I've found that travel can awaken the inner journey. Some of my most contemplative thoughts have come while sitting on a bench in a foreign land, looking around and recognizing nothing, and retreating inward like one runs inside from a cold day for a cup of hot chocolate.

For a final, different take on the value of travel, here's a unique David Foster Wallace footnote from his Gourmet magazine piece on lobsters:

As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way.

My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way—hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all.

To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful:

As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

The Quarter Life Crisis

The term "quarter life crisis" refers to the personal and professional angst of some of today's twenty-somethings.

Last month Eye Weekly published a good overview of the phenomenon and wrote:

Unrelenting indecision, isolation, confusion and anxiety about working, relationships and direction is reported by people in their mid-twenties to early thirties who are usually urban, middle class and well-educated; those who should be able to capitalize on their youth, unparalleled freedom and free-for-all individuation. They can’t make any decisions, because they don’t know what they want, and they don’t know what they want because they don’t know who they are, and they don’t know who they are because they’re allowed to be anyone they want.

In other words, it is a "crisis" that afflicts a privileged slice of the young adult group: the introspective urbanites who have the time and energy to wallow in their introspections and contemplate deeper identity issues; the people who can financially afford to think about what they love to do versus what they have to do. As this older Financial Times piece put it, the quarter life crisis is when highly educated young people are paralyzed not due to "lack of opportunity, as may have been true in the past, but from an excess of possibilities."

With generational proclamations it's important to ask whether a so-called "new" phenomenon is in fact new to the current moment or instead something all people of a particular age have experienced over the years.

I do think today's flavor of youthful existential angst is new. First, the generation in question, Gen Y, might be the most ass-wiped in history. We are called the self-esteem generation because of the way our Baby Boomer parents have coddled us: anything is possible, we are all uniquely gifted individuals, so on and so forth. This can result in expectations out of whack from reality. More young people today than ever before say they expect to be millionaires by age 30, as just one example. What follows monstrously unrealistic expectations? More intensely felt disappointment and confusion.

Second, the idea of an excess of possibilities is true in a real sense — we have grown up in a world of unparalleled peace and prosperity — but also in a newly magnified comparative sense. Today, if you're 24 and online, your sense of what's possible from a how-to-live-life perspective is limited by the bounds of a boundless internet. Sure, when you read newspapers from all over the world or follow blogs from people doing amazing things your arc of vision is broader than whatever is happening on your cul-de-sac. But this also means you can compare yourself, in vivid detail and in real-time, to whomever is at the top of the game you happen to be playing in. Possible consequence: feelings of inferiority, envy, slowness (there's always someone younger who's done more and read more), stupidness, loneliness ("Everyone has it figured out but me").

Neither article offers very good advice for those suffering from quarter life malaise. The FT piece says young people should just grow up. The Eye Weekly piece says, “If you feel you’re in crisis, this is a great opportunity to draft a five-year plan with steady concrete goals to help you get to where you want to be. Anyone can transform their life in just a few years.” Which is delightfully unhelpful advice. It goes on to say, "Growing up may be hard to do, but in the end, the gains outweigh the losses… In other words: it might just be time to grow the fuck up."

Ah, growing the fuck up, a great American pastime. One gets the sense that to grow up for these authors means to relinquish those lofty dreams and accept that you are a selfish piece of shit whose life is going to be unremarkable — which is to say your life is going to be like most people's lives, and to aspire for more is cute in that youthful idealistic borderline-precocious sense but "grown-ups" know it's is just needlessly stress-inducing; grown-ups know the Cold Hard Truth is that the secret to happiness is low expectations. Grown-ups, they would probably say, know that you should not try to find your calling and just find a stable job — that way you'll have a life during the evenings and weekends.

My own highly unqualified musings on careers and life strategy for the twenty-something years have piled up over the past five years: that people should adopt a centenarian life strategy (you're going to live till you're 100); embrace your 20's as the odyssey / wandering years; expose yourself to bulk, positive randomness; travel as much as possible; don't do what you love, do what you are; choose jobs based on the people more than company (reach out to heros); de-emphasize long-term plans or goals; default to 'yes' to avoid later regret; perhaps embrace uncertainty; see virtue in shade over light; work on your ping-pong backhand.


Here's an old NPR commentary of mine on the weak collective consciousness of Gen Y, and so why we should be careful about generational generalizations.

(thanks to Charlie Hoehn for pointing out the article and Cal Newport for brainstorming parts of this post)

Quote of the Day

“SpongeBob is one of the greatest believers in the American dream in all of children’s entertainment. He’s courageous, he’s optimistic, he’s representing everything that Mickey Mouse should have represented but never did. There’s even something Jesus-like about him—a 9-year-old Jesus after 15 packets of Junior Mints.”

— Greg Rowland, a branding consultant on the moral influence of SpongeBob Square Pants, the children's toy and cartoon phenomenon in America.

I saw this quote in the latest issue of The Atlantic. The article from this issue that everyone is talking about is Joshua Shenk's piece on happiness. Because it is based on 70+ year study it is being treated more seriously than your garden variety self-help article on this topic. Here are two of the most interesting paragraphs:

But why, he asked, do people tell psychologists they’d cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day?

In fact, Vaillant went on, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

Here's Will Wilkinson's take. Yes, solid relationships are the key to happiness, but it's not so simple:

Vaillant points out that even the most “mature” strategies for adapting to disappointment, injury, or failure can strain our most intimate, sustaining relationships. And the reality of relationships over time tends to call for defenses that can threaten relationships. A positive, outgoing person may love freely and easily, but then become shattered by betrayal. Then what do you do? Steel yourself for the possibility of future pain by keeping some part of yourself private and out of the way? But then what have you done to your capacity to be nourished by intimacy and love? A lifetime of  rich relationships is not easy and therefore neither is the best kind of life.

Compassion in the Form of Equation

That's from this very amusing and witty list of equations displayed as posters. Check them out.

And here's graffiti spotted in the UK:

Act normal

I thank Justin Wehr for the pointers for both. Justin writes a good blog on infographics, among other things.