writers as alchemists, segways as segues

A book proposal about dirt changed the way I think about writing online…forever.


Don’t you hate it when something starts that way? Well, as that girl who kissed me in high school told herself, you have to start somewhere.

A few years ago, my colleague Courtney Young and I convinced a reluctant Penguin Group to let us found a science imprint. Penguin didn’t have a dedicated home for the science category at the time. Instead, various imprints would field a title here and there at a particular editor’s whim. While Courtney and I were busy editing business books for Portfolio, we both loved pop sci and felt that the category deserved dedicated attention.

After much hand-waving with agents about Current, we saw a trickle of science proposals. At first, the pickings were both slim and dubious. Mostly, we were warned that the world would end in 2012, because Mayans. However, we did unearth the occasional gem. The real difficulty lay in convincing sales, marketing, and publicity that what we’d found was an emerald, not a tourmaline. (Geology reference!)

Case in point: I once received a proposal by a scientist who’d spent an entire year observing one patch of ground in the woods. He’d spent hours there every day, in every season, closely observing an area a few feet across. Though his focus was small, it turned out to be, quite literally, a circle of life. (Lion King reference!)

Insects, plants, worms, birds, microbes. In just a few square feet, over the course of a year, this biologist witnessed: Epic battles! Drama! Tragedy! Romance! Bad romance! (Lady Gaga reference!)

It was like all five seasons of The Wire acted out by snails and crickets. (Middlebrow TV reference! OK, I’m done, it’s out of my system now.)

Anyway, excellent writing, lovely project, I considered it well worth pursuing. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to convince anyone else that my patch-of-dirt book was the next Brief History of Time. So it went elsewhere. (Looking on Amazon now, I guess it turned out pretty well. That’s what a Pulitzer nomination means, right?)

From now on, I'll use this GIF as a
From now on, I’ll use this GIF as a “segway.”

From the vantage point of an editorial assistant just starting out in the book trade, the role of editor resembled any other dirt patch. You had your fiction editors and your nonfiction editors. The fiction editors were cool and connected. The nonfiction editors were brainy and blasé.

More important, the fiction editors were walled in by stacks of unread manuscripts and had to be fed Berlin-Airlift-style. The nonfiction editors sat in tidy offices reviewing a single, twenty-page proposal while tapping a pen against their lip just so.

“Fine,” I said to myself. “I may prefer reading fiction, but I choose life.” (Trainspotting reference! I lied about the reference bit being out of my system.)

When I built my first list as an acquiring nonfiction editor, I did so indiscriminately: Memoir. Reference. Biography. Technology. Business. Pop culture. Not knowing my trade, I could bring an equal amount of raw incompetence to each category.

Failing upwards, I joined an imprint with a specific editorial focus: business. As I got my sea legs—most of the job boils down to adding the query, “But how does all of this impact the consumer?!?!”—I realized how misdirected my previous approach to professional development had been. I’d been throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick. (Odd Couple reference! OK, now I’m really reaching.)

I’d always seen books as either fiction and nonfiction. Forced to focus on a narrower spot of soil, I finally understood this to be a worthless distinction. Even the broad genres and categories within fiction and nonfiction—science fiction, memoir, romance, business—were relatively worthless.

Every component of the work—writing, editing, designing, marketing, publicizing, selling—differed substantially between subcategories. I realized I might be able to develop a decent editorial skill-set over the span of my career if I focused on business books alone, but even then I’d have to delve into each subcategory and learn its ins and outs if I were to truly master my craft. Entrepreneurship, small business, personal development, productivity, and on and on. I’d have to pick my patch of ground and really look at it. (Earlier part of this newsletter reference!)

Another “segway.”

So, to online writing. If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been going back to this question of good and bad advice lately. Maybe it’s more about finding the right advice for you.

We’re still in the early adolescence of online writing. Heck, we’re still figuring out what the categories are. For instance, I call the Maven Game a “newsletter” purely to avoid reader confusion. Today, a newsletter is something you subscribe to and then receive by email on a regular basis, usually for free. In practice, the Maven Game bears as much relation to most newsletters qua newsletters as Koyaanisqatsi does to a CPR instructional video. (Philip Glass reference!)

What bothers me in all this is the rising tide of advice for a certain kind of online writer who wants to “build a list” and “monetize content” and “create copy that sells.” While it may be a useful tide for some, the rest of us are drowning in it.

In retrospect, focusing in on a couple of categories as an editor revealed to me whole worlds of possibility where I’d only seen undifferentiated dirt before. The deeper my focus, the greater my understanding. I think we need to pay similarly close attention to the writing we share online and, specifically, the kinds of writing we’re sharing online. The purpose, audience, goals. Sometimes, writing is chemistry. Sometimes it’s alchemy. Are you looking to reliably catalyze the synthesis of superoxide, or are you looking to turn lead into gold? (I’m not saying one is better than the other. After all, the gold thing doesn’t actually work.)

Max Read’s retrospective on the rise and fall of Gawker is a must-read. Of note to this discussion, Nick Denton realized at a certain point that chasing eyeballs using “conventional” methods was sapping Gawker Media of the particular flavor and energy that had brought its sites to cultural prominence in the first place.

According to Read, [Denton] “announced, in a lengthy memo, that there would be “less pandering to the Facebook masses.”

This would be accomplished not by abandoning metrics but by new metrics. He became intently focused on the number of Gawker Media stories that appeared on his Nuzzel—an app that sends a daily digest of stories, sorted by how many of your followers had tweeted out the stories. (The logic being that the people Nick followed on Twitter were the best approximations of “the conversation.”) By the summer of 2015, a group of managers were being sent a daily email showing a “buzz” score, calculated by how many outlets — weighted by prestige—were writing about or linking to Gawker.

Sort of silly, in retrospect, but Denton was honestly grappling with the same dilemma: how to be yourself, on the internet. Gawker Media, the Maven Game, your own blog or newsletter or podcast: we all want to “succeed” and “growth-hack the eyeballs” but we also want to be free to be…you and me. (Marlo Thomas reference!)

Yes, my paragraphs are too long for proper mobile consumption. Yes, some of my awkwardly placed SAT words could be replaced by other, more common alternatives. Yes, my subject lines are rambling and nonsensical. Yes, my gags continue long past their expiration date. (Milk reference!)

That’s OK. I’m not teaching CPR here.

“If you can read this, you’re an alchemist.”

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