Monday, October 25, 2010

The single best piece of advice I have for writers.

The first time I wrote a book based on a year of observation, I moved out of D.C. and into a bare-bones apartment a three-minute bike ride from the school I was writing about. It was 2001. It was a miserable year for me, personally. My father was in a motorcycle accident (he recovered), my grandmother died, I got dumped by a guy I loved and one I just sort of liked, and September 11 layered onto all of that to leave me utterly disconsolate.

I had no life, unless by “life” you mean following 12-year-olds to the roller rink on Friday nights and actually feeling jealous they had partners to couples-skate with. (I know! Embarrassing! But if you have ever been depressed, you know what I mean.) In a way, this physical and emotional isolation was a gift when it came to my work. It was too painful to focus on myself, so I focused 100 percent on my middle schoolers. Aside from online Scrabble, I had no distractions. I had all the time in the world to accomplish all of my friend Hank’s “13 Questions to Gauge How Well You Know a Source,” including the one where you see your subject go to sleep and wake up.

Most important, I had nothing better to do every evening than to transcribe my notes from the notepad to the computer. From William Strunk Jr. I learned to omit needless words. From David Finkel, an early mentor, I learned not to say the same thing twice, even (and especially) if it’s in two different ways. And from Margaret Mead I got the best possible advice for a narrative journalist: write up your notes as soon as possible.

Whether you are writing a book or a weekender, when you unload your notebook on the day of your reporting, what’s written on the pad (or even what you capture on tape, not my preferred method) is just a teaser for your brain, which fills in the copious blanks of every scene and every thought. This is time-consuming—I spent three or four hours a night on this early in the year, less time later—but well worth it. I could IM or call my subjects, asking, “What were you thinking when such-and-such happened?” and of course they would remember, because it was a few hours ago. A word in my notebook became a paragraph in my computer file. A quote became an entire anecdote. From the scribbles on one page I managed to write lengthy scenes off the top of my head that needed only a bit of polishing, months later, to be bookworthy copy. When summer came and I sat down to write a draft, I did it in five weeks.

Contrast that to how I approached my second book, four years later. I was commuting from Baltimore to Annapolis, 45 minutes to an hour away. I was committed to the project but also happily distracted by my wedding, my honeymoon, my life. A friend of mine, who is something of a big-deal journalist, was doing her own narrative project at the same time. She went months without unloading her notebooks! So why couldn’t I?

I was not that lax; I would wait days, or at most weeks. I knew it was a horrible idea. I still had tons of material on my notebook pages, I just didn’t always remember why it was important, or what happened in the background that I wasn’t able to write down, or even sometimes what that awful handwriting meant—things I would easily have been able to retrieve if my memory was fresh. When I sat down to write a draft, I had strong, solid material, but I knew I could have had so much more to choose from had I been more disciplined about transcription. Writing the draft of that book took five months.

I never understand people who say they have no regrets. I regret drinking too much tequila and French 75’s the night before I flew to Mexico in 1999. I regret about 60 percent of my clothing purchases. And I regret being lazy about my notes. Readers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference from the first book to the second. And I don’t know what is missing—just that something must be.


  1. Ingenious! Why hadn't I thought of that? Just last week, I e-mailed a source to see if he could help me decipher something I had written in my own notebook, months ago.

    From a mental sanity perspective, this approach is also appealing. It might help to keep writers from feeling overwhelmed by their projects.

    Would you recommend the daily notebook dump for shorter-term projects as well as long-term, narrative stories?

  2. Nine of ten Perlsteins agree: good writers think with their fingers. I especially like transcribing important passages from books, searing them into both body and brain. Notes, notes, more notes! There can never be too much note-taking. There are no shortcuts.

  3. Writing my dissertation, which became my first book, I'd review the day every evening while unloading trucks for UPS, and then plan the next day. I'll never forget the truck I was in when I saw how my story would unfold.

    Writing my book now, I'm fascinated by my old notes and memos. I'm struck by how many poignant stories I'd completely forgotten. Fortunately, I was so concerned about not blind-siding colleagues that I shared my contemporaneous notes, meaning that I tested the accuracy of my observations then, and now I'm retesting them through fact-checking and putting them into a narrative. Its as fun as teaching.