There are so, so, so many takes—all the time—about the soul-sucking, mind-melting, brain-breaking perils of online distraction: You don’t use the internet, the internet uses you. Vertical reading is a way to pass the time, not to live in it. The internet is a zero-sum game where online relationships take the place of real-life ones.
And, look, you won’t find a counterargument here. Some nights I only realize it’s time to force my eyeballs from the screen because I sense the return of my old friend, existential emptiness.
The antidote—for everyone, it seems—is easy. Open a damn book already! Lately, I’ve opened a few, and I’m here to suggest a few of those few to you.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. The book, now a movie, is a Coen Brothers-esque reverse Bildungsroman, in which protagonist Eli Sister seeks to unlearn his trade as a hired gun, escape from the Wild West, and, ultimately, return to his childhood home. Although Eli is a guileless dreamer, he is also inconsistently and violently rageful, a quality his sharpshooting, drink-swilling brother, Charlie, is only too happy to provoke. The book is shaped by the brothers’ journey, undertaken at the behest of their boss, Commodore, to dispatch a gold digger whose alchemical secrets promise unimagined riches. The book is a magnetic mix of soul-searching and eye-gouging, insecure self-talk and blind misogynistic fury (in an awful aside, Eli remembers that his mother always told him to masturbate to calm his fits of anger). It’s much worse—and thus much better—than Twitter.
The Perfect Nanny by Leila Smilani. I may have purposefully missed this chart-busting curdler when it first made the rounds. To be honest, it’s hard to recommend even now. Part of me wishes I could cleanse my brain of the book and the abject facts on which its plot is based. But another part of me acknowledges that the book’s reliance on two austere and incomplete portraits of mothers, and not on a sensationalist plot, offers a funhouse mirror for the reader’s soul. Once you see yourself anywhere in the book’s isolating, immolating, passionate-and-alienating version of motherhood, you can never unsee the image. Reviewers sometimes interpret this book as a rebuke to the working mom, but this working mom found a relatable ambivalence that left a lasting and unsettling impression.
Those Who Knew by Idra Novey is the best book I’ve read so far this year and an excellent antidote to whatever glowing screen ails you. The action is set on an unnamed island ten years after the fall of a brutal regime (aided and exploited by the United States). Like the US, the island is shaped by political power begotten through dictatorial violence and the strife of ragged class disparities. It is also marked by women’s negative relationship to power. In fact, the book’s action is driven by women. When the novel opens, the protagonist Lena is haunted by the specter of a dead woman she suspects was murdered by Victor, a beloved politician. Lena suspects Victor because ten years earlier she was a student-activist and Victor was a student-activist hero. She, too, had been in Victor’s thrall, but the spell broke after he coldly seduced her and then choked her into unconsciousness. I paint a depressing picture, I know, but Novey’s book is a translucent and lively thing. Spare but evocative, enraging but funny, the book complicates easy depictions of ruthless politicians and pure-hearted radicals, viciously angry men and disposable women. It also gives women the slanted power they’ve already earned. Read it.
Big projects need big backers. These aren't the kind of backers that make giant contributions to your Kickstarter (although those are great, too); these are the backers who will not only contribute to your Kickstarter, but who will also provide enthusiastic support when your project needs it most.
The role of cheerleader is frequently derided (everywhere, but also in business management circles). A cheerleader denotes a sideline position—someone who isn’t actually playing the game and whose input is therefore superficial. But a cheerleader doesn’t have to be a mouthpiece for empty and purposeless praise, and cheerleading doesn't need to come at the cost of the real-talk that gets things done.
The best cheerleader is an empathic listener who supports a project by considering possible throughways through challenges. A cheerleader responds to a crisis not by ignoring it and hoping it can be rah-rah-ed away. A cheerleader responds to a crisis by listening and offering positive feedback and a few tactical suggestions for a way forward.
When undertaking a big (or team-based or many-stepped or project-managed) project, a cheerleader is indispensable.
But big projects also benefit from eyerollers. Austin Kleon, responding (sort of) to Jon Lovett and George Lucas, recently wrote about that critiquing voice that helps keep projects in check. Although Kleon writes more specifically about artists and the undermining efforts of outsized egos, eyerollers also play an important role in making sure projects fulfill their goals. An eyeroller does not naysay for the joy of expressing cynical skepticism; an eyeroller (a good, useful eyeroller, that is) acts as an editor and a critic, deploying skepticism to ensure that a project reaches its stated goals.
Cheerleaders and eyerollers can benefit any project. When assembling your team—whether formally or informally—decide who will cheer you on and who will keep you in check.
When I prepare for phone calls with passionate authors, I like to revisit “How to Conduct Difficult Interviews” from The Open Notebook. I do it not because my authors are difficult (never!), but because the article is so widely applicable. Who hasn’t had a tough conversation with a business partner, boss, team member, or client (or a friend, partner, or spouse)? In these conversations, you don’t gain a lot of ground by gaining points; you gain ground by gaining information.
When facing a discussion that may feel intimidating or adversarial (for me, this is typically an interventional phone call for a fragile or otherwise off-track project), “intimidating” can stand, but “adversarial” must be recast.
Feeling intimidated, or what Mallory Pickett calls feeling the fear, can be an excellent exercise in humility. The Antidote persuasively argues that getting comfortable with this kind of discomfort is an important and worthwhile skill. It doesn’t mean ignoring discomfort, though—quite the contrary—it means allowing discomfort to exist, allowing conversations to feel and be challenging, allowing uncomfortable silences to happen, and, ideally, allowing all points of view to emerge.
But while it’s okay to be intimidated by the prospect of a difficult conversation, it’s not productive to sustain an inner dialogue and accompanying imagery that casts the conversation as a battle in which a winner will emerge victorious after vanquishing a loser. I know when I rehearse a difficult conversation, I sometimes slip into attack-and-defense mode—but when I want to win and not lose, I’m focused not on the project but on my (single, limited) point of view.
Instead of viewing conflict as adversarial, it’s helpful to occupy the position of a science journalist who works not to win a point but to gain as much information as possible. Making information the goal takes the onus off conversational combat and helps to unify different views by refocusing them on the project.
Because gaining information is the goal, the best preparation for difficult conversations is, ultimately, preparation. This might take the form of role playing a difficult conversation, or it may take the form of research that provides insight and context for the client’s point of view, or it might take the form of breathing exercises that can provide comfort in the midst of discomfort. Science journalists take on the work of confrontational reporting because they want to fully answer a sometimes slippery question. Their techniques apply to anyone who has to talk it out.
You might already know that Kickstarter has a vibrant and delightful publishing category. Illuminated books? Botanical illustrated sketchbooks? Letterpress type specimen books? Yes, please! The site has helped to launch over 45,000 publishing projects and to raise over 156 million dollars. Can it help you?
Maybe! Launching a project is no joke—it's a whole lot of work—but for authors, especially authors of niche books or books rich in design elements, Kickstarter can be an excellent move.
Kickstarter offers a home and platform for entrepreneurial authors looking to go their own way, shorten their publication timeline, raise money for quality printing, determine a more accurate count for an initial book run, and establish a place for fans to congregate and show support.
However, Kickstarter should in no way be considered an “easy” route to publication. Its author-driven platform is freeing, but that’s because the author rather than a publishing team takes on fundraising and marketing responsibilities. While that work may be unavoidable (traditional publishers don’t typically invest in niche books with boutique audiences, and they frequently require, implicitly or explicitly, that authors do the heavy lifting in marketing anyways), it can be challenge, especially for the unprepared.
Thinking about launching a Kickstarter campaign? Consider the following:
Successful Kickstarter campaigns reward the prepared and persistent. From our perspective, it's a platform that's helping to diversify publishing in the form of riskier, niche-ier projects. If you’ve got one, and you've got the energy and passion to fuel it, get in there and kickstart it!
Well, that’s pretty rare, actually. Although a foreword, a preface, an introduction, and an afterword are all framing elements, they are only sometimes used (and only sometimes read). So what are the differences between a preface, a foreword, and an intro, and what is the point of an afterword? How do you know what your book needs, and when should you start to write it?
Writing is an extension of your voice. You may not always think about it that way, but every time you put fingers to keyboard, you’re conveying information and communicating something about who you are (even when “who you are” is “someone who uses Gmail autoresponses”).
You can put that power to work in your community by writing letters to the editor. Activists and advocates use letters to the editor (LTEs) to speak to the issues that matter to them in a voice loud enough for their communities—and congresspeople—to hear. But “activists and advocates”? That’s you. And me. When we write letters to the editor, we say, and to a large audience, a bit about who we are, what we care about, and why we think others should care about it, too.
The best LTEs are the published ones, so follow the rules to get yours read:
While some of us rely on the power of the pen too frequently (guilty!), others seldom make use of its persuasive potential. In an unsurprising twist, this is especially the case for women. The New York Times editorial page recently addressed its gender disparity after reader and PhD candidate Kimberly Probolus wrote in both to persuade women to write more LTEs and to ask for institutional change.
The editors responded to Probolus's letter by pledging to do better (maybe they'll follow Ed Yong's protocol, as narrated in The Atlantic). The editors also asked women (and others who feel underrepresented) to write in and indicated they would begin to cull letters from a wider variety of outlets.
So, women, if there’s an issue in your community that you care about, if your local paper covers a topic but leaves out the most important parts, if an article fails to make clear to readers the ramifications of a congressperson’s political stance, LTEs offer you an opportunity to flex your informed muscle.
Letters to the editor speak to the issues that matter: You don’t have to be an “activist” or an “advocate” to write one. You don't even have to be a “writer" (or a man). You just have to be willing to use your voice.
Writers come to us when they're passionate about a subject or excited to share a powerful message. They're often way past ready to jump into the long and difficult work of turning their ideas into a real, and really good, book.
Typically, we listen to their (brilliant) ideas and then ask a few questions. Among these are questions about audience: Who is this book for? Who will be persuaded by this argument and this evidence? Who wants to be moved by this message?
For many of our authors, the reflexive answer is “everybody.”
Writers of nonfiction often assume that the wider they spread their net, the more readers they’ll capture. While it’s part of our job to convince them that this isn’t the case, it’s not an easy argument. Why not write your book for everybody? Why not offer something with wide appeal? Why not aim to attract both your employee’s millennial social-worker daughter and your grandmother’s middle-aged podcast-loving male nurse?
The answer is simple: Because you can’t. You can’t shape your message—in a real and genuine and sincere way—so that it resonates at a deep level with absolutely everyone. The more you try to broaden its appeal, the thinner and more stretched and more general your message becomes. (And if your message is general, it's just not necessary to spend the time and expend the effort on writing it into a book.)
In fact, if you’re writing your book for everybody, nobody will read it. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. Reading a book is an intimate act. We invite the authorial voice into our head, and we allow ourselves to be moved by its argument. If the voice feels artificial and insincere, or if the argument doesn't seem applicable, we close ourselves to the message and toss the book into an abyss of forgetfulness.
So we encourage our writers to get specific in the book development stage—really specific. When we ask them to think about their audience and how their message will land, we crib from Seth Godin’s “Marketing in Five Steps” (from This Is Marketing):
For some writers, it feels ugly to overlay marketing and bookmaking. But a marketing mindset is valuable. By focusing on the needs and dreams of a small group of people, you ensure that your “thing”—your story and your message—are meaningful because they absolutely and truly resonate with someone.
Tidying Up, the Netflix show based on Marie Kondo’s blockbuster book, debuted this month to many, many hot takes. Even if you haven’t read the book, you still probably know that the show anticipates (and fuels) January’s zeitgeist by helping hoarder-lite accumulators streamline their possessions.
The many responses to Marie Kondo, her book, her method, and her show are worth a read. There is something delightful about the method’s animistic approach to stuff. It feels right that every single one of our possessions should spark something—whether that’s joy, usefulness, hope…or just recognition. But, as others (and Twitter) have vociferously argued, there’s also something depressing about radically minimizing our possessions according to our current feelings. Times and feelings, perceptions of “sparks” and “joy,” change. All the time!
Whether you’re all in on KonMari mania or you’ve chosen to hold on to that double-stack tower of unread books, KonMari can be usefully applied to writing projects. While it’s the rare MS Word snippet that inherently “sparks joy,” KonMari’s emphasis on disciplined organization—decanting, disposing, and developing a daily habit—can help productively compose a jumbled Google doc.
Consider the KonMari-approved method of decanting household products into simple containers. This, argues Kondo, reduces the extraneous “noise” of packaging and frees the product to be, as designer William Morris once advised, beautiful and useful. Beginning a project by freeing it from the confines of its context—perhaps by using Webjets, Scrivener, a new doc, a legal pad, or Nabokov-approved notecards—can help you see your work in a new way, enabling you to push it in more generative directions.
Or try the KonMari argument for guilt-free disposal. Because writing can be so difficult, the material we produce often feels sacred. We might think that a great paragraph—even if it doesn’t really work—is just too good to let go. While these sentences might spark joy, their sparks are obstructive rather than clarifying. If you can, delete your fragmentary darlings with impunity. If you absolutely can’t, create a separate file for fragments. You may find a use for them yet.
KonMari also suggests developing a daily habit of cleaning out your bag. We already know that organized writing aids sleep, so when it comes to your projects, this isn’t just helpful, it’s healthy. At the end of your work, go back over what you’ve written. Determine what works and what doesn’t. File the uselessly joyful/joyfully useless fragments in a separate doc. Run spellcheck and format the page. Note what still needs to be outsourced (and sourced), and create a list of writing to-dos for the next session. Like the concept of parking your car downhill, when you make a habit of regularly tidying up your work, you position yourself for maximum momentum.
Tragically, the KonMari method is not going to transform your project into a minimalist masterpiece. Big projects will probably always require baroque amounts of blood, sweat, and tears to be magically transformative. But the KonMari method offers easy-to-execute organizing habits that can help every writer.
If you’re like me (meaning a tech-curious but otherwise regular computer user), new web apps can inspire a bit of excitement. New always promises to be more fun or beautiful or useful than old, but I usually realize and pretty quickly that the new app doesn’t address a need I have, and it quickly disappears into the ether.
Not so with Webjets! Webjets, which I first read about in Kai Brach’s newsletter Dense Discovery, is a mood-board-esque desktop for your desktop. It’s a bit like Pinterest, or Pocket, or Evernote, or a variety of other visually organized bookmarking and note-taking tools. But it’s also broader and much more dexterous. Basically Webjets is an easy-to-use interactive canvas that lets you drag, drop, and arrange images, videos, live links, docs—any type of file—and then organize, connect, and annotate everything in a (limited) variety of different ways.
For example, if you're working on a speech or a presentation, you could fill your canvas with thumbnail links of your subject matter. You could then attach other links (like particularly apt comments or tweets or relevant op-eds), other images (like a grabs from previous presentations), and text-based responses (like lists of audience questions) onto the images themselves.
This is helpful, and in some surprisingly deep ways. If you're looking to repurpose or refresh a project, Webjets provides an engaging format through which to envision your work. If you’re looking to gain insights or access points into stubborn questions, Webjets can help you reorganize your files in new ways (like lists, cards, folders, or mind maps). If you’re looking to collaborate with a partner or a team, Webjets lets you share your screen for pretty efficient (and frankly very fun) collaborative brainstorming sessions.
Did I need a new way to envision and brainstorm new projects? In fact, yes! My old way of brainstorming cannot even be called a “way”; it’s certainly not efficient; and it’s not at all conducive to structured collaboration. As we work on bigger, more collaborative projects at MWS, Webjets offers a narrative snapshot that is more comprehensive and more dynamic than a linear or written description.
The question of whether or not Webjets aids productivity is harder to answer. On the one hand, it will undoubtedly add to the bottomline of time spent brainstorming and collaborating. On the other hand, if it means the end result is a smarter and more creative project, then I'll happily take it. Have you used Webjets? Tell me more.
As part of the Do-More/Do-Less banner I’ve unfurled for 2019, I’m revisiting Jane Friedman’s book The Business of Being A Writer. Friedman, whose Twitter bio declares that she knows “far too much about the publishing industry,” is the cofounder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house newsletter about publishing.
Her book gives a comprehensive overview of professional writing and pragmatic, utterly helpful advice. While it’s an ideal reference for anyone dipping a toe into the world of professional writing, the insight and advice ripples outward to other professionals, too.
Take, for instance, Friedman’s injunction to avoid wasting someone’s time. For writers, a pitch to an unresearched editor, to an ill-chosen agent, or to an unsuitable publication is not a hail-mary strategy—it’s a waste of the reader's time and a waste of the writer’s time.
This is the case for all types of pitch-makers. You might be pitching a report to shareholders, a book to an agent, an argument to an audience, a grant to a grantor, or a professional background to an interviewer. In each case, your aspiration should be for your audience to consider the time they spend with you and your work to be worthwhile.
You will gain their appreciation by knowing that audience not as an indistinct bulk but as a single person. Recognizing your audience as a single (and actual) person makes it easier to undertake the work of understanding their professional background, needs, and aspirations. Only then can you determine if your work (or your speech or your grant) really is a good fit. Can you give this person something they need? If yes, then you can succinctly and persuasively explain what you have to offer.
This type of reconnaissance isn’t as fuzzy as it sounds. You don’t have to divine motivations (though you may want to). You simply have to turn to Google to trace your audience’s past work and current efforts. The time you spend—no matter your pitch, no matter your audience—will always be well-spent.
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, mom to three troublemakers.