Glenn Fleishman's Writer Workflow

July 03, 2012 by Gabe | [mmd] |

Editor's Note

I am extremely honored to have Glenn Fleishman participate in this series. I have been reading his work for many years and he is one of the best technology journalists in his field. I highly recommend his latest book Take Control of BBEdit as an example of his technical and literary expertise. I also recommend seeking out Glenn's work wherever it is available, which is just about every publication I respect.

If you like, please provide a brief bio

At one point in my life, I was convinced I'd become a professional actor, but I had enough sense to shift into graphic design, then technology journalism. I have written for dozens of publications over the last 20 years, including Aldus and then Adobe Magazine, Wired, Business 2.0, and The New York Times. I currently contribute regularly to The Economist, Macworld, The Seattle Times, TidBITS, Ars Technica, and BoingBoing. I am often on public radio programs talking tech, and for fun I'm part of the geeky podcast The Incomparable, which alternates between books, videogames, comic books, television, film, and other categories each week. I spend most of my time right now writing regular items for The Economist's Babbage blog, and handling the back-end programming and writing for TidBITS and the Take Control book series.

How did you get started as a writer?

I think I always wrote, and I've never had a bent for fiction, though I tried my hand at it when I was quite young. I always liked to tell other people's stories, rather than my own. My first regular column was in 5th grade, when I wrote the "gossip" column for the school paper. I wrote for the junior high and high school papers as well, and was one of the early editors on a weekly paper at Yale University, the Yale Herald, which had started operations the semester before I arrived. Writing a lot gives you the skill to write a lot, and I wrote and wrote and wrote over that period. For one issue of my college paper, I saw and reviewed three plays and edited a 4-page theater section on a busy week for performance. I didn't have as many opportunities to write for several years after graduation.

How do you capture your ideas and research an article?

I try to find a nugget of an idea and work out from there. For a lot of my current writing, which is in the sub-1,000-word range, it's often a single notion, like a colleague noting that his brother, who played college baseball, once looked into the stands and saw life-sized cutouts of him and his girlfriend, an attempt by the other team to spook him. The picture came from Facebook. Or there's an Internet security issue that comes up that has lots of moving pieces, and I try to break that down into something that a general audience can understand both the mechanics of and why it's relevant.

For longer work, I have to find a bigger theme, and then figure out the extent to which I can research it. Most of my research is by phone and Internet. For a 2,000-word feature, I have been known to interview 8 to 10 people. I try to travel a bit more to get stories, because phone interviews only give you so much. I'm also lucky that people pass through Seattle or live here who are interesting subjects or useful for stories.

I do spend quite a bit of time doing the usual: relying on Google, using published article databases, and searching through specialized resources, such as the USPTO's patent database or Google Books. I have found useful tidbits in 100-year-old books that relate to the development of technology we're using today.

For how-to stories, like configuring an AirPort base station, I try to run through all the scenarios I can imagine someone needing, and test every feature on a device or in a piece of software, and then extract the parts that seem most relevant.

How does this differ from your process for writing a longer piece like a book?

My longer books have all been how-to so far, so I usually approach each chapter as an aspect of how I'd write a step-by-step article, just with more headings and subheadings.

You write for several outlets. What complications does this create and how do you deal with it?

Fortunately, none. The publications I spend the most time writing for have a little overlap in material, but none of the editors has any attitude about overlap. I write the most for the Economist, two items a week, where I have a commitment and often don't even pitch unless I'm concerned about an overlap with a staffer or other freelancer. They regularly ask me to write something, but I'm generally responsible for coming up with interesting ideas.

Macworld is more focused on Mac stuff, of course, where I pitch how-to stories and reviews. I write longer "think" pieces for TidBITS about computing and users, which fits our audience there, which looks for more context about technology, rather than exhaustive coverage that they can get elsewhere.

BoingBoing is where I offer my most creative stuff, often in which I am part of the story, because they favor personal creativity, the "maker" culture, and stuff that's not precisely in the mainstream. I get to take the most risks in my writing there and be broadest.

Without being a toady, I'll say that I love writing for all the publications for which I currently write. I have a great relationship with multiple editors at each publication, and I get terrific support and feedback for my work. There's a lot of respect, and I love it. That was true of some, but not all, of the outlets for which I no longer write. (In some cases, editors left and I couldn't build a relationship with a new one; in others, they couldn't pay enough to make it worthwhile to me.)

How do you find inspiration and how do you keep track of your ideas?

I'm on Twitter and use RSS extensively. I'm also trying to find a story or idea that hasn't been stomped on by others, which is increasingly difficult. I'd rather not write about something 1,000 other people have if there's nothing new to say, although sometimes, it's useful for some outlets I write for to have their own take on a popular subject, and I gladly write those if asked. When I pitch, I want something unique.

I don't have any good system to track my ideas. I have a text file for ideas for the Economist blog, as I produce a few items a week, and just plug stuff in there. Otherwise, I'm often pitching as soon as I get an idea, and if it's accepted, great; if not, it's gone or perished.

Can you provide an overview of your writing process?

I don't know that I'd thought of that before. I do try to write either a strong lede or a nut graf. The lede might include an anecdote or allegory, and try to encapsulate what the entire piece is about as a bit of a short story. I or my editors often do go back and remove the lede or the first few paragraphs even! So those are sometimes just writing exercises that help me crack my fingers to get into the main story.

I recently wrote an Economist item in which I explained something about a larger firm building a national advertising campaign that helped a firm selling a niche product in order to introduce the article's main topic. But after writing the whole piece and finding it too long, I removed the framing mechanism and the piece was just done and good.

A nut graf is something that occurs a few paragraphs into a story. I was taught to use this when writing regularly for the New York Times several years ago. The nut graf can be like the lede in encapsulating the whole story, but it doesn't come right at the top. The typical form is an anecdote that might be a few paragraphs long and draws a reader in. The nut graf tells why that anecdote is useful and how that fits into the larger story. I try to construct a good nut graf in these cases and may build the rest of the story around it.

You need an arc to stories that aren't how-to, and I try to build something that has tension in the middle to resolve at the end. A violin is sent to Canada and crushed because eBay demands it. Why? How? In the end, eBay may change its practices, but the violin remains destroyed.

How long have you been doing it this way?

Although I never studied journalism in college, I had a superb high-school journalism teacher, Sue Barr, who in two years of classes plus a year of practical work on the paper, taught me everything I needed to know besides getting experience. So I've largely written the way I do for nearly 30 years. Over time, I've learned to better construct a lede, to build an arc to a story that's effective, and write well in longer form.

What personal enhancements have you made to make writing and research easier?

I'm a bit of a mess organizationally, and I rely on what used to be a nearly photographic memory to keep things organized. As I've gotten older, the photos have faded, but I can still process and retain relatively massive amounts of data in my gray matter, and that is honestly an accident of birth. I don't use memory techniques.

My outboard brain is Yojimbo, a Mac program that is kind of a junk drawer for digital stuff: notes, photos, passwords, PDFs, images, and Web archives. If I ever think something will be useful, I toss it into or print it to Yojimbo, stick a few tags on it, and pull it up later. To a lesser extent, I use Readability, Instapaper, and Pinboard to stash away bookmarks and ideas. Instapaper and Readability I use for short-term tracking; Pinboard for longer-term.

I rely on Spotlight to some extent. It's terribly executed technology. Apple has done a frankly awful job over several years to ensure that Spotlight works well and consistently. I can't tell you how many times I've had to kill "mdworker" jobs or delete an index in Terminal, or watch the index regenerate for no reason, burning CPU cycles. If Spotlight were more reliable and less crashy, it would be more useful, too.

I tend these days to store everything I'm interested in and assume that later, I will find it via tags or memory.

Do you have a specific work environment or setup for researching and composing an article on your Mac?

I rely mostly on BBEdit for writing using the Markdown format, even if I then dump it into Pages, Word, or export to HTML. BBEdit was built as a programmer's tool, but I find it superb for writing. It has spellchecking, autocomplete for words, word look up, word/letter/line count, fantastic search and replace, and so forth. (I even wrote a book about it that has a large section on using it for writing.)

Dropbox is also key. I have a desktop and laptop computer, and work with many other people on projects. I use Dropbox for my own purposes for travel and working around town, and for collaboration.

For backups, by the way, I rely on CrashPlan, which can do local, peer-to-peer backups, and hosted backups. Because I travel with a laptop, and currently work out of the house, I need to make sure that my files are somewhere safe. I have local backups in the house, and use CrashPlan's Central service for remote ones. I think I have a terabyte stored with them on their servers at the moment.

Do you write from a mobile device? If so, how does this process differ from your desk computer?

Rarely. When I first had an iPad, I did several trips with just the iPad or the iPad plus a wireless keyboard. After replacing my MacBook Pro (15-inch), which turned out to be overkill for my purposes, with a MacBook Air last August, I find that the Air is so lightweight and useful, that despite the battery life issue, I just bring that.

Does your workflow change based on the type of article?

Some I have to perform many more interviews for; others more research.

What parts of your workflow are you looking to change or improve?

I do sometimes have too many projects in the works at once, and am inefficient about switching among them.

What parts of your workflow are you least willing to change?

Don't have an answer for that!

What is your favorite technology for making the writing process easier or more fun?

Nothing comes to mind.

Anything else you would like to share about your workflow?

I try to not come to a reported or researched story with a preconceived notion of how that story must turn out. I will often sketch a shape for what I'm thinking, or even draft the whole thing, but I always listen to interview subjects, or change my mind based on research. I've had to tear up and rewrite stories many times based on what I find, and that tells me that I'm still listening.

If you never revise a story from its early form, it means you weren't receptive.