National Book Award-winner and Pulitzer Prize-finalist Nathaniel Philbrick details to The Paris Review his writing process. Philbrick writes historical non-fiction, so he often has to dive head first into topics and develop a mastery while maintaining a sense of wonder. As a result he has a pretty regimented process to assure things come out right. Some choice gems:
On taking notes:
Moleskine. It’s almost a reading journal. Day by day. Early on I’m getting a sense of the book. I find that when I’m new to a topic, that’s when I’m catching the best details. It’s all new to me; it’s what the reader will respond to. Because, you can so easily over-know a topic, and you lose the magic. It becomes interesting to you, but you’ve lost the connection to the reader. You’re too far down the rabbit hole. So for me, it’s having a record of those initial reactions to the material is really important. It’s the roadmap I go back to. You forgot how interesting the material was when you first learned it, after you’ve learned a lot about a topic.
On getting feedback:
So, after I finish a draft, I hit print. I used to do a lot more revising on the page. I used to print at the end of every day, and then the next morning revise. I’ve since gotten to the point where I just do the revising on the screen. I print out the whole chapter, edit it, spend a day looking it over, then reprint it, and take upstairs and read it aloud to my wife after dinner.
[Paris Review:] Out loud?
That is the most critical point. She has a notepad where she’s writing comments. It’s so funny—you can look at things on the screen, and it looks great. Then you read it, and you go, oh my God. The rhythm of the prose is something I’m really trying to work on. So when I’m reading it aloud, I’ll hear the prose and go, that sucks. Like for all of us, I’m always searching for a word. It’s a lot of the sounds I’m going for—not that I’m creating anything anyone notices.
On the importance of the preface:
What I should mention is that, what applied to Away Off Shore and all my books since, is that, for me, it’s the preface that matters. That’s where I develop the voice; that’s where figure out what I’m going to say. Well into the Moleskine approach, I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to begin with. What scene will introduce what I’m trying to do. That’s really hard for me. I’ll have forty drafts of how I’m going to start the book. Forty different ways in. How about trying this way, how about that? And that’s really the hard part. I’m deconstructing myself, second guessing myself. Where am I coming from? What is this about? What’s the voice? The tone? My manila folder for the preface is always really fat.
Read the entire interview (a must for any writer) here.
Extracurriculars, straight A’s, volunteer work. . . Getting into top-flight colleges demands a ridiculous amount of free time, dedication, and energy, which are exactly the kinds of things that stifle learning. So does that mean that the Ivy Leagues are now producing students who are better at following orders than experimenting?
The New Yorker takes on the issue using William Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life as a backdrop:
They’re meant to do it all, and they do. But they don’t know why, or how, to find fulfillment in the absence of new hoops to jump through.
Learning is supposed to be about falling down and getting up again until you do it right. But, in an academic culture that demands constant achievement, failures seem so perilous that the best and the brightest often spend their young years in terrariums of excellence. The result is what Deresiewicz calls “a violent aversion to risk.” Even after graduation, élite students show a taste for track-based, well-paid industries like finance and consulting (which in 2010 together claimed more than a third of the jobs taken by the graduating classes of Harvard, Cornell, and Princeton). And no wonder. A striver can “get into” Goldman Sachs the way that she got into Harvard. There is no résumé submission or recruiting booth if you want to make a career as a novelist.
If our brightest minds are mainly falling into fields like finance, what does that mean for the next generation of leaders?
Web developer Rachel Nabors followed her passion and was a full-time comic book artist. But an unexpected surgery and a lack of health insurance debunked her plans and given her a new outlook on creative work. Now? She believes that “do what you love” is bad advice.
My first love, comics, gives me an edge in this industry. If I’d just gone straight into web development because it seemed like a money-maker, I wouldn’t be half as excited about what I can do or as interesting to others in my field. I and my community are better for the years I spent making comics, even if it wasn’t a successful career choice.
But, if I’d kept “doing what I love” in the industry that didn’t love me back, I would have never realized that there are other, more profitable, things I love.
Rather than telling you to do what you love, I’d like to say this:
Don’t do something you hate for a living.
There is no glory in suffering. Because you can grow to hate something you love if it puts you in a bad position, this advice gives you permission to move on to greener pastures if what you love is making you cry at night. Whatever you love should love you back. And if it’s not working out, it’s ok to find something else to love.
We all have more than one true passion in us — sometimes it just takes time to find it.
Adam Akhtar of Highfive has a great—albeit surprisingly simple—tip to add visual tags to your notebook or moleskin for organizing your notes. All it takes is your notebook and a pen:
The back of your notebook will act like a tag list or index. Every time you create a new entry at the front of the book you’re going to “tag” it [in the back]…
Now you’d go back to the first page where the [note] is and on the exact same line as the…label you just wrote you’d make a little mark on the right edge. You’d make this mark so that even when the notepad was closed the mark would be visible. After repeating this for various [notes] you’d now have various tags visible on the notebooks edge.
The process is very easy to use, and can be paired with other “hacks” for an added organizational boost (like using different colors for different topics). If you still use a physical notebook, this is one approach you’re definitely going to want to consider.
Figure out what you stand for and what you believe in, and use that as your point of difference. In a crowd of designers, how will you stand apart? If you’re guilty of leading with what you do, start with why you do it and articulate that on your materials, website and social channels. Find out where your talents and values meet, and use that to leverage the power of your purpose.
Your “why” is a powerful driving force for your life and career. It provides a common goal that directs your actions and provides the dedication to get there. In addition, passion is contagious. Your excitement will excite others who will want to get involved in what you do. As leadership expert Simon Sinek says, “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”
The sooner you share your ideas, the sooner you will find a solution that works for everyone. Try to collaborate with your clients during the design process instead of simply presenting to them at the end. That’s what digital strategist Michelle Campbell learned during the SXSW Interactive Festival:
At agencies, we’ve grown used to spending weeks on one idea only to have it thrown away at the last minute. If we opened up this process to more sharing — among ourselves and our clients — we’d have more time to build and evolve better ideas.
Your clients may not know much about design, but they are experts in their industries. Getting their feedback early on will prevent you from getting attached to an idea that isn’t going to work. Campbell reminds us:
… we often rely on people with the word “creative” in their title for ideas, but we forget that inspiration isn’t taught. It comes from real life, and anyone can bring that to the table.
A recent study found that the average worker loses approximately 80 hours per years as a result of disorganization. That’s nearly two weeks of vacation! When invoices, receipts, contracts. and drafts are piled up everywhere, you’re likely to waste hours shuffling papers from one pile to another.
Ann Gomez of Clear Concept Inc. emphasizes the touch it once principle:
Process each task the first time you touch it.
Triage effectively with Gomez’s one touch rule – as soon as you get it, act on it, delegate it, file it or throw it away. And don’t just stop at paper – this principle easily applies to phone calls, emails and social media notifications.
It’s a simple trick to help you batch your work into scheduled, focus blocks: you won’t open an email until you’re ready to give it your full attention, or you’ll decline to accept your coworker’s rough draft until later when you know you’ll have the time to sit down and do it.