A short version of this interview was previously published in Overmatter, the weekly email from digital longform publisher MATTER. Sign up for an account today to receive a weekly dose of great stories, enthralling links and insightful tips.
As a senior editor at the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal is one of the most tireless, omnivorous and astute writers on technology that there is: a model for the modern networked journalist if ever there was one. So what’s his advice on writing? We asked him to lay it out.
How do you write? Do you have a specific routine or approach you take?
I don’t think I have a coherent approach. And I try not to think about
it too much.
That said, even when I wrote fiction, I subscribed to the idea that
your ass has to be in the chair to get any work done, so you should
put your ass in the chair. (I think Spike Lee said that?) Working on
the web amplified that inclination.
I can spend weeks and weeks thinking about a vague idea, but once I
have the story in hand, I don’t like to spend too long researching
before I start writing something — a headline, a dek, a few sentences.
If I don’t do that, the idea of the story gets too big and perfect.
And then when I sit down at the keyboard, I start out, “In the
beginning…” When I’m in that mode, it’s easy to forget about the
reader, and what questions they might have.
What’s the one thing you’ve learned over time that you wish you knew when you started out?
There is no red-tile-roof house on the Aegean where famous writers all
go to work in relative leisure. There might be 20 jobs now where
you’re set for life, but the rest of us will be hustling forever.
That sucks (I love the Aegean!) but it’s freeing, too. One of my best
friends called his big career move “getting off other people’s
ladders,” and that struck me as wise advice. You want to write
beautiful stories about things you care about? You can do that, so who
cares if you don’t end up writing profiles for The New Yorker? You can
move around within the profession in more interesting ways than people could before.
If somebody asked you for tips on becoming a better writer, what’s
the one thing you’d tell them?
Follow your own curiosity and say the most interesting stuff first.
There is this weird idea of a “general reader,” who reads the New York
Times and is equally interested in about 200 things (politics, peace
in the middle east, pie, &c). I don’t think such people exist. And if
they do, they are too busy reading the New York Times to read whatever you’re writing.
So forget that hypothetical reader and write about the things that are
most interesting to you. Then, make it your mission to explain to
readers why they should care about this thing you find interesting.
At the base of it, I guess I don’t believe in other people’s
hierarchies about what’s important in the world. Like, if I want to
write about brains, I’m going to tell you the most interesting thing
that I found out, not necessarily try to draw the connection to
Alzheimer’s because I think people’s health is the only thing they
care about. Or if I’m writing about whale eyes and then Facebook’s
earnings come out, I’m going to keep writing about whale eyes because
I’m more curious about them than I am about whether Facebook’s ARPU went up or down.
And — this is one reason I love the web — all the analytics I’ve
ever seen on my stories indicate that my own interest level and effort
dictate what does well, *not* the subject matter.
Was there a specific moment that made you follow the path you’re on? An inspiration? A revelation?
When I was 13, I got my growth plates measured and the doctors told me that I’d be lucky to grow to 5'9" (I was already 5'8"). So, after it
sunk in that I was not going to be a power forward in the NBA, I began
to dedicate myself to writing for life.