Tom Standage: “Go back over your writing again and again”

By day, Tom Standage is digital editor of The Economist. By night, he’s the author of some amazing books on how the technologies of yesterday relate to the ones of today — including his next, Writing on the Wall, which covers the history of social media from the Roman empire through 17th century coffeehouses to the Internet. So what insights could he share with us for better writing?

Was there a specific moment that made you follow the path you’re on? An inspiration? A revelation?

I blame the Daily Telegraph. I was working there in early 1996, on the technology pages, and I thought I’d do a jolly article contrasting the wonders of the Internet with the 19th-century networking technology which had given the newspaper its name.

I was going to laugh at the paltry bandwidth of old Morse-code connections compared with modern modems and fibre-optic links — that sort of thing. But when I started digging into the history of the telegraph I quickly realised how similar it was to the Internet. Business was transformed, and there were online romances, new forms of crime, worries about information overload, and amazing amounts of hype. I ended up arguing that modern Internet users had a lot to learn from the story of the telegraph.

My article on the “Victorian Internet” turned into a book, and I had found my calling: using historical precursors of old technologies to highlight aspects of the present in the past, and the past in the present. I’ve essentially been telling the same joke ever since, both in my journalism and my book-writing.

My next book, Writing on the Wall, which is out in October, is about the history of social media, from the Romans to the Internet, by way of pamphlets, commonplace books, coffeehouses and so on. It turns out that many of the questions prompted by social media in the 21st century have arisen before.

If somebody asked you for tips on becoming a better writer, what’s the one thing you’d tell them?

Two things, if I may. First, when you have a good structural idea, or a good turn of phrase comes to you, note it down immediately — even if you are falling asleep, or in the shower. You think you’ll remember it later, but you won’t, and when inspiration strikes you need to make the most of it, because it doesn’t happen often.

Second, and I know this is a cliche, but writing really is rewriting. The aim is to make it look smooth and effortless, even though it usually isn’t. So get something down, and then go back over it, again and again. I’ve spent more time editing than writing at The Economist, so I can be a pretty ruthless editor of my own copy.

That said, I admit that I’m no prose stylist. My speciality is providing a novel perspective, or a new framing, on a familiar subject. I think of myself more of a juggler of ideas than a writer. And if anyone asks, I always say I’m a journalist.

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.