For the past six months, I’ve been getting used to being a columnist for the New York Times. It’s an incredible honor, but a weekly column is also a big shift from my previous work rhythm. By the weekend I need an idea for the next column, by Tuesday I need to have it researched and written, and by Thursday morning my editor Mary Ann Giordano and I are polishing of the last rough edges. Then repeat.
I also try to blog a couple times a week at National Geographic, and then over the longer term, I keep a couple features chugging along. Some of them are features for the Times, and others are for magazines like Wired, National Geographic, Scientific American, and the Atlantic.
For about a decade I always had a book in the works, but I’m now in something of a book lull. At the moment, I’m steadily revising an evolutionary biology textbook I coauthored in 2012 with biologist Douglas Emlen. It’s pleasant to have the chance to cut out the stuff that didn’t quite succeed the first time around and update a book with new developments. When I’m not doing that, I’m reflecting on what I might write about for my next trade book.
Speaking has also grown into a moderate slice of my work life. It used to be that I’d only be asked to give public talks when I was on a book tour. But then I started getting asked to come to universities or meetings just to talk. I’d ask what they wanted me to talk about, and they’d say, “Whatever you feel like.” At first, that was a very intimidating suggestion, but now I give a few talks each year. Preparing new talks and traveling can take a lot out of me, but I’ve come to love presenting stories to a live audience. The laughs or yelps of horror tell me when I’m successfully hitting a nerve — a feedback you just can’t get sitting at home alone.
Where I work:
I live in Guilford, a small town in Connecticut. My wife and I moved here 10 years ago from Queens. It’s one of those charming New England towns with a history of unbelievable bloodshed. A fair number of writers live in the area, in part because it’s not far from an airport, as well as trains to New York and Boston.
My office is an old garage that was absorbed into one end of the house a long time ago. We put in a big wall of bookshelves, but I’ve already reached a zero-sum game with space. I’m constantly having to donate the ones that don’t fit anymore to the Guilford Free Library. I cheat a bit on the zero-sum part of the game, as the stacks of books on my floor and desk reveal.
My wife Grace designed my desk, which is a big black slab resting on four sets of drawers. I used to rely on those drawers to store lots of papers for stories and books I was working on, but I’ve shifted almost entirely to reading them on my iPad or computer. Every year I go into my attic and unceremoniously hurl a box of old print-outs into the trash. The surface of my desk is usually congested with stacks of folders, books, receipts, wires, hard drives, a box of old notebooks for reference, and various unclassifiable pieces of flotsam such as spoons. From my chair I can stare out at trees in the distance and butterfly bushes in the foreground. I like to keep tabs on the hawkmoths and the hummingbirds when I can’t figure out how to start a story.
I try to get away from my chair as often as I can. If the weather’s okay and I need to read something, I’ll walk in a circuit outside the house. Or I’ll take over the potting bench in the backyard and turn it into a rustic version of a standing desk.
While the freelance life suits me pretty well overall, my penchant for sleeping in has always been a threat to my workday. Fortunately, my children have gotten to that stage in life where they have to get up ridiculously early to catch the bus to school. So I find that by 7:30 am I’m up, dressed, loaded with coffee, and already digging into my email. If I’m spending a day at home, I try to focus in on a story after an hour or so of email and web grazing. I’ll typically do a couple interviews over the phone for some story, send out some emails to contact people about new stories, and download a bunch of papers to read. Then I hear the front door open and realize school is over. Things start to wind down at that point. I try not to let work spill over into life after dinner, but that’s easier said than done. Along the way, I try to make time for a run or a walk to the town center.
Most productive part of my day:
I’d say from mid- to late-afternoon. All I know is that when I have to stop for the day, I feel like I’m just getting really started.
Most essential ritual or habit:
All my habits are bad. Not Baudelaire bad, just nothing that helps my writing.
iPhone. It’s a nearly perfect machine for me. I just wish that I could easily record phone interviews on it. Then all would be well.
MacBook. When I started in science journalism, I was an assistant copy editor at Discover. Back then, the magazine used some dreary DOS-based computer system and our software of choice was something called XyWrite. Nothing but a black screen and a command line on top. In hindsight, it was cool in its own ENIAC way. No Twitter, no ridiculous Microsoft bells and whistles. Just straight text.
But when a new art editor showed up at Discover and demanded we switch to Macs, I felt like I had come home.
Essential software/apps/productivity tools:
For phone interviews: Skype, Plantronics headset, and a recording plug-in. I simultaneously keep notes in a spiral notebook.
For in-person interviews: Olympus LS-11 or iPhone Voice Recorder app (only as back-up). I still can’t believe I used to record interviews on micro-cassettes.
For organizing recordings: iTunes. I’m way behind on tagging my interviews with details.
For organizing papers: Papers for iPad. I only really use Papers if I’m plowing into a lot of research for a new story and I have the time to read one paper after another. I’ll load all the papers into one folder and then read them through. It’s not a perfect solution, though. I still end up taking notes in my spiral binder. Otherwise, I just stuff pdf’s into folders on my computer.
For writing: MS Word for articles and books. Taco HTML Edit for blogging.
For RSS feed: NetNewsWire on my Mac, Feedly on my iPhone (far from ideal, but I can’t find a better solution). I used to only use RSS for keeping up with my favorite blogs, but now I find that it’s just a fantastic organizer for all my reading and research. Scientific journals all provide RSS feeds for their papers, for example.
For saving long reads to read later: Instapaper
For Twitter: Tweetdeck. (Yes, I classify Twitter under essential tools.)
For mail: Mail for Mac. It always feels like it’s reaching the breaking point, but it now holds 15 years of correspondences, so I’m locked in.
For working with photos: Adobe Photoshop’s Elements Editor. More powerful than iPhoto, but not a professional monster of a program.
For talks: Keynote.
For transferring big files (art memos to publishers, videos from scientists): Dropbox
Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:
While Twitter can be hugely important to me for keeping up with news, it can also lure me off to all sorts of interesting stories and podcasts and videos that have nothing remotely to do with what I can seriously call work. I think that in this piece for New York Kathryn Schulz summed up the mixed feelings that a lot of writers have about the mighty blue bird. I also belong to a Google Group with a dozen or so other writers, and it’s very easy to slide into an hour of tradecraft and gossip.
My reading habits:
For a number of years, I pretty much used up all the time I had reading scientific papers and books. If I wasn’t reading for an article or book I was currently working on, I was reading to find something to write about in the future. I’ve forced myself out of that habit, and now I’ve always got a novel I’m slowly working on (just finishing up the Smiley trilogy by John LeCarre). I usually settle in to read at the end of the day or traveling.
I try to get the lights out by midnight. I don’t always succeed.
Short bio: Carl Zimmer is a columnist for the New York Times, where his “Matter” column appears each Thursday. His books include Parasite Rex and Evolution: Making Sense of Life. His work has earned awards from the National Academies of Sciences and AAAS. He is a lecturer at Yale, where he teaches science writing.