What I’m working on:
Right now, I’m starting to gear up for a reporting trip to the Arctic for a long feature for The Atlantic‘s print magazine. I want to say more about it here (many thousands of words more) but I really shouldn’t. When I was at Aeon, I made my name writing (very) long essays, but since I arrived here I’ve mostly written shorter stuff, which has been a relief, insofar as it’s nice to work on projects with lower stakes. At the same time, I’ve missed the pleasure of turning a subject over in your mind over a period of many months, and waiting for the little connections to reveal themselves—and so it’s been nice to dip back into that particular mode of thinking. I’m also working on a much shorter introductory essay to launch our forthcoming vertical-within-a-vertical on the Anthropocene, and a few mid-length stories about astronomy, which is the closest thing I have to a real beat.
But my main daily obsession is our science/tech/health team at The Atlantic, which is absolutely stacked with talented writers. Everyone on this team is incredibly ambitious about improving the quality of their writing, and I count it a real privilege that they trust me to help them think through the substance, structure, and style of their work on a daily basis. We also work with a great crop of freelancers. This past year, we’ve been experimenting with big freelance projects, which are almost like miniature residencies, where we commission writers we admire to take on a subject over several pieces. Last fall, Ingrid Burrington did a fabulous series for us on the history of cloud infrastructure. More recently, Sarah Jeong wrote a series for us on the surveillance of lower-income communities. And in the coming months, Jessa Gamble and Geoff Manaugh will both be headlining similar projects for us.
Where I work:
Some of our writers work remotely—Ed Yong often checks in from London—but quite a few are in the office, so I try to be there most days. We’re headquartered at the Watergate in DC, and there are more than 100 people on our floor, which I quite like. I’ve tried the work-from-home setup and while there are great things about it—being able to play with my kids while I’m on a coffee break, for instance—I’d find it maddening to do full time. I really enjoy having a big, complex social world at work, and all the more so because the people are so kind and generous at The Atlantic. I came from a smaller magazine (Aeon) that had a fantastic culture, and really wonderful people—several are still my great friends. I was skeptical that a culture that positive could scale to a larger organization, and so that’s been a pleasant surprise.
As for my workspace, it’s pretty simple. Our team has an open plan setup. My coffee-ring-stained cube is mostly covered in stacks of review copies, along with an Easter Island squeeze toy, and an old 1950’s issue of The Atlantic with Saturn on the cover. I find it’s nice to glance up at it every so often, because it helps to remind me that I work for a magazine with a long tradition (more than 150 years) of excellent writing about the sciences. And also, I’m a bit partial to Saturn.
I tend to wake up pretty early, even if I don’t get out of bed until a little after 7:00. I’ll usually pop awake sometime around 5:30 and drift back and forth between reading and sleep until 7:00, when my kids wake up and the day begins in earnest. Those morning hours are precious to me. Typically, I’ll reach for my phone first thing and take a spin through Twitter. At that hour, my feed is a nice mix of East Coast early risers, with a generous helping of tweeps in the UK. Having worked for a magazine headquartered in London, and being something of an Anglophile, I follow quite a few Brits, and I really enjoy starting my day with that slightly different perspective on the world. It’s one of the things I missed when I lived on the West Coast, because by the time I’d wake up, the East Coast was already tweeting up a storm, drowning out the European voices in my feed. After I’ve spun through Twitter, I’ll check for anything urgent in Slack and email, and respond where necessary, and then I’ll try to read something long and substantive to start the day. I must confess that this election season has skewed these habits somewhat, insofar as I spend more of my mornings reading (nervously) about Trump and politics than I normally would.
Once I do get up, my wife and I get the kids ready, and I walk my son to his school, which is on the way to the Watergate. It’s only a 12-minute walk from our house to his school, but it’s such an important time for us, because it’s just us two. Oftentimes he’ll ask me about the science stories we published the previous day, and I’ll do my best to cram them into language that makes sense to a six-year-old.
After I arrive at the office, I make a beeline for the coffee machine, and then I look in on our team’s morning check-in on Slack. If there isn’t anything particularly urgent, my associate editor—Paul Bisceglio—and I will work our way through the science, technology, and health sections of other publications, noting interesting stories, stuff we missed, etc. (We call this the “morning scan” and we have a dedicated slack channel set up for it.) And then I’ll dive into the day’s mix of edits, meetings, and writing. Around 4:30 or so, Paul and I reconvene to review the day’s pitches. He’ll start by filtering out the automatic nos, and we’ll discuss the remaining story ideas, one by one.
Most productive part of my day:
10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. That first morning block is when I get most of the day’s big tasks out of the way. And then late at night, after my wife and I put the kids to bed, I’ll often work on something longer term, like a piece of my own writing or a big feature by one of my staffers. I find that’s the most clear-headed time of day, in part because the house is quiet and there aren’t many incoming emails and Slack messages.
Most essential ritual or habit:
I have a playlist of weird, spacey ambient music that I have carefully curated over a period of years. I can’t write without it.
The Atlantic‘s standard-issue MacBook Air.
Essential software/apps/productivity tools:
I’m a big fan of WorkFlowy, the cloud-based outline software, which I use for a wide range of tasks, including note taking, experiments with story structure, coverage plans, keeping track of team goals, and simple to-do lists. If its servers ever go down, I’ll be useless to the world.
Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:
Twitter. I’ve purposely avoided downloading any of those apps that tell you how much time you spend on Twitter because I don’t want to know.
My reading habits:
Like most people in this business, I read all day, every day. Obviously, much of the daily work of my job of editing and writing involves reading. I also try to read a decent chunk of what we publish at The Atlantic—no matter the subject—because I’m a shameless generalist, and because so much of it is good, or even great. I’ve been trying to wean myself off email newsletters, because I find them a bit exhausting, but I make exceptions for Aeon‘s (the only one I read in the morning) and The Browser, The Tilly Minute, Arts & Letters Daily, and a few others. During our “morning scan,” I’ll at least lay eyes on The New York Times, WaPo, WSJ, FT, and the Los Angeles Times, before I bump up to the magazine sites, which I won’t bore you by listing. At the end of the day, I run through Nuzzel to catch up on anything big that I missed.
I’m ashamed to say that I don’t read nearly as much fiction as I used to. I get review copies of most of the new nonfiction titles in science and tech, so I do maintain a working knowledge of what’s being published there—but I only make it all the way through a few of them. I recently realized that I’ve developed absurdly high standards for books. To be worth the time, it has to be something long-simmering, and deep, and erudite, and stylish. Of the books I’ve read recently, Jedediah Purdy’s After Nature, a history of the American environmental imagination, is a good example of the type of book I mean.
I usually crash sometime between 11:00 p.m. and midnight and, if I’m lucky, I stay asleep until my usual 5:30 a.m. wakeup.