What I’m working on:
I’m usually working on editing a half-dozen stories or more at the same time, in different stages of development. My current professional obsession is to hone my long-form feature-editing chops. I am not saying I’m bad—just would like to be better. I want to refine my thinking through a piece, what’s there, what’s not, and to better collect and express my thoughts for round two, imagining where a story might go if the writer and I put our heads together, to take it to the next level.
In a broader sense, I’m obsessed by helping to make Knowable as good as it can be. I love my colleagues and I love my job and I think we do a lot for a team of our size. Every single one of us pulls our weight.
I also would like to get back into writing again; it’s my long-term plan, though I am not managing very well to juggle. I have a story three-quarters reported that I’m passionate about—but I’ve got that one last interview I really need to do! Plus, procrastination only gets easier when stories needing edits are piling up.
Editing and writing require very different mental states and I am full of admiration for those who can do both at the same time. I find it very difficult. One head mode is juggling a dozen things at once; the other is focus, focus—really boring into something.
I’m learning Spanish, slowly, and I’m excited about it. I just recently trotted out my first Spanish joke, which one Spanish-speaking colleague (¡Hola, Rodrigo Pérez Ortega!) declared “a dad joke” and Knowable en Espanol editor Debbie Ponchner termed “a kindergarten joke.” But I was so proud!
Where I work:
I work from my home office in a bungalow in Highland Park, Los Angeles. I’m 20 minutes from downtown but our street has a rural feel, with hills and vegetation around it. There’s a family of red-tailed hawks in the eucalyptus tree across the street, and orioles live part-time in a fan palm right nearby. My office is—at this moment—extremely tidy, as I recently had a blitz. I am trying to give up my many-years-long bad habit of scribbling on bits of paper that pile up all over my desk, the info unread, out-of-date, or unfindable.
In front of me is a yellow wall covered with pictures: a long skinny map of the Thames gifted by my daughter (I’ve walked 35 miles of the Thames), a print of a ship my great-grandfather sailed on, a souvenir of a road trip along Route 66, some woodcut prints I bid on at an auction. Behind me are things like a 3D-printed Lucy fossil bone that a writer at Nature gave me as a goodbye present, my fake Nature goodbye cover, and lots of books.
I wake up way too early and try to make myself go back to sleep. I’m usually up by 6:00, and the first order of business is a big mug of coffee. I may go back to bed and (oh, this is embarrassing) vote on my favorite old house of the day at the “For the Love of Old Houses” Facebook group, or (less embarrassing) listen to Spanish-language tutorials on podcasts or YouTube videos. I get up, brew coffee number two, and pad around my vast estate in my pj’s checking plants and cursing at pomegranate-thieving squirrels.
More coffee, often a walk around the neighborhood, then I get to work.
Most productive part of my day:
For complicated edits and other things that require a lot of thinking: mornings! I try to save less brain-intensive stuff for the afternoon, and I figure there is always something I can stand to do, be it reply to an email, top edit an article, do a first read of an article, edit a less complicated article, weigh in on art, edit a caption, or prepare a scope of work. (Because we are a small team at Knowable, there is always lots to do, and we all pitch in and share the more admin-y parts of things.)
That said, once I get stuck into an edit, I get stuck in, whatever time of day it is. It’s just a matter of how easy it is to get to that point. And breaks like a walk around the block often tend to shake something loose in my thinking, such that by the time I return from my walk I’ve figured out the answer to some problem.
Short answer is, I try to make every part of my workday productive in some way or another, rather than sitting at my desk twiddling my thumbs or making pigs out of pink erasers and pushpins (hat tip to Matt Groening), although that’s so much fun to do!
Most essential ritual or habit:
Coffee! First thing. Two large mugs minimum.
Favorite note-taking techniques/tools:
I use a 10.5-inch by 8-inch ruled one-subject notebook, with those metal coily things holding the pages together. I have a great Seven Year Pen someone gave me.
I also have been working my way through a bunch of pens that belonged to my daughter when she was a kid. (She begged me for visits to Staples each back-to-school season and left me with hundreds of them.) A lot of them are pastel pink and unicorn-y, or you click them to make different colors, and a lot don’t work so well since she is now 32 years old.
As an editor: Notes for edits go at top of story, in comment balloons, or in the text itself, square bracketed—in other words, all over the place. Sorry! As a reporter: I learned to type notes super fast in a Word file while doing dailies at the LA Times, developing my own kind of typed shorthand. No time to transcribe. This was before things like Otter. I used to have a little transcribing recorder, but even with that I figured a half-hour interview equaled one hour of transcription time. I still record sometimes, and this newfangled transcription software sure is nifty! But I have not been writing these last years. Before I came to Knowable, I was freelancing for some months, and I did start using Evernote. I liked it a lot.
How I keep track of my to-do list:
As mentioned, I appear to have finally kicked the habit of scribbling notes on scraps of paper and scattering them all over the desk. I use a notebook. I date each day and put headers like “Pitch meeting” in them. It’s changed my life. Personal stuff for the day gets in there too—e.g., “Call plumbing on quote to move washer dryer to garage?” I also have a Word doc called “Tasks running tab” and I’ll refer to it and add stuff to it (repeatedly! I must have added “Fire up old computer” in bold red at least six times before I did it). But the notebook seems to be rendering “Tasks running tab” redundant.
I also add tasks to the top of my Outlook calendar, and I put in meetings, etc., as soon as they’re arranged so I don’t lose track. Or I will forget. That “right away” habit has also been life altering. I have one calendar only, for work and personal stuff.
I don’t have any sticky notes stuck to my computer monitor right now, but I use that method too. “Tweet!” was a recent one. It got removed during the recent office purge.
Essential software/apps/productivity tools:
Notebooks, pens (I’m sounding like a Luddite). I use Word, Outlook, Adobe, store things on OneDrive. We have a spreadsheet in Excel where we keep track of where stories are in production. I use Twitter professionally. We text each other and have meetings on Microsoft Teams—we are a spread-out staff, so these meetings are useful not only for getting things done but also to keep us connected with each other. I Google endlessly.
Favorite time waster/procrastination habit:
Reading Dear Prudence. Picking a favorite room in the “Pick your favorite room” vote in “For the Love of Old Houses.” Looking at what’s been posted on my local Buy Nothing Facebook group. Posting stuff to give away on my local Buy Nothing group. (I’m very into Buy Nothing.) Going out into the back yard and pulling up tree-of-heaven sprouts.
My reading habits:
Usually in bed, most productively in the morning. I’m trying to work my way through the first few Harry Potter books in Spanish. (I know what “wand” and “owl” and “potions” are in Spanish, and other useful words like that!) I also am reading Dear Los Angeles—a collection of letters written by people about LA down through history. And magazines from the California Native Plant Society. I go to the Washington Post and New York Times apps. I seem to like to read nonfiction best.
I go to bed pretty early and often listen to podcasts or audiobooks until I fall asleep. Then I wake up hours later realizing I’ve gone through five chapters. I suspect this influences my dreams: One time I had a nutty dream about being in a turkey-roasting competition—at one point I was trying to roast an oven glove shaped like a turkey, and the TV crew was looking away in mortification. I woke up and Iron Chef was on the TV, and the secret ingredient was turkey.
I’m pretty interested in these leaky borders between wake and sleep. But every time I go to the Society for Neuroscience meeting, I am reminded that my poor sleep hygiene could come back to bite me down the road.