Dan Baum's tour of journalism's sausage factory MAY 11 2009
Dan Baum was a staff writer for The New Yorker for a time. In 2007, the magazine didn't renew his contract and he's currently explaining why (from his perspective) on Twitter (archived here). It's maddening to read the whole story 140 characters at a time but it's pretty interesting inside-baseball stuff, where baseball = professional writing. Here are some of the highlights so far (he's not quite done yet).
First, a little about the job of New Yorker staff writer. "Staff writer" is a bit of a misnomer, as you're not an employee, but rather a contractor. So there's no health insurance, no 401K, and most of all, no guarantee of a job beyond one year. My gig was a straight dollars-for-words arrangement: 30,000 words a year for $90,000. And the contract was year-to-year. Every September, I was up for review. Turns out, all New Yorker writers work this way, even the bigfeet. It's Just the way the New Yorker chooses to behave. It shows no loyalty to its writers, yet expects full fealty in return. It gets away with it, because writing for the New Yorker is the ne plus ultra of journalism gigs. Like everybody, I loved it.
Some early advice from his editor on how to structure a story:
"Think about trying a process story," he said, using a term I'd never heard. "It's a New Yorker standard," he went on. "You simply deconstruct a process for the reader. John McPhee was the master. It makes for a simple structure."
More editorial advice:
Great piece of New Yorker advice: "This is the New Yorker, so you can use any narrative structure you like," he said. "Just know that when I get it, I'm going to take it apart and make it all chronological." Telling a story in strict chronological order turned out to be a fabulous discipline. It made the story easy to write, and may be why New Yorker stories are so easy to read. Of course, the magazine does run everything through the deflavorizer, following Samuel Johnson's immortal advice: "Read what you have written, and when you come across a passage you think is particularly fine, strike it out."
On the magazine's legendary fact-checkers:
The editing is as superb as you'd imagine. And it's lovely to have all the time and resources you need. I particularly liked the fact-checkers, who go way beyond getting names spelled right and actually do a lot of reporting. More than once, the fact-checkers uncovered information I hadn't had, found crucial sources I hadn't interviewed. It's like having a team of back-up reporters.
Baum has an unconventional working relationship with his wife:
All the work that goes out under my byline is at least half the work of my wife, Margaret Knox.
More details on that arrangement are available on his/their web site. Margaret edits while Dan writes.
Non-fiction frequently calls for a strong individual voice, and occasionally the use of the first person, so double bylines often aren't practical. Dan most often does the legwork of reporting the story -- the travel and the phone calls -- with Margaret acting as bureau chief: "Ask this." "Don't forget that." "Go back to him tomorrow." Dan then writes the first draft.
On second thought, perhaps it's not that unconventional at all. Since Meg and I started going out nine years ago, we've collaborated on several projects without shared credit; I provided much advice related to Blogger, Kinja, and Megnut and she's always operating behind the scenes here at kottke.org.
But back to the Baum/Knoxes. On their site, they've posted a bunch of proposals they wrote to magazines that resulted in good assignments. Among them is a proposal that New Yorker editor John Bennet called "the best proposal he'd ever read". The Baum/Knoxes have also shared a series of their failed proposals. These proposals and the ongoing Twitter story are a gold mine for young writers...fascinating stuff. (via the awl)
Update: Baum has published the whole story in a more readable format. (thx, richard)