Tricks of the Trade With The Atlantic’s Senior Editor Megan McArdle

Today we chat with The Atlantic‘s Senior Editor Megan McArdle to learn what reporting and writing tips she has up her sleeve. Credentials: She’s a blogger and writer. She has an undergraduate degree in English lit from the University of Pennsylvania. She has had opinion pieces published in NYP, The New York Sun, Reason, The Guardian and In 2003, The Economist hired her to be their Economics Correspondent. In 2007 she moved to Washington and to The Atlantic.

1. Favorite Interview Technique Silence. Long silences are really uncomfortable, so most reporters are tempted to break them.  But interview subjects also find them uncomfortable, and eventually they’ll say almost anything to end the discomfort.  If you keep quiet for long enough, they will almost always start talking.  And by then they’re a little nervous, so they often say something interesting.  I find this is particularly true if you can gaze intently at their eyes and nod slowly as if they’re being incredibly fascinating (or are confirming all your worst suspicions).  But this is also really uncomfortable for the journalist, so what I actually do is stare at the bridge of their nose between their eyes.

2. Most Compelling Question You’ve Ever Asked Why?  It is not a question that will go down in the annals of history.  But it consistently generates the most interesting answers.  Why did you do that?  Why is that so?  Why should I care?

3. Best Self-Editing Approach Sit on it. You need to give your thought process a break between first and second draft.  Ideally this is a couple of days, but even 15 minutes of playing Angry Birds or talking to your spouse about where to put the new climbing roses breaks your thinking process enough that when you go back to it, you’re much better able to see whether your narrative arc holds together, and what you don’t really need.  Read it aloud to yourself before you start rewriting: What sounds wrong?

4. What to do When an Interview is Tanking Switch topics suddenly. I like to warn them–”Sorry, I may seem a bit ADD, but there’s just so much to cover here”–and then ask them about something completely different from what we’ve been discussing.  It doesn’t really matter what you ask them; what matters is that you surprise them.  Don’t make them think you’re psychotic by suddenly asking them how they met their wife, or anything too personal (unless that’s the topic of the interview) but ask them something sufficiently different from what went before to potentially knock them out of their well-worn track.  This doesn’t always work, but sometimes it can get an interview back on track.

5. Approaching Lawmakers and other “Important People” In general, I don’t like interviewing these people. They’re hard to get on the phone; they are well-rehearsed at never saying anything even remotely interesting; and they frequently have minders to ensure that if they accidentally stray from the talking points, they don’t get more than a few feet before they’re reeled back onto the straight and narrow.  The fact is, they don’t need you as much as you need them, so don’t try to persuade them that this is somehow going to be awesome for them; tell them what you’re doing, make it sound as friendly as possible, and follow up–but assume they it’s chancy at best.

6. Most Surprising Thing to Happen During an Interview…

Most Surprising… One of the very first interviews I ever did was on the short-lived lawsuits against McDonalds for making people fat.  I talked to a lawyer who was working on the suits, and had also done some work on tobacco class actions.  I asked whether he thought this wasn’t stretching the law, and he said something like, “You know, when I first started pushing the tobacco suits, people said, ‘It’s black letter law, you can’t sue a tobacco company because people know it causes cancer.’ Well look at where those people are–they’re all teaching law, and we’ve made millions of dollars.”  I let him run, but inside, I was thinking ‘I did explain that I was going to write everything you say down, right?  And then print it where other people could read it?’

Unfortunately, because I was as green as grass, I was doing the interview by phone from the construction trailer where I had my day job.  I hadn’t recorded it, and I was too chicken to use the quote without backup.  Always record!

7. Advice From An Editor You’ve Never Forgotten “Murder your darlings.” That joke you want to make?  That killer metaphor you thought up?  That lovely passage about the moon rising over the bayou that you spent five hours lovingly polishing to a high shine?  Slash them.  If you are mentally imagining the reader’s awe at your acrobatic prose stylings, then the odds are 99-to-1 that you are doing violence to much more important aspects of your piece, like structure and narrative flow.  When you find yourself jamming in a paragraph that doesn’t really quite fit with the things around it, or contorting sentences in order to provide a lead-in for your elegant witticism, stop what you’re doing and cut the damn thing.

Sometimes you’ll think of an image or a joke, and as you’re writing, you’ll find it drops into your narrative cleanly.  That’s great, and you should use it.  But if you have to work at it, that’s a sign that it doesn’t really belong there.

8. Piece of Advice for Budding Journalists Give yourself permission to not be very good.  You aren’t very good.  You don’t know what you’re doing, and you’re almost certainly spending far too much time trying to be clever or profound. It’s okay that you aren’t very good; you get better by practice.  But I find a lot of journalists are paralyzed by their fear of turning out not to be a young Hunter S. Thompson or Bob Woodward or P.J. O’Rourke.  It makes them either overwrite their pieces because they think it’s their one big shot, or fail to turn the damn thing in at all, because they don’t want to write it until it’s the most fantastic thing since Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Go back and read Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut, O’Rourke’s collection of early journalism: when he was your age, he was no P.J. O’Rourke, either. The same is true for every other journalist I’ve ever read.

Don’t focus on being brilliant… Focus on being correct–not just kind of, “I found this number on the internet” right, but “I called three experts and they explained how this number works”, actually correct.   Spell all the names right.  Deliver your copy on time.  Editors are not going to cut you any slack until you’re established.  They will forgive your boring prose.  They will not forgive your slipped deadline, or a correction they had to run.  You cannot make your piece brilliant by sheer force of will, but you can 100 percent control whether it is on time, and accurate, so do that.  Start early, make a lot of phone calls, and figure out the rest later.