How a Bestselling Author Makes His Sentences Sing

In the process of working on “The Art of Doing,” we assimilated dozens of life lessons, tactics and tips—some that even helped us write this book. Stephen Dubner coauthor of the freakishly phenomenal “Freakonomics,” a book that has sold over 4 million copies, spawned a blog, a radio show, and of course, more books, told us,

“Writing was originally a way to preserve oral speech and I’ve never forgotten that….I prefer to write in a way that draws on the oral tradition.”

This was a lesson he learned as a child. Dubner’s family wrote its own DIY newspaper, the Quaker Street Quacker. And being the youngest of eight children, Dubner found competition to be published fierce. His mother would sit with him at the kitchen table and say, “Well, let’s read this out loud and see how it sounds.”

Dubner, who once fronted a rock band, considers writing and music twins.  He uses repetition, call-and-response and varies the lengths of his words and sentences the way a composer varies musical notes and phrases. And Dubner, who has written five books and hundreds of articles (most of which will be read silently by his readers), never forgot his mother’s advice, telling us,

“After writing every sentence, I read the words aloud.”

Even though we sometimes felt pretty silly, we tried this, too—reading aloud what we wrote. Surprisingly we found the ear to be an unrelenting critic. Hearing your own written words can be cringe-worthy. You can’t miss the clunky construction, uncommon word usage and convoluted logic. You’ll also hear when a sentence sings.

So whether it’s a memo or a memoir, a Tweet or a term paper, according to Dubner, listening to your writing by speaking the words aloud can help you write with greater clarity, simplicity and directness.

Oral Tradition Fact: 1906, Mark Twain begins to speak his autobiography aloud to a stenographer, accumulating half a million words. According to The New York Times, Twain argued that “speaking his recollections and his opinions, rather than writing them down, allowed him to adopt a more natural colloquial and frank tone….” Or as Twain himself put it, “One would expect dictated stuff to read like an impromptu speech, brokenly, catchily, repetitiously, & marred by absence of coherence, fluent movement, & the happy things that didn’t come till the speech was done—but it isn’t so.” 2010, Autobiography of Mark Twain Vol. 1 is published and becomes a bestseller.

Who’s Who in the Art of Doing

English author, Lady Constance Howard, writes in her 1885 book on etiquette about what makes a successful dinner party:

“Your guests should be remarkable for something—either beauty, wit, talent, money. You should be certain of such a flow of bright conversation that no one can be bored or feel in any way neglected.”

Although a bit dated, Lady Constance’s advice summed up our own philosophy about who we’d invite to participate in our book—a fantasy dinner party. We wanted brilliant, accomplished people at the top of their field, and of course a mix that would include people in business and art, media and sports, the young and old, the highbrow and low and the revered as well as some rogues.

Click to enlarge

Take a look at our table of contents—the world’s most famous dog whisperer, Cesar Millan is sandwiched between an opera diva and the winningest game show champ in history. A vintner is next to a civil rights lawyer who is next to an extraterrestrial hunter. Alec Baldwin has tennis champion Martina Navratilova on one side and cultural gadfly Simon Doonan on the other. And after all what’s a dinner party without a big game hunter, a rock band, a hostage negotiator, a bestselling author and Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times?

The Making of an Author’s Photo, Part 1

St. Matthew, 9th Cent.

One of the earliest examples of the author’s image is the Evangelist portrait. These portraits were glorious full page illuminations of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that appeared in the frontispiece of Medieval Bibles.

Since then, the author’s image has been reduced from a full-page color illustration in the front of the book to a small black and white photo exiled to the back. But the purpose remains the same—to allow the reader to picture the person who wrote the words on the page.

In the Evangelists’ case, it was to confer saintly grandeur. For modern-day authors, as novelist Richard Ford (pictured to the right in a photo by Marion Ettlinger) once described it, the function of the author’s photo is as:

 “A porthole window on the back of a paperback, which the author peers through and says, ‘Hi.’”

But what about when your editor tells you that she needs an author’s photo of you? How will you say, “Hi”?

First of all, you want to appear intelligent. With some gravitas. You want to seem attractive and interesting. But not pretentious or as if you are trying too hard. You want to be taken seriously, but you don’t want to come across as dull.

There are many pitfalls, such as some of these hilarious examples of awful authors’ photos. Of course, the fantasy is to have the photo on the book jacket look more or less like one of the iconic images of authors pictured below.

Top Row: James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson. Bottom Row: Alan Ginsburg, Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde

Go here to read Part 2 about our process

The Making of an Author’s Photo, Part 2, Our Process

Since our photo would portray the two of us not only as co-authors but also as a married couple, the dynamic between us would be as important as the way we looked individually. As a photographer (and okay, an image control freak) before taking portraits of others, Josh often gathers examples of images from his gargantuan and not-always-well organized files of inspiration. Since the history of photography is so rich with iconic imagery sometimes it’s better to steal a great idea than come up with a half baked one on your own.

We chose a few images of couples and possible poses and printed them out as a cheat sheet.

We asked our good friend Svend Lindbaek brilliant photographer and technical wizard to photograph us in his studio.

As in most photo shoots no matter how well directed, the majority of the shots are fails.

To see the final image go here


The Making of an Author’s Photo, Part 3: The Final

Our favorite image from our photo shoot was self-plagarized. The pose was based on an image (left) Josh had shot for a fine art project that he himself had plagarized from a Sixties’ era French fashion magazine. We felt and hoped the image of us leaning against each other would communicate some of the complexity of our working relationship, but with a sense of humor. If one of us moved the other would fall.

We couldn’t decide how far to crop into the photo. After much discussion and polling some of our design-minded friends, we chose the full body shot. That is until our editor told us that the picture on the book’s back cover would be so small that it wouldn’t “read.” We’d have to crop it into a head shot (right). Richard Ford’s porthole window from Part 1.

At the shoot our six-year-old daughter Roxie was flabbergasted that she was not included in the photo. She insisted on one more shot that she art directed. It was shot on Camille’s iPhone. In the end it might be the best image of all.

More great author photos and images here and here and here.

Also see Part 1 and Part 2

Judging a Book by Its Cover

In the beginning, an aspiring author’s book is just a bunch of files in a bunch of folders on his or her hard drive. But at some point, if you are lucky enough, like us, to find a publisher, your book will become printed matter, a physical object—and it will need to have a cover.

Chip Kidd, brilliant book cover designer, author and editor, says of the book cover designer’s role:

“We bring stories to the public. And stories can be anything. But they all have one thing in common.  They all need a face to give you a first impression of what you are about to get into.”

A cover for your book like any of these (above) would be a dream come true—a  “face” so memorable and appealing it will be seared into the public consciousness for decades.  But really, what are the chances of that?

So naturally, Josh, (a former designer by trade) created not one, but ten possible book covers (below) to get a feel for what people may or may not like. We sent the covers out to our brain trust of family, friends and allies. The more literate liked the design-y covers. Those who wanted us to go more mass market liked the simpler, bolder (and okay, cheesier) covers. Creating the great cover would be harder than we thought. No one cover pleased everybody, including ourselves.

Then we sent all of these possible covers to the publisher, which they graciously accepted and apparently ignored. You may be the author of your book but that book will be assigned a designer and that designer will come up with cover concepts that will be shown around the publishing house to the editors and marketing people until a design is agreed on, at which point it will be shown to you. It’s as if you’ve been set up in an arranged marriage. What you will see when you lift the veil? Your biggest nightmare: What if the cover is ugly?!

An author’s nightmare: the ugly book cover.

One day the email arrived from our editor:

“Attached you’ll find the proposed cover for THE ART OF DOING. I’m pretty excited about it. I think it does an excellent job of bringing together a complex set of elements and conveying what the book is while being visually arresting.”

Designed by Janet Hansen

Opening the email attachment was like lifting the veil. IT WASN’T UGLY! We liked a lot of the design elements. The arrows conveyed the sense that the book was about process and gave the book an appropriate how-to-ish sort of feel. The dialog balloons communicated the sense that a reader would hear from these high achieving individuals in their own words. But was the cover too busy? Would people get it? Did it skew too young? Too hip? Too yellow? Most importantly, would it sell?

Bill Gross, the brilliant founder of the Technology Incubator  Idealab which has started 100 companies (we interviewed him for our book on How to Start a Startup) was adamant about testing a product or service before going to market. Not in a focus group but in an environment as close as possible to the real thing. Testing his theory of testing, we searched for a same-sized book with a yellow cover and found Philip Roth’s Nemesis was a perfect fit. So we printed out our cover, taped it to Roth’s Nemesis, and set out for Barnes & Noble.


We wandered the store, mock-up book in hand, trying not to draw the attention of B&N employees and guards. We had whispered discussions about which customers to approach, only to have our potential targets leave the floor before we’d worked up our courage. Finally Camille approached a young woman and asked: Would you buy this book? The target was a French tourist who barely spoke English. But we’d broken the ice and approached others. Younger shoppers seemed to get the book. Older ones complained about the small type size and couldn’t fathom what the book was about. One guy with Fifty Shades of Grey tucked under his arm, peered closely at the cover, and nodded, “I’m in.”  He’d try anything he said.

Knowing that our power with the publisher was limited, and basically liking the design, we requested only a few discrete changes, larger type size, text revisions for clarity and an added “many more” line to let people know they’d get their money’s worth.

And here’s what we got. A face we can actually love.

Chip Kidd says,

“Book designers responsibility is three fold. To the reader, to the publisher and most of all to the author. I want you [the reader] to look at the author’s book and say, ‘Wow, I need to read that.’”

We hope potential readers feel the same.

If you’re a fan of book covers, here are enough links to waste an afternoon or two: making of a cover in two minutes, vintage covers, more vintage covers,  Penguin and Pelican covers, sleazy covers, pulp covers, more pulp covers, old paperbacks, French covers, Latvian covers, all kinds of covers, NYPL archive, blog, and another blog.

Sometimes It Pays to Waste Time Or How We Got Into the New Yorker

People’s relationship to time and its effect on their work has become a buzz-topic for everyone from Malcolm Gladwell advocating for the 10,000 hours to Frank Partnoy exploring the art and science of delay to Tim Kreider in his hugely popular story in the New York Times about people’s obsession with how “busy” they are. Continue reading “Sometimes It Pays to Waste Time Or How We Got Into the New Yorker”

Hello, World

In the year 2012, with an estimated 180 million blogs online (more than the combined populations of France, Italy and Spain), and 40,000 blogs started daily you can’t help but ask yourself, “Does the world really need another blog?”

Well, as of today, it’s getting one more.

Luckily for us, we had already interviewed Mark Frauenfelder of the blog BoingBoing on “How to Create One of the World’s Most Popular Blogs,” for our book. BoingBoing, for anyone who’s been hiding under a rock for the last 17 years, has been on the Web since the mid-90’s, now with 2.5 million unique visitors a month.

One Mark’s best pieces of advice to wannabe bloggers like ourselves is

“Make the blog that doesn’t exist yet, but that you’d want to read.”

We hope that our blog—born of curiosity and obsession—about how successful people do what they do, will not only be something we’d like to read, but will appeal to all kinds of other people.

At the risk of being ouroborosian, we’ll leave off by quoting ourselves from our own book:

“Reading about how to produce a smash hit on Broadway, write a runaway bestseller or start a startup you may feel inspired and think: I’m going to get off this couch and go do one of these things!

Or, you may think: Actually, I’m not likely to do any of these things, but I can use some of these strategies in my own work.

Or, you may simply be delighted to be entertained by the achievements of others.

Whatever your motivation, whether you are college student, middle manager, entrepreneur or retiree we hope you enjoy the opportunity as much as we did of hearing directly from these extraordinary people and peeling back the layers of their vocational and life experiences to discover their Art of Doing.”