Senior Technology Editor at Ars Technica, where he oversees stories about gadgets, cars, IT, and culture. He also writes about human space flight.
WHAT LED YOU TO START WORKING IN DIGITAL/MEDIA PUBLISHING?
I’ve been an Ars Technica reader since the very beginning back in 1998. My chosen career is IT—first as desktop support when I was just out of college, and then as a system administrator and then finally as an Enterprise Architect for a Fortune 25 aerospace company that makes airplanes with names that start with “7.” I thought I’d be doing this until retirement, but I bought a Drobo NAS in 2010 and wanted to know how it worked; I dug deeply into the patents surrounding the box’s technology and ended up writing a big review on it, without really knowing what to do with the review. I knew Ars ran freelance pieces occasionally, so I contacted the editors and asked if they wanted to run this particular piece. They did some cleanup and editing, then ran it—and I got a nice chunk of change out of the deal.
I freelanced several more things for Ars over the next couple of years, including a huge 4-part series on the inner workings of solid state disks (https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2012/06/inside-the-ssd-revolution-how-solid-state-disks-really-work/). I had some trouble with time management on that series and almost missed my deadline (I was working a full-time job while researching and writing it), and I joked to Ken Fisher (the Ars EIC) that I’d have more time to work on this kind of stuff if they’d just hire me directly.
And two months later, I got an email from Ken, asking if I was serious. We talked, he made me an offer, and I started my first media job as the editor of Ars Technica’s burgeoning hardware reviews section.
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
We’re all remote workers (more on that in the next question), so a typical work day has me rolling out of bed at 6:30 or so, staggering around the house for a while trying to get caffeinated and then sitting down in my home office to get caught up on email and slack messages.
I don’t run the reviews section anymore like I did 5 years ago when I started—I’m now on the Ars editorial board and I oversee the reviews, gaming, IT, and automotive sections. So most of my day is spent putting out fires and doing manager stuff. I do get to write every once in awhile, but not very often.
WHAT’S YOUR WORK SETUP LOOK LIKE?
Although Ars is owned by Conde Nast, we’re a 100% remote office—we have some small amount of space at the main CN office in 1 World Trade Center, but all Ars Technica employees work from their homes, all scattered around the country. We keep in touch primarily via Slack (for informal chat and instant messaging) and email (for official stuff that needs an archivable, searchable paper trail).
Ars itself runs on a heavily customized WordPress install, so our primary publishing interface is WordPress. We do the collaboration with Google’s office suite. Not a very inspiring answer, I know!).
WHAT DO YOU DO OR GO TO GET INSPIRED?
My writing process tends to require some element of panic for inspiration, so I find that the best way to become inspired is to set really horrible deadlines for myself, which then panics me into writing.
I’m also a “quiet writer”—the words refuse to come unless I’m alone and there’s no noise distractions. So I don’t write to music or with a TV on or anything. I tend to do my best work in the morning on weekends, usually between 6 and 10 am, because everything’s so still then.
Yeah, I know, that’s weird, but that’s how my brain works.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PIECE OF WRITING OR QUOTE?
My favorite piece I’ve written is this one, on the rescue mission that might have been able to reach Space Shuttle Columbia: https://arstechnica.com/science/2016/02/the-audacious-rescue-plan-that-might-have-saved-space-shuttle-columbia/.
My favorite piece ever, on the other hand, is a tie. The first contender is Mark Bowden (yes, that Mark Bowden) and his “Tales of the Tyrant,” a pre-invasion write-up of Saddam Hussein’s life: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/05/tales-of-the-tyrant/302480/.
The other is an old piece from FastCompany called “They Write the Right Stuff,” which details the incredible process used by contractors to write the almost bug-free code required for the Space Shuttle’s primary flight software: https://www.fastcompany.com/28121/they-write-right-stuff.
WHAT IS THE PASSIONATE PROBLEM YOU ARE TACKLING AT THE MOMENT?
LOL, my own broken sense of time management!
Sorry, that’s not a real answer. I’m most passionate about the need for copyright and patent reform—two areas of law that are completely and utterly broken right now. The copyright lobby has perverted the original Constitutional aim of copyright into something sick and unrecognizable, and non-practicing patent entities (“patent trolls”) are similarly perverting the purpose of patents.
Both copyrights and patents were intended to be vehicles by which works and inventions entered and enriched the public domain, by providing a limited period during which creators and inventors could control the monetization of those works. But the industries that have sprung up from the abuse of copyrights (and, more recently, patents) and by the extension of copyright laws to truly ludicrous, anti-constitutional time periods poses an existential threat to older works. Instead of movies, books, songs, and even computer programs properly passing into the public domain after a limited time, older works instead languish untouched and untouchable by uninterested (and sometimes even unaware) copyright gatekeeper entities.
The cultural deficit is saddening since such works are effectively lost to the public rather than being preserved. The net effect is a tremendous lessening of our public creative consciousness—and it’s not going to change anytime soon.
IS THERE A PRODUCT, SOLUTION, OR TOOL THAT YOU THINK IS A GOOD MATCH FOR YOUR DIGITAL PUBLISHING EFFORTS?
There’s an apocryphal tale about the first time Ernest Hemingway met Ansel Adams. Hemingway is purported to have said, “Mr. Adams, I love your photographs. What kind of camera do you use?” Adams, taken aback, is purported to have responded, “Mr. Hemmingway, I love your novels. What kind of typewriter do you use?”
The biggest lesson I learned in IT is this: all hardware sucks, all software sucks. Some things suck less, but ultimately, it’s all pretty terrible and even the best application can only approximate someone’s actual needs. The history of computing is the history of people adapting themselves to poorly designed and difficult-to-use tools and doing great things with them in spite of how bad they are.
So, no, I don’t have a preferred toolset. The archer fires the arrow, not the bow.
ANY ADVICE FOR AMBITIOUS DIGITAL PUBLISHING AND MEDIA PROFESSIONALS JUST STARTING OUT?
Develop a passion for reading and read. Read a lot. Read everything you can get your hands on. You hear a lot of people saying that to be a good writer, you must write; that’s true in that you can’t be a good writer without practice, but the real key to being a good writer is to expose yourself as often and as much as possible to the works of other good writers and then to imitate their habits as much as you can until you develop your own style—a process that will take literally years.
You cannot be a good writer unless you know not just the rules of grammar, but the feel of grammar—when to be formal, and when to let some informality and fun slip in. When to joke and when to absolutely under no circumstances be funny. When to be sarcastic and when to be straight. How to form a good metaphor, and when to leave metaphors aside. Only a buttload of reading will show you what truly works and what doesn’t.
And, yeah, it also helps to write between 200k and 300k words a year. I’d also recommend that.