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An Interview with Michael Lemonick, Part II

Michael Lemonick is a senior science writer for Time Magazine, where he has written over twenty cover stories about topics like particle physics, Antarctica, and dinosaurs. He is also the author of The Light at the Edge of the Universe: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Cosmology (Villard Books, 1993), Other Worlds: The Search for Life in the Universe (Simon & Schuster, 1998) and Echo of the Big Bang (Princeton University Press, 2003). Part one of my interview with him is available here. In this installment, Michael takes on pitching stories, blogging versus formal journalism, and the joys of editing.

Liz Lopatto: You were talking about the NYU j-school about Time “owning the universe” as a way of pitching “Let There Be Light,” the piece you talked about in detail, but you said that’s an atypical pitch. How does pitching typically go for you?

Michael Lemonick: Hmm. Well, you know, a story pitch, whether you’re doing it in a query letter to an editor, or whether you’re doing it in a meeting, or whether you’re speaking to the editors, or people you know, it’s the same problem as writing the story. You’ve got to get the decision-maker–for the story, it’s the person who is reading the story. In a pitch, it’s the editor who is deciding whether or not you get to write it. You’ve got to get the attention of the person making the decision in competition with other stories that might potentially run, so you’ve got to say something that’s intriguing. The reaction you need to elicit from the editor is, “Wow, that’s really interesting, that’s really important. We should do that.” How you achieve that depends almost completely on who you are talking to, and what you know of that person’s interests and attitudes and so on, and what you judge will grab that person’s attention.

So, I was pitching a story on kind of an arcane area of astrophysics and I didn’t have the luxury of sitting down over a beer and talking for an hour or so with the editor and gradually winding my way around to this topic, or having it come up naturally. I had to say something that would make him sit up, and say, “Ah! I’m going to listen to this!” And in this case, it was making sort of a semi-joke that referred back to something he had said in a previous meeting, so it referred back directly to his ego. And again, if you want to know what the guidelines are–there are no guidelines. It’s a situation-specific thing that you have to do. So it just seemed to me that the best way to get his attention would be to get a laugh from the room and warm him up, to make him feel good about something smart he had said, and how we were all listening. I sort of imagined him having an unconscious moment of self-congratulation, “Ah! I’m really running this magazine well! These people like the way I run this, my ideas!” ???that sort of thing.

LL: What do you do first, write or interview?

I do not write first. I definitely get the interview first because any time I am sure I know what the story is, or what the most interesting aspect of is, or, most to the point, what the lede should be, I discover that no, I was wrong, there’s something else that was better, and I discover that through interviews.

When I did this story, I did know generally that if there was any way to do it, the best way to lede the story, since I spent thousands of dollars of Time’s money, was to have the introduction take place in this location and describe what was going on, but exactly what–I never would have known. Who would have known that what would strike me was that they couldn’t focus the telescope because a guy made a mistake entering his name. Almost always, I find out what the story is about as I’m reporting it, even if I have a sense of what it’s about beforehand.

LL: You collect information, you interview, you maybe go to wherever it is that this is taking place, and then you sit down and write the story. How do you write it?

ML: Well, at Time, the reporter and the writer are two different people. Which is unusual, but what it means is that I can be starting to form my general ideas about the story before I know all the facts–and it might be kind of stupid for me to just sit there watching TV, watching cartoons or something, because of my policy of not knowing what the story’s going to be until I know what the interview is. But with every story, there’s a large chunk of it I don’t need interviews for–the background information, the history of the phenomenon, like “In 1910, the first person who talked about global warming was this Swedish scientist.” And that’s not going to change with the interviews. The basic facts, the basic science of what global warming is, how heat is trapped and so on–none of that requires interviews.

It has been suggested to me more than once that while I am waiting for the reporting to come in, I can start writing the middle part, which will be the same no matter what. I can’t do it. I cannot make myself do it. There are two explanations. One is that I’m a real procrastinator, and I really have trouble making myself do something if there’s any way I can convince myself not to, you know, if I can put it off. The other is that my writing style requires that I write the lede first, because until I’ve written the lede, I don’t really know what direction I’m going to go in. I’m certainly going to touch a lot of predictable bases in the story, but how and where I touch them is not clear to me.

The way I write is I write a paragraph, and that suggests to me what the next paragraph will be about. And until I’ve written the previous paragraph, I can’t write the next one. And when you go from one paragraph to another, you often have to make some transition to make it flow naturally. And until I have written the previous paragraph, I can’t write the first sentence of next one. Until I have the first sentence of that paragraph, I don’t know how the body is going to look. So until I have that anchor of the lede, I don’t know what path I am going to take.

LL: How many drafts do you typically go through before you send it off to an editor?

ML: That’s hard to say because I don’t do drafts per se. I’m working on a big story this week. I write three or four paragraphs, then I look them over and tweak them a little. This morning, I got up and started looking back a the three or four paragraphs I’d written last night and went, “Ehh, this is not as good as I’d thought. I’ll fix those up a little bit.” I never write the whole thing and then go back and do another draft. I am sort of rerevising as I go. I could say I just do one draft, which is true, but it’s misleading and makes me sound better than I am.

LL: You also blog. How does writing for the blog differ for you?

ML: It’s a more informal form, and also the choice of topics is much looser. In the magazine, everything is done by committee. Everything is done by getting a group of people to agree at many levels to do the story. But the blog–I don’t get permission, I just do what I feel like. Some things I write about are very silly, some are serious, and some are argumentative. It’s more informal in writing style and also in the way I think about the whole process. I think of a blog as a conversation, and the sort of thing like where I run into a friend and say, “Oh, you’ll never guess what I just heard! Did you know they are doing such and such?”

LL: Which do you prefer, blogging or formal journalism?

ML: The blog is more fun, and easier. So I like easy–remember how I like procrastination. But I don’t look at it and say, “Wow, that’s work!” It doesn’t feel like an accomplishment, and a story does.

LL: I seem to remember you saying also at NYU that you were an editor at Discover for a while and left.

ML: I was an editor for eight months, which suggests that either I really missed writing a lot more than you’d think, or I disliked editing a lot. It would be the latter. My title was executive editor, so I was second to the top, and what I was responsible for was coming up with ideas, editing actual stories, helping to have a good mix of stories in the magazine, that sort of thing. But really–I found it extremely unpleasant, and I have since resisted–strongly–any efforts to make me do it at Time, which come along every so often.