How Dave Barry Writes

Dave Barry

Dave Barry

Why: The most logical profession for me, based on my natural gifts, would be male underwear model. But I’ve always loved to write, because it gives me a chance to express my ideas. Unfortunately, I ran out of ideas in 1987, but by then I’d been a writer for 15 years and had no useful skills. So here I am.

Where: I write in an office in my home. My desk is a few feet from that of my wife, Michelle, a sportswriter who also works mostly at home. We can hear each other chewing.

How: I use a computer. Unfortunately, this computer also has the Internet on it, so I spend a lot of time looking at sites that have nothing to do with what I am allegedly writing about.

Ideas: I scrawl notes when I think of something. My house has scrawled notes all over. They say things like “snail rocket,” and when I look at them later on, they serve as a reminder to me that when I wrote them down, I had consumed a lot of beer. So I throw them away and go into a state of panicky despair and then write a column. Panicky despair is an underrated element of writing.

Influences: Robert Benchley is my idol. I’ve been reading him since I was a kid, and still return to his essays regularly for inspiration. My mom was pretty funny, too.

Writer’s block: I believe “writer’s block” is the normal state of writing; that is, you rarely have anything just flow easily from your brain to the keyboard. And if it does, it’s usually pretty bad. Good writing is almost always hard, and what I think sometimes happens is that writers forget how hard it is, or don’t want to do the work anymore, and they call this “writer’s block.”

Writing novels vs. columns: The hard part of novel-writing is the plot; you have to make so many decisions, and each can affect what can and can’t happen later. So I had to do a whole lot more planning than when I write columns, and planning is not one of my strengths, the way underwear modeling is. What I liked best about the novel was making up characters, and watching them develop and turn into people whom I did not totally control.

The challenge of humor writing: Overcoming the fear that whatever you think is funny really isn’t.

Advice to writers: Don’t be boring. Don’t assume every thought you have is fascinating to others. Your job is to give people a reason to keep reading.

From Wikipedia:

David “Dave” Barry (born July 3, 1947) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American author and columnist, who wrote a nationally syndicated humor column for The Miami Herald from 1983 to 2005. He has also written numerous books of humor and parody, as well as comedic novels.


During the Struggle of Writing: Walker Percy

Walker Percy

Walker Percy

If I should try to tell you anything about it, it would be a lie and wouldn’t sound like what it is, since what it is, is in the telling as you know well. I think what’s got me down is that the novel is attempting the impossible: to write about the great traditional themes, sin, God, love, death etc., when in fact these themes are no longer with us, we’ve left them, even death, or they’ve left us. I’ve been in a long spell of . . . anomie and aridity in which, unlike the saints who writhe under the assaults of devils, I simply get sleepy and doze off. . . . My Catholicism consists just now and mainly in the deepest kind of hunch that it all works out, generally for the good, and everybody gets their deserts—which is frightening. But, I mean, artistically, there is no sweat. One waits. Not for the Muse, f*ck her, but until one finds a new language, because that’s about what it takes, the language is about dead.

This is all mostly bull. You know what my real sin is? Laziness. Which is to say that if I were broke, had four squalling kids and a deadline, I’d be working my ass off, nicht? That’s how come they call it a mortal sin. My only defense is that I was born lazy.

P.S. Shakespeare had it easy; he had a language, a new language, busting out all around him, and he didn’t even have to make up stories: the stories were around him too. We have to do it all, including the impossible or all but impossible task: make up a language as you go along. All you have to do to be a good novelist now is to be like God on the first day.

From Wikipedia:

Walker Percy, Obl.S.B. (May 28, 1916 – May 10, 1990) was an Alabamian Southern author whose interests included philosophy and semiotics. Percy is known for his philosophical novels set in and around New Orleans, Louisiana, the first of which, The Moviegoer, won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. He devoted his literary life to the exploration of “the dislocation of man in the modern age.” His work displays a unique combination of existential questioning, Southern sensibility, and deep Catholic faith.


Institutional Juice: How to Keep Your Writing Career Going by Michael Erard

Michael Erard

Michael Erard

**Article obtained from The Chronicle for Higher Education**

I am sitting in a cubicle, talking into a telephone headset, asking rote questions of people who have applied for life insurance. Today it’s a woman, mid-20s, somewhere in New Hampshire.


“I’m self-employed.”

“What industry do you work in?”


Her obliqueness is costing me money, because I get paid per interview. But I play along. “Who do you entertain?”


“Men? Or gentlemen?”

I could hear her smirk. “Gentlemen,” she replied coolly.

I held this job for six weeks in 2002, at the start of the bleakest period of my writing career. When I wrote my first column for this site about leaving academe and starting to work as a freelance writer, I felt like a shiny quarter, bright with promise. Life was rosy. Then life became not rosy. Then difficult.

I didn’t yet have to strip for my supper, but I needed a gig that would provide a hard revenue stream — money from my freelance writing was too soft, too irregular. So, here I was, spending eight hours a day in a cramped cubicle, asking a list of required questions about intimate aspects of health, finance, and habits. Did you smoke? Why did you declare bankruptcy? Are you an exotic dancer or a topless dancer? Does the difference matter? (To the insurance companies, it does.)

I wasn’t supposed to deviate from the list, which led to bizarre exchanges, such as the time I asked someone’s sweet 85-year-old Georgian grandmother if she had ever been skydiving.

“Oh, no,” she laughed.

“Do you have any plans to?” Just doing my job, ma’am.

“Oh no,” she said. “The only time my feet will leave the ground is when the Lord comes to take me away.”

If you could have wheeled some device over my skull that interpreted the electrical patterns in my brain, you wouldn’t have seen me regretting my decision to leave a traditional academic career. I knew that was the right decision for me.

Yet you would have seen me a bit puzzled. After all, I had taken my own advice from my first column: I built relationships, I wrote with clarity, I put a lot of research into my freelance proposals. I had passion and a Ph.D.

So what was the problem? As I would eventually realize, I needed a better business model. That brain-reading device would have shown clumps of neurons groping blindly toward each other, hoping to trigger an insight that would get me one of those models.

A business model? In one sense, it’s exactly what it sounds like: the way you bring in revenue. There’s more to it, of course, but for me, the first step was realizing that this wasn’t a race; that I had to plan and measure my success according to sustainable parameters. Moreover, I could set those parameters; I wasn’t being judged from the outside. What I jettisoned first was my assumption that all of my income had to come from writing, or any one source. When I realized that I needed a mixed revenue stream, that was the beginning of getting a business model.

You don’t have to be a writer or an entrepreneur to have a business model; we all have one, most of us tacitly. The business model is the plan for how you integrate the parts of your life. It combines personal philosophy with economic facts; it’s the set of assumptions about how you want to be in the world upon which you make decisions. For me, the following factors were important: I had to decide whom I wanted to write for and whom I couldn’t afford to write for anymore. I had to decide if I was going to craft myself as a specialist in some area or write about many topics. I had to think about how I would leverage my Ph.D. to enhance my credibility, or whether I would leave it behind.

I knew I was a “freelancer,” but I construed it one way, as a monolithic autonomy, when in fact there are dozens of ways to be entrepreneurial. Each of them, however, involves articulating the assumptions about your preferences and talents. Your friends with “regular” jobs get to leave those assumptions unspoken. (What seems so offensive about tenure is that it enables the ultimate tacitness: the deliberate ignorance of the future.)

Things got much worse on my way to a business model, however. While I worked the cubicle job, I was revising some old fiction and still writing pitches, calling editors on my bathroom breaks. Finally, one of my pitches succeeded, and I was off to California and Missouri to write about a federal prisoner who was resisting medication to make him “mentally competent” to stand trial.

With that assignment in place, I announced at the insurance company that I was quitting, and became a minor hero. I had gone from a bumbling trainee to someone seizing his destiny. As I walked out those doors, life looked rosy again. Then it became not rosy. Then difficult.

And then things improved. After some struggles and some waiting, I began piecing parts together. I found a half-time job working as an editor at my old alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin. Now I spend every afternoon there editing grant proposals and research articles written by faculty members, and consulting on writing-related curricular issues.

Being able to have a job where the work comes to me, rather than my having to hunt for it, is an immense relief. It also gives me what a friend once called “institutional juice”: health benefits, library access, gym access.

Most important, I have enough time left over to write, and more than half my monthly income comes from writing. I am writing about a broad array of topics for top newspapers and magazines. I am able to write about what interests me — right now I’m on a jag about religion and technology and am fascinated with theories of social capital. Luckily I don’t have to write articles about the fastest way to sexy abs, and I don’t have to grind out stock reports (a job done increasingly by software, which I am also writing about).

I’ve traveled some, interviewing interesting people in various fields. And my work is getting read by millions of people, a thrill I’ll never lose.

My most exciting news — and the biggest sign that my business model is working — is that my agent is shopping my proposal for a book about verbal blundering, tentatively titled Wonderful Blunderful. That’s the goal I’ve been working toward: the opportunity to write about language and linguistics (which I studied in graduate school) for a mainstream audience.

My business model has allowed me to create continuities between what I studied as a graduate student and the issues of the day, between my doctoral expertise and my ex-academic identity. I have also realized something valuable about myself: I need to write for multiple audiences, and I want my writing to do multiple types of work in the world, from teaching to persuading to entertaining.

When I wrote on this site back in 2002, I boasted that former colleagues seemed to envy my path. “Other professor friends love to hear what I’m working on now; I wish I could figure out a way to live off their need for vicarious thrills,” I wrote.

People still inquire, but I can’t claim to know their motives. I’m too busy trying to keep this thing off the ground, to see how far I can go.

Michael Erard, a Ph.D. in English, has left academe to pursue a career as a freelance writer.


When I was 14 years old, my father called the editor of the local newspaper. “My son writes all the time,” he said. “Could you give him a job?”

That summer I tagged along with the court and police reporter, down to the mayor’s office, the police station, the fire station. Then we went back to the newsroom, where I found an empty desk — it was an afternoon paper, so everyone cleared out after the deadline at 11 — and typed short essays for the Saturday supplement on an electric typewriter. It gave me a taste for smelling the ink, working with editors, talking to people about their lives, and seeing my name — and my words — in print.

Now I write mainly about language, languages, and the people who use and study them, but I also write about culture and technology. My essays, reviews, and reportage have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Science, Wired, Slate, The Atlantic, New Scientist, Reason, The Morning News, and many other magazines and newspapers.

I am a contributing writer at The Morning News and Design Observer and have a blog at Psychology Today. My first book, Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean (Pantheon, 2007) was a natural history of things we wish we didn’t say (but do) as well as a cultural history of what happens when we do. My second, Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners (Free Press, 2012), is a search for the upper limits of the ability to learn, speak, and use languages.

After graduating from Williams College, I lived overseas, teaching English, then finished an MA in linguistics and PhD in English, with concentrations in rhetoric and linguistics, from the University of Texas at Austin. I am also a senior researcher and metaphor designer at the FrameWorks Institute, a research non-profit based in Washington, D.C.

Of course, telling my story on a website, I can make this path seem straight and uninterrupted, but it wasn’t.

9 Top Tips for the Journalists of Tomorrow

**Article obtained from The Guardian, a great resource for a wealth of information. Please visit their site. ** ~ Meyer Lane

Hannah Waldram, community coordinator, news, the Guardian

Drop the hangups around engaging with readers in comments: We don’t need to continually get hung up about things like members of the general public contributing to the storytelling process (or the loathed term ‘citizen journalism’) – the sooner young journalists can dismiss any snobbery to do with engaging readers, the closer they will be to looking like a journalist of the future.

Learn to report in the field and on the fly: I was recently covering the English Defence League protest in the city centre – I was live tweeting, using Audioboo to get short clip interviews with the police, using Bambuser to live stream some video when the protesters broke the police line, while also taking still video on a Kodak HD camera which I knew I could edit and upload later using iMovie and Youtube.

I took pictures on my phone and sent them out on Twitter using twitpic and I was also taking notes using shorthand in a notebook so that I had some extra quotes to write up in a more considered report later – I carried my laptop in a rucksack on my back and cycled to the nearest place with Wi-Fi to upload anything I couldn’t do live. There I’d also write up a couple of pieces while responding to comments, looking for reaction tweets, videos, confirming numbers with the police and so on.

I soon learned to carry everything I needed on my back, and made sure I had pockets (like gadget girl!) to keep all my phones and cameras in. I also learned to make sure everything was fully charged before leaving the house and I knew where the nearest Wi-Fi was – this type of training you can only learn on the job.

Always have a pen!

Nick Petrie, social media and campaigns editor, the Times

Community journalism will be very important: Considering the rate at which publications are hiring people to help develop and serve their communities, it is going to become increasingly more important. Look at Liz Heron’s recent move to the Wall Street Journal with Neil Mann, that the New York Times is looking for three social media producers and that the Guardian has a whole suit of community coordinators.

In an age where readers are not loyal to one paper in the way they used to be, developing and maintaining a relationship with readers (engaging them) is key to them coming back – the community aspects of journalism are not a hobby or a passing fad.

Battery backup is your friend: My major fears when it comes to tools are a lack of serious advances in battery tech; every good mobile journalism tool kit includes various charging cables and backup batteries. I need an iPhone that can do seven days heavy use – at the moment it dies by midday if I have a busy morning.

Call yourself a journalist: Not a student journalist, and then act like it – don’t wait for permission to get started, just start writing, blogging, interviewing, taking photos and so on.

Experiment: So many projects you can try are cost-free and low risk. People think journalism is only now experiencing change, but it always has been, it’s just faster and talked about more now. Just go and get started – don’t look for an excuse not to do something but for a reason to try.

Sarah Marshall, technology correspondent,

Do more than the lectures: My take is that formal training in law, shorthand, video and audio is valuable. But students who simply attend lectures will not be the ones who get the good jobs at the end; they will be the ones who fill their time blogging, making connections and going out with a camera or smartphone etc.

Joseph Stashko, journalist, freelance

Be open to openness: I think that openness has, and will, continue to be a much bigger part of journalism than in the past. Obviously the Guardian is taking the open journalism approach to an organisation-wide level, but you also see it in things like journalists disclosing their interests or investments when writing.

One place that does this really well is All Things D, the tech website owned by the Wall Street Journal. Each writer has an ethics statement under their byline, which outlines (in painstaking detail) interests that may be seen to prejudice a journalist’s writing if left unsaid. You can see what I’m talking about here, and I think this kind of thing is only going to become more prevalent.

Martin Belam, lead user experience and information architect, the Guardian

Learn to code: I think it’s good for journalists to get a basic understanding of the principles of how programming works; it can really help you use computers and technology tools to cut out some of the mundane bits of production.

I think it’s often hard for people to know whether they should be learning language X or language Y and whether they need to be able to build whole websites or applications. I think, as a bare minimum, any journalist entering the profession now should have a good understanding of marking up documents in HTML so they can add links, make lists and put things into bold and italics by hand.