Opinion

What I learned from writing 2 million words at The Week

At my take buffet, the portions are very large, and always hot

It's time to say goodbye: Alas, this will be my final column as a national correspondent for The Week. I may return from time to time, but I'm moving on to The American Prospect, where I'll be managing editor. (I hope readers check it out!)

It's been almost exactly eight years since I started this job. Assuming an average column length of 950 words (some shorter, some much longer), and two weeks of vacation, I've written something like 1.9 million words here since 2014. Let's call it 2 million to be on the safe side — what's a longish book between friends?

For my last column, I'd like to reflect on what I've learned from that vast pile of writing. Punditry gets a bad rap, but it's an unavoidable part of life. Everyone is doing the job of a columnist all the time — namely, forming opinions. It can be done well or poorly. My takes have not always been sensible, even-handed, or even correct, but I've produced more of them than is probably healthy, and they were always piping hot. So here are a grab bag of lessons.

It actually is possible to be a good generalist. No one has the time to become a genuine expert in everything under the sun, but you can develop a knack for digging into a subject, cutting down to the core important truths, and presenting them in a way that is comprehensible to the lay reader (so long as you aren't talking about something ultra-technical like advanced science or Martin Heidegger). It helps to develop some friends and sources with serious expertise who can help talk you through the toughest stuff in science, medicine, technology, or finance. And at the risk of self-flattery, my best work at The Week came from hard study and reporting on complicated subjects — like how jails work, the health care bureaucracy, or the payments system. However ...

Beware of dilettantism. It's possible to figure out the important take-home parts of most subjects, but that doesn't mean you automatically understand everything. A lot of bad punditry is just lazy speculation from writers who don't want to put in the work and succumb to the temptation to pass off gut check notions as learned wisdom. I am by no means innocent of this, of course.

Don't underestimate the value of repetition. Nobody can possibly have 50 original, wholly distinct ideas in a year, let alone 250. What you can have is a number of hobbyhorses. Whenever a news hook pops up, that's another opportunity to make a similar argument in a different context or to explore a different facet of the larger idea. For instance, one of my obsessions is the awfulness of Supreme Court — so I've written articles about its lengthy history of appalling racism, explanations of how judicial review was made up out of nothing, close analyses of individual decisions, and so on. (There's an endless vein of material there, as the podcast 5-4 proves.)

Writing this way actually provides a valuable service for readers. Most people who read a column only read one or two, not the writer's entire published oeuvre. Each time you present the same core idea in a different way, you increase the chances of reaching a fresh reader who might be interested or convinced, and you further elaborate the nuances of an idea for someone who has seen it in your archive before. What's more, focusing on a handful of particular subjects allows you to develop real expertise, further pushing against the danger of dilettantism. (I tried to focus particularly on climate change, because of my science background.) However ...

Beware of getting stale. A lot of my weaker columns were ones where I wrote basically the same thing I had written before (sometimes without even realizing it, ouch). It's usually quite obvious when someone doesn't have any good ideas and is just going through the motions. (Richard Cohen somehow remained employed at The Washington Post for 50 years doing just that.) If you don't have any ideas, read some books!

Beware of both groupthink and contrarianism. Recent history has many examples of consensus formation around completely deranged ideas — like invading Iraq, cutting the budget deficit when unemployment is 10 percent, or denial that children spread the coronavirus in schools. It can even be hazardous to your career to not follow the herd if a real mania develops — just compare the success of people who supported the Iraq War to those who didn't. But this shouldn't be a business for cowards, and if you can't stand up to a war fever, don't even try.

That said, there are also many people out there who have confused knee-jerk contradiction with great wisdom. Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi now greatly resemble the late Christopher Hitchens in their gleeful, automatic gainsaying of everything from the people they don't like and also their rapid transformation into dogmatic conservatives. Like so many contrarians, they end up agreeing with the rich and powerful corporate elites while passing themselves off as free-thinking rebels. This kind of fake dissident pose is dishonest and deeply irritating. An opinion writer should be skeptical as a rule of thumb, but it's no replacement for actually using your brain.

Finally, tune your BS detector. Perhaps the most important ability for a generalist writer (and any journalist) is to be able to sense when someone is talking nonsense. It's useful to know a lot of strategies BSers use — cherry-picking evidence, promoting quacks, slippery logic, the Gish gallop — but detecting BS is mainly something that comes with experience. Once you've studied a lot of topics yourself, and you've seen a few BSers in the wild, you begin to get a sixth sense for what they look and sound like. Former President Donald Trump, for instance, is an absolutely flagrant culprit.

This matters because BSers are absolutely everywhere in this country. Credentials do raise the likelihood that someone knows what they are talking about, but they're no guarantee. As we've seen over and over during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are thousands upon thousands of doctors, academics, and public health experts who are complete nutball cranks.

That will have to do for now. It's been an honor serving as your friendly neighborhood socialist. Do come and check out the Prospect and say "hi" one of these days. As for me, I'm going to replace my keyboard.

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