Jerry Seinfeld: How to Write a Joke

The wronger it feels, the righter it is, says Jerry Seinfeld about joke writing.

Real success, real failure, real people

Real success, real failure, real people

On the ever growing list of “Who Remembers How These Things Worked Before the Internet?” is the finding of so-called real people for articles–that is, people who will speak on the record about their own personal experiences. Rather than an expert trend analyst who comments on data, these people are in fact a single data […]

How do you answer, “Who do you write for?”

How do you answer, “Who do you write for?”

Like most questions about freelace writing and journalism, the real answer here is, “It depends.” When sending a query to a new-to-me editor, typically my bio line lists a few credits tailored to the publication. If, say, it’s a enviro/science story, I’ll mention Discover and Ensia; architecture editors find out about Dwell; education editors are […]

John Oliver on native advertising

Posted in journalism

The best analogy I’ve heard in a while compares how advertising and editorial are like licorice and guacamole. “Separately, they’re good. But if you mix them together, somehow you make them really gross,” quips John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight.” His riff on native advertising pretty much covers it all:

Vanity searches and Danzy Senna

Whenever Google finds somebody with my name (such as me, or the real estate agent, or the OB/GYN, or the Chicago English lecturer) doing something new, a message alert pops up. The main purpose of this is to catch new articles when they are published online. Sometimes vanity searches turn up reprints or references, such […]

Mandela Day

Mandela Day

Mandela Day has been an informal day of service here in South Africa for several years, where people are asked to contribute 67 minutes in “service to one’s fellow human” in honor of Mandela’s birthday. (One minute for each year of service he gave the country.) This is the first Mandela Day since Madiba’s death, […]

Mandela paralyzes Koppel

On the eve of Mandela Day, what more could you want than a genuine laugh with Madiba:

Screen saver

Screen saver

My annual visits to the optometrist followed a clear pattern: for many years, my eyes became continually more nearsighted. With glasses or contact lenses, vision was 20/20, and at some point the technology improved enough to render lenses thin enough to throw away the coke-bottle glasses of childhood forever. Great stuff for somebody who surely […]

Wole Soyinka turns 80

Wole Soyinka turns 80

Over time, most interviews, be they phoners or even in-person, start to blur together. Some stand out in your memory because of a great conversation or odd location; Wole Soyinka was a bit of both. When I met him for lunch a few years ago, it was with a small group of other journalists, so […]

An even shittier first draft

Posted in writing
An even shittier first draft

Writing longhand is something of a luxury. It takes more time than typing just on the first draft, and at some point I then have to enter it onto the computer. The quality is often messier–an even shittier first draft, to paraphrase Anne Lammott–yet it’s usually a richer experience that somehow lets me make different […]

A story killed and resurrected

A story killed and resurrected

Throughout my years of freelance writing, there is one recurring situation that is genuinely tricky to prevent: the story that gets killed because the assigning editor leaves the publication. You might think that the new editor would be so busy trying to get up to speed that the last thing they’d do is kill a […]

Gaggle or gang?

Posted in animals, editing

On land, a gaggle or flock. In flight, a skein or team. When flying closely together, a plump. But when sizing up passersby (not to mention leaving untenable amounts of green poop), the new collective noun for geese should be a gang.

On My Bookshelf: New Life, No Instructions

On My Bookshelf: New Life, No Instructions

Cherry red. Deep blue. When visiting New York, off-white with a thin seafoam stripe. Whomever designs veterinary surgical tape knows that when your dog comes out of the back room, the best response is, “Ooh, how cute you look, all bandaged up!” My dog, a red fawn Shar-pei, has always gotten a lot of attention, […]

The reporting for this story stinks

The reporting for this story stinks

Move over, grass-fed beef. Insect-fed fish have arrived. Standing in a room of one million flies, my senses were at full alert. Each cage undulated with wriggling waves of the buggers, and the stench was powerful. Ostensibly all the insects were secured into compartments, but if even a half a percent were free, that’s a […]

Conference call

Posted in business, freelance

Conference calls are a part of a freelance writer’s life, but often they leave me feeling like I should have received hardship pay. This little video, “A Conference Call in Real Life,” transforms every bit that is super unfunny in real life. In the sequel, I’m guessing there will be somebody getting dressed or eating […]

Face in the Kenyan Crowd

Face in the Kenyan Crowd

These have been boom years for cartography geeks, and talking with Juliana Rotich–the Kenya-based, MIT-trained innovator behind crowdmapping sensation Ushahidi, as well as many other BAFA projects–was one of those interviews that makes it easy to love being a journalist. The creation of a healthier ecosystem in Nairobi’s Silicon Savannah where entrepreneurs can thrive depends […]

Better successful than sorry

Better successful than sorry

I grew up in the US, and to South Africans I sound, as I am told, “very American” (more specifically, as if I’m from the Northeast). But I have picked up some local South African/English usage, such as saying “sorry” when I’m not actually sorry at all, but want somebody to move out of my […]

What I wish I had known about freelancing (and how it helped me get into this Sunday’s New York Times)

What I wish I had known about freelancing (and how it helped me get into this Sunday’s New York Times)

When Tiffany Markman asked what I wish I had known about freelance writing when I started out, I had to think about it. I had the tremendous advantage of first working as part of an editorial team at a publication that paid and treated its freelance writers well. One brand-name type journalist handed in sloppy […]

Chicken stalker

For a forthcoming feature about food in Cape Town, I stalked this rooster for the better part of an hour.

Can a writer take pictures too?

Can a writer take pictures too?

Recently a writer made a crack on freelance message board about how the quality of the publications must be poor if they let the same person handle both words and images. I understand the reasoning behind hiring specialists to focus on the area that they handle best, but when for whatever reason the publication isn’t […]