Who: Bryan Burrough
Claim to fame: Author of six books—including the critically-acclaimed Barbarians at the Gate—he’s also a winner of the Loeb Award for financial journalism and Vanity Fair writer.
Why’d we pick him, in ten words: Simple: He’s the author of the “best business book ever.”
When did he first want to become a writer: “All I ever wanted to be was a newspaper reporter. The end of my horizon was maybe covering cops for one of the Dallas papers. Once I got into writing longer pieces for the Wall Street Journal, though, I did start experimenting with narrative techniques. I had never thought of myself as a “writer,’’ in large part because at the beginning I was so bad at writing.”
`Writing’ for me may mean something different from a novelist who has an established routine. Writing for me is wrapped up in reporting and research, so I don’t honestly have a writing routine time-wise. I tend to work an 8-to-5 or 6 day. I write and research at the same time, I mean, I don’t divide the work as some do, you know, all the research, then all the writing. That’s a recipe for disaster.
So typically when I show up in the office in the morning I have some copy I’ve been working on, and some reporting tasks for the day. I do tend to begin the morning by going over something I’m writing, often just as an excuse to get back into where I was the day before. I tend to go over that same bit of copy many, many times; I think of it as a stone that gets polished over and over and over and over, until it’s as smooth as can possibly be.
Microsoft Word on a desktop. I like structure.
Not really. But I do I have mid-writing rituals. I tend to write in 45-90 minute bursts, after which I desperately need to step away from the computer for a bit and then return with “fresh’’ eyes. Typically I use that break to play I-pad Scrabble or, occasionally, play a computer game of some sort. Civilization 5 and XCom2 were two recent time-killers. If I feel like it, I might even take a nap.
Oh, I have no daily goals like a novelist might have. In non-fiction, you go where the day takes you. And most of what I write sees the light of day. I mean, I cut a lot. I’m ruthless. But that’s about pruning, rarely eliminating entire chapters and such. Although I did, on an editor’s recommendation, cut 23 percent of `Public Enemies’ after turning it in. Did it in like three weeks.
No real thoughts, I don’t think. The one thing I do is I rarely start at the “top’’ and work down. I write sections independently, and then cobble them together as the piece, or the chapter, grows.
Oh God, never. No, I have a system of my own. At the very beginning, I open a writing file and a reporting/research file. Things I like in the reporting file — a good anecdote, a good quote — I immediately move over into the writing file to play with. This way the written material grows bit by bit every day, organically. Eventually I begin to stitch some of the sections together. Then add a top, an ending, transitions and, voila, I have a finished product.
Yes, it’s all in my head. That’s where a book lives, you know? At some point once the chapters have grown enough, I will keep a list of them with their lengths. My books are always too damn long, and this is my feeble way of at least trying to monitor the length.
The Vanity Fair pieces are different from the books. I do them the same way, with the reporting and writing files, but the books are so much more all-consuming. They live with you 24/7.
Oh I edit every morning, every day. Cut cut cut cut cut cut — as much as I can. I want my stuff lean and mean, with no wasted words. I think that’s a common mistake many writers make. They think readers love their words. Maybe. But in my case I always feel the shorter, the better. Ironic given I write 550-page books, but without this process, they’d be far longer.
When I first started at the Wall Street Journal, I managed to keep my job by successfully copying successful older reporters. But the books? They’re just me. That’s not to say certain authors haven’t inspired me. The two books that influenced me most were probably Capote’s In Cold Blood and the lesser-known Serpentine by the great Texas writer Tommy Thompson.
It exists, and I’ve had it. That’s why I devised the system I described above. I will say that I think writers block, at least in nonfiction, is seldom about writing. Its about the reporting, the research. If you haven’t done enough, you can’t be sure what to write. That’s why you block.
All I ever wanted to be was a newspaper reporter. The end of my horizon was maybe covering cops for one of the Dallas papers. Once I got into writing longer pieces for the Wall Street Journal, though, I did start experimenting with narrative techniques. I had never thought of myself as a “writer,’’ in large part because at the beginning I was so bad at writing. But once I started learning at the Journal, I did start thinking I might try a book at some point. Once my first book Barbarians at the Gate came out and became this big thing, and once I left the Journal for Vanity Fair, I did begin calling myself a writer. It felt right.
I’m hoping it’s Austin!