Who: Cathy O’Neil
Claim to fame: Cathy is the author of the NYT Best Seller and National Book Award Finalist Weapons of Math Destruction. She’s a prolific blogger and a mathematician.
Why we’d pick her, in ten words: Cathy O’Neil is a mathematician, blogger, and award-winning author.
How did she get started writing: “To be clear, before I started my blog in 2011, I didn’t write on an average day. I was a mathematician. Math is really intimidating so I guess it’s far to say that I built up this technique as a mathematician because math itself is always hard. You don’t do math that you know how to do. You do math that you don’t know how to do and if you let it get to you you would never do it. You’ve decided to do a profession where you’re almost guaranteed to fail on the average day.”
I’m a morning person. I can’t think after 3 PM—every thing I do after 3 PM is half capacity, if that. At that point, I make more mistakes than I have ideas so I think my best ideas come basically when I’m waking up. Sometimes even in my dreams.
I have a big spurt of energy after I’ve had my first coffee. I invested in this really good coffee machine about ten years ago and honestly I think anything that has succeeded in my life in the last 10 years can be attributed to my coffee machine. All I have to do is press a button and a cup of coffee comes out. It’s great.
That’s how I blogged (when I was blogging). One day, I just decided to blog every day, and I’m only capable of doing that because I wake up early, before my family. I have coffee immediately and then I can just sit down and write.
I blog on WordPress and I use Microsoft Word for my other kind of writing although I only bought that after I sold my book and had an editor who told me to use Microsoft Word. Before that, I had an actual official book proposal that sold, and I used Google Docs to write it. Then I often write notes to myself during the day on email. I actually built a Google Form to help with that: I build Google Forms for every project and then I fill out forms to myself so I have spreadsheets with my answers in Google Drive.
I build the form and then I send it to myself via email. Then when I have an idea or a link—most likely I’ve read something on Twitter—I will copy the link and then I’ll go to my Gmail and look for the keyword so I can find that Google Form that I sent to myself and then I fill it out. The great thing is that it’s very structured because of the way I’ve built the form, so that later on when I’m organizing my thoughts to write I can search through that spreadsheet and find all of the things related to this category.
There’s always a place for me to write freeform: What is this idea? I have that because I always think in terms of ideas. That’s my unit of thought. The answers—the ideas—are usually evidence for a new theory I have or a new theory altogether. There’s a space for a link and I almost always include a link. Sometimes I categorize it because once my projects are pretty developed then I have different categories. I have a new book project now, but the same thing happened with my first book—I’ll be thinking about algorithms around teaching or about algorithms around credit or insurance or around college, so I’ll have a categorical box. There’s an option for “other” just in case. The fourth thing I have in the form is just “other comments” because I might make a comment, for example, that this is updated data on something I already did. That’s the main idea for the forms.
Silence. I often listen to public radio, but it means that I can’t think. It means I’m learning. That’s research mode, and that’s actually what I do after 3 PM. The only thing I can do after 3 PM is sort of learn passively. The morning is when I think critically.
Yes, absolutely. It depends on how much I need to psych myself up to write, but the standard psyching up ritual is a write down what I would say to my best friend. And the reason I choose my best friend is because she is outrageously flattering to me. Much more flattering than I would be to my own self! So it’s like, write this down in a stupid way that your best friend would be like, “That’s brilliant.”
My second go-over would be cleaning this up for a more critical eye and start poking holes in it. So every time I go over it I’m increasingly more critical of my own arguments, but I have to start with—and I even use language I would just say to my friend. Casual language, not written prose.
If I have writer’s block at all, which I generally don’t, I use Google Drive and open a new document. I use the word recognition software that they have in Google Drive. So I just speak into my computer. I just use words. I just recite something, and it builds a document. It’s not perfect, but it’s much better than you might think. Again, I think about it like a very casual dictation to a friend of mine who is not critical of my thought process.
To be clear, before I started my blog in 2011, I didn’t write on an average day. I was a mathematician. Math is really intimidating so I guess it’s far to say that I built up this technique as a mathematician because math itself is always hard. You don’t do math that you know how to do. You do math that you don’t know how to do and if you let it get to you you would never do it. You’ve decided to do a profession where you’re almost guaranteed to fail on the average day. So you have to put yourself in a generous, kindly space. It’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay to be stupid. It’s okay to ask really dumb questions. Because it’s all part of the process.
It’s okay to be wrong as long as you don’t waste your time being wrong forever. Just get it down there. Start playing. Get into the mode where you’re almost like a five year old child who just plays uncritically, who builds a Lego structure and then tells you very proudly what they’ve built . They didn’t know what they were building until it was done and it’s always so much more creative than if you’d said, “Hey, go build me a mountain.” Because of the process of pure whimsy and playfulness and lack of criticism of their own work, that’s how they get there.
How do you prevent your ego from getting in the way of your own perfectionism or doubts? The negative talk of “this is never going to work”? That’s what you have to do.
No. I never count words unless other people ask me to. For me, an idea is the unit of measurement for everything. I can be more explanatory or less explanatory, so that would effect the word count, but for me it’s always about the structure of the argument. So for a blog post, a single blog post is actually a single idea. You say the idea, you explain why it matters, and then you explain what should be done. It’s just those three parts and it was a great thing to do every morning: Say what I mean, say why I care, and say what I think should happen.
It’s a very satisfying practice to do that once a day. It’s almost like a meditation.
I had those same moments when I did my PhD in math. I don’t think there’s anything truly worth doing that doesn’t have moments like that. So as much as they seem like the end of a life of a really beautiful idea that didn’t really ever get launched—it seems like a little death, but once you’re passed it you realize you needed that moment of crisis to realize what should happen next.
My editor Amanda hated what I thought was my first draft. I don’t even know if she would call it a draft because she hated it so much. What I realized was she and I had different notions of what we thought my book proposal said was possible. I then realized she was asking me for something I didn’t think was possible and I had what I would describe as a short depression over that. And then what I did was very nerdy and very mathematical of me: I got to this point of crisis where I said, “Well what my editor is asking me for is probably impossible, but if it were possible this is what the outline would have to look like.”
Essentially, I just need to go on the assumption that this is possible. And given that her standards are much higher than mine, this is what I would need to do. So I just started working on that project that I didn’t even know I was going to do based on the assumption that it was going to work out. It was a hypothetical feeling and it was really, really stressful.
Oh no, I don’t have that at all. The truth is I’m not a perfectionist. The truth is I’m always more sure that it’s finished than any editor I’ve ever worked with. That’s why I really benefit from editors—they show me that if you just did this, this and this, then it would be a much better piece. And they’re always right.
I benefit a lot from the fact that I don’t think of myself as a writer. I think of myself as someone who (very luckily) is paid to think about things. Then I communicate those things mostly through writing. But I’m not a writer’s writer.
I appreciate editing. To explain, I wrote a blog post that’s pretty popular still—even now people talk to me about it. In it I explain that while I’m no longer doing math, my training as a mathematician has really helped me because—and I say this in the piece—mathematicians know how to admit when they’re wrong. I think that’s pretty rare for most professions.
Professionals don’t like admitting they’re wrong, but mathematicians really do appreciate being told they are wrong because it’s a big time saver. You can really go down a rabbit hole of incorrect thinking if you’re a mathematician and so when someone points out a logical flaw you’re very appreciative of that. I feel that same way about the art of writing. I don’t know it well and other people have been thinking about how to communicate in writing better and for longer than I’ve been thinking about it, so I accept those suggestions.
I probably should have read a few books on the writing process! I would say that for me, again, it’s all about the ideas. It’s also about the tone of how those ideas are presented. My number one inspiration for tone was Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. I thought she did such an amazing job of telling a hard truth in a compassionate, compelling, fact based way that really changed the entire way I thought about the justice system. It really opened my eyes. It was a mind blowing, life changing experience for me and the author accomplished that by being honest, truthful and direct. She was able to write about racism in a way that a white girl math nerd didn’t just believe, but really cared about. It became my issue, too—because of the way she wrote that book.
No. Again, everything is measured in terms of ideas for me. Books are longer, so books have more ideas. You have to organize them together into a narrative whereas blogs are one idea each. Then there are essays—I just wrote an essay for The Boston Review about futurism that came out a couple weeks ago—that was around four ideas.