What did we learn? Good question! Well, if given the choice between fighting one panda-sized David Plotz and 100 David Plotz-sized pandas, Mr. Swansburg would choose the latter. In the event of a Zombie attack, Mr. Swansburg “would surrender immediately and throw [himself] on the mercy of the undead,” he wrote. But then again, he is “not a zombie guy, never have been.” Sometimes, his own writing can be a powerful tool for social change. For example, ever since he wrote about how much he hates birthday dinners in 2008, Mr. Swansburg hasn’t been invited to a single one. He views this accomplishment as a direct result of his seminal piece.
“I’m proud to say that I have been told by several people that my piece has been instrumental in thwarting plans for birthday dinners. An email chain starts suggesting such an event, and someone on the list sends around my piece, and the dinner is scuttled,” he wrote. “That’s why I got into this business. Changing lives. I like to think that my own lack of birthday dinner invites is a result of having changed behavioral norms. But more likely people just think I’m anti-social now.”
What about practical advice? Like, say, how to write for Slate.
Like most editors, Mr. Swansburg likes good cover letters. Be concise, but not too concise. Be familiar, but not too familiar. Get that Slate tone down. And remember, everyone likes flattery.
“Most important, perhaps, is conveying that you know the place you’re applying to. I like it when someone gets across that they read Slate, they like Slate, they really could imagine contributing to Slate,” Mr. Swansburg replied when asked for advice by a soon-to-graduate college journalism major with no actual job experience. “I suppose some part of that is falling prey to flattery, but I want to know you’ve done your homework and thought about the job and the employer.” Mr. Swansburg points out that Slate is a free web mag, so there is really no excuse.
What about the future of long form journalism?
Mr. Swansburg is optimistic, even though Slate has gotten “faster and shorter” in the past six years, people still click on the long stories. And Instapaper! And The Atavist! “I think the future is bright. Personally, I find myself reading more of it than ever. I’m a huge Instapaper guy, both because I like reading in the app and because it helps me clip pieces during the day for reading in the evening. And places like the Atavist are creating new platforms, and revenue models, for long-form work, which is exciting.”
And finally, using the email sign-off “tight lines,” which Mr. Swansburg recently admitted to, is almost as embarrassing as thinking that “the symmetry of J.R. Swansburg Jr.” is “kinda badass.” But then, we all make mistakes when we are young. “I’m not proud of it, but it happened,” Mr. Swansburg said of his email signature.