If you have seen recent references to the concept of “deep work,” you have author Cal Newport to thank for it. This unassuming Georgetown computer science professor has become one of his generation’s leading voices on how we can all work more wisely and more deeply. His books are instant best-sellers, and his target audience has evolved just as he has: from writing about the academic lives of high-achieving high school and college students to focusing on how knowledge economy workers can avoid the steady drip of distraction. He has come to these issues as both a researcher and a practitioner, someone who is treating himself as a test subject—and writing about his results on his popular blog, Study Hacks.
Cal is the lead-off hitter in a new series called Writing Routines, which will examine the nuts-and-bolts of how authors and public thinkers do written work. We could think of few better inaugural authors than Cal. His writing about the rituals of focused work have enriched the lives of many readers, and he brings to the table both his life as an academic researcher and his work as a widely-read blogger. This interview with him examines the tools, techniques, and tips he uses.
Writing Routines dives into the work of our leading public voices, and if you want an alert about the next one, click here to subscribe.
Now onto Cal:
Let’s start with the basics: What time of day do you start writing? Is it easier for you to write early in the morning? Late at night?
When I’m working on a book, my preferred time is first thing in the morning — before breakfast, before getting dressed for the day, just rolling out of bed and into my laptop. I’m a restless book writer, meaning I’ll wander with my laptop all around our house and yard while working on a given morning.
Blog posts are different and much more ritualized. I write one post per week. I do it at eight p.m., right after putting my boys to bed, in a nice big leather chair in my living room with a record on the record player and a drink. That ritual is as much about relaxing me as it is producing writing.
What’s your preferred tool for writing—a word processor like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc.? A pen and paper?
For my books, I write in Microsoft Word, but I do a lot of pre-writing planning and outlining on foot in my moleskin.
Do you listen to music when you write, or do you prefer silence, or something else in the background?
I write books in silence but will put on a record when writing blog posts. Jazz, blues or folk seem to work best for the latter to put me in the right mindset.
Do you have any pre-writing rituals or habits?
For the actual act of book writing itself, I like to dive right in — the process of writing tends to warm me up to do more writing. Like an iceberg, however, quite a bit of reading and thinking lurks beneath each written page. For those type of background activities a long walk helps shift my mind into original thinking mode. The harder the book, the more time I spend in the woods talking quietly to myself. For blog posts the whole process is one big ritual (as described above), as that’s what’s kept me posting regularly for the past decade.
How many words a day do you produce, or try to produce? How much of that ever sees the light of day?
For books, the amount I produce depends on how much time I have available that day. A good thousand words can take me anywhere from one to four hours depending on how tricky the concepts are. I probably end up tossing out a quarter of what I write in the first draft of a book chapter. Even though I try to be pretty thoughtful about figuring out what I want to say before I write, you still have to see how concepts play on page to decide if they deserve to stay.
For blog posts, which I find less rigorous, it takes me 90 minutes from start to finish to conceive, write, edit, and publish a post. I have that down to a science.
When you first sit down to write, let’s say, a blog post, how do you start? Walk us through what’s going on in Cal Newport’s head when he sits down and puts thumbs to keyboard (or pen to paper)
When I sit down to write, I already know what I want to say and have my sources ready. My attention, therefore, is usually focused on craft. Writing compelling openings, for example, can be the hardest part of an essay.
What’s your process for editing your own work if you have one?
For book chapters, I actually use the same editing process that I wrote about a decade ago as an undergraduate in my book on student study habits. It rests on three passes. The first pass is when you write the best chapter you can. The second pass comes later once the whole book (or whole part of the book containing the chapter) is done. During this pass, I come back to the chapter on my computer and cut and tighten. The final pass is when I read through a printed version of the chapter on paper. Reading on paper is necessary if you’re going to root out odd constructions or minor errors.
You’re one of the leading thinkers on a concept that you describe as “deep work.” How do you think about the connection between writing and deep work?
Writing is a classical example of a task well-served by deep work. The more comfortable you are concentrating intensely for long periods of time the more successful and productive you’ll be as a writer. Historically, writers have been great innovators in techniques for training and supporting deep work in their lives.
An important point about deep work that is often overlooked is that it’s a skill that must be trained. Many aspiring writers overlook this reality and find their first forays into the written word frustrating and unproductive. My advice is always to start with training your cognitive fitness before diving into your first big writing project just like you’d train your cardiovascular fitness before trying to run a marathon. In other words, National Novel Writing Month would be a lot more successful if it was preceded by National Don’t Use Social Media Month.
Do you find that you write differently for your short-form work versus your longer form books?
I power through blogs posts relatively quickly. I’m proud of that writing, but it lacks the polish or conceptual completeness I would demand of a book chapter or an essay destined for national print publication.
Everyone says that the first step to being a good writer is to read good writer’s’ writing. What do you read? How much do you read? Who is your favorite author to emulate?
I read a lot. I’m usually tackling around four to five books at a time, mainly non-fiction. For me to consider a book it must either feature relevant ideas or really good writing (it’s surprisingly rare to get both). At this exact moment, for example, I’ve been working on the following books: The Witches by Stacy Schiff, Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener, The Nature of Mathematics by Philip Jourdain, and Empires of Illusion by Chris Hedges.
Do you consider writing to be easy? Would you say it comes to you naturally?
Writing is a craft that is hard to learn and demanding to apply. Nothing about it is easy, but like any craft it can be profoundly rewarding.
When did your aspirations to become a writer begin, and at what age did you start writing in hopes of living off of it/making a life out of it?
I started writing for campus publications my sophomore year in college. I signed with my agent at the end of my junior year and signed my first book deal with Random House later that summer — so my transformation from starting writing to doing it professionally was rapid.
Which book would you say was your favorite to write?
My third book was about these high school students who were accepted to elite colleges even though they lived relaxed lives in high school. Right after I signed the contract for the book, my publishing imprint went through a rapid series of consolidations, and the project bounced through something like a half dozen editors in as many months. The result: I could basically write whatever I wanted as there was no one looking over my shoulder.
At the time, I was living on Beacon Hill in Boston, surrounded by landmarks to many of our country’s great thinkers, and the book evolved into this crazy and wonderful philosophical and scientific exploration of the nature of impressiveness — a mash up between Malcolm Gladwell and A is for Admission. It’s probably the most original thing I ever wrote. I’m proud to say it has a small but energized cult following.
You’re in a unique position because you have academic writing that is more technical and then you have your public writing which is more open and conversational. How do you strike the balance there, or, more specifically, do you ever find it hard to switch from one style to the other?
My academic papers contain more mathematics than prose so these two worlds remain pretty separate, though I’m known for turning colorful phrases in the expository portions of these papers.
What are your favorite books on writing if you have any?
Stephen King’s On Writing.
Jimmy Soni is the co-author of Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato and the author of forthcoming biography of Claude Shannon. He is an editor at the Observer and lives in Los Angeles. If you want an alert about the next Writing Routine, click here to subscribe.