How Jonah Lehrer Should Have Blogged

Back when we thought that Jonah Lehrer’s transgressions only went as far as self-plagiarism (not actual plagiarism, among others), Felix Salmon, editor at Reuter’s, wrote a helpful essay on Jonah Lehrer.

Firstly, think of it as reading, rather than writing. Lehrer is a wide-ranging polymath: he is sent, and stumbles across, all manner of interesting things every day. Right now, I suspect, he files those things away somewhere and wonders whether one day he might be able to use them for another Big Idea piece. Make the blog the place where you file them away.

Secondly, use links as shorthand…. If you or someone else has already written something well, just link to that, rather than feeling the need to repeat it.

Thirdly, use the blog to interact with your peers, rather than just primary sources. There are hundreds of great science and ideas blogs out there already; start reading them, and be generous about linking to them.

Fourthly, iterate. Lehrer is a big-name journalist at a major publication: when he writes stuff, people respond, often on their own blogs, and often with very keen intelligence. Link to those people, learn from them, converse with them via the medium of blog, and use that collaboration and conversation to hone and further develop your own ideas. Treat every blog post as the beginning of a process, rather than as the end of one.

Yes! This is a) such great advice for blogging in general, and b) a very insightful look at how blogging can inform and help the process of writing longer, more time-intensive pieces. Because Jonah Lehrer “stopped being a writer and became an idea man,” I imagine that he began to think of his Big Ideas as the intellectual currency that had to be protected.

When a writer stops being afraid of publishing unpolished thoughts and learns how to tap into the creativity and resourcefulness of other writers, a different feeling emerges: generosity. This is what happens when you stop hoarding your thoughts, give others credit for helping you formulate them, and acknowledge that your insight/idea is one of many. You are no longer scared of only being as good as your last thought because you start to see how many wonderful thoughts and ideas are around you, and you are a part of a community.

In my RSS feed, currently, are over 1000 unread articles, many of them new findings from scientific journals, any of which would make a fascinating article. In my Twitter feed are approximately a billion interesting thoughts. And then there is the wonderful world of blogging that Salmon discusses.

The catch is that you can’t expect to read a headline or pithy Tweet and have the entire Idea present itself to you, fully formed. After you’re overwhelmed with the beginnings of ideas, you have to focus. After the browsing and reading, you have to be willing to do the grunt work: making calls, writing emails, vetting the statistics in the paper, identifying new sources and schmoozing old ones, searching for/identifying great representative anecdotes, and then a little thing I like to call “putting it all together,” which is also known as writing the damn thing. It’s not efficient, but it’s thorough and , and this is why journalists and nonfiction writers take a long time between pieces. It’s impossible to be as prolific as Lehrer without resorting to shortcuts. So you can take shortcuts or write shorter pieces, but if you want to write about Big Ideas and execute them well, in other words, you have to be willing to do the laborious work of journalism.

That’s what Lehrer missed: the execution, not just the Big Idea, is what’s importantAnd where does blogging fit into this process? There’s nothing wrong with using your blog to reflect the fact that it’s a part of the process, as Salmon astutely states. It helps create trust and transparency. If you use your blog as a sketch pad, and link to others who have already thought about the same ideas, the process gets easier! You don’t have to start at the beginning. Nor do you have to hoard your Big Ideas until you have them perfectly executed. So, to iterate: use your blog as a transparent, ongoing sketch pad, get involved with others. Use it to get to work. Now, get to work!

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