John Dickerson Reveals the Secrets to His Writing Success in a Reddit AMA

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
May 9 2013 8:15 AM

Sunflower Seeds and Soda Water

John Dickerson reveals the secrets to his writing success in a Reddit AMA.

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John Dickerson: I think it depends on the information I'm trying to deliver. I think that we do a lot of good work on the podcast because people know us and can take in information in an easy way—it's more direct. I think sometimes there are certain stories I can only tell in print. The long-form pieces I worked on are like that. And some of the more complicated arguments I try to make require words and patience, but on TV I think you can make a big difference if you can get across an idea and deliver a perspective that helps people frame the crazy world going on around them.


Robobear82: How do you balance your responsibilities between CBS and Slate? That seems like a high tightrope.


John Dickerson: It requires a lot of patience from my kids and wife. My bosses are great. The voice of my Slate pieces, which are sometimes argumentative or preachy or jokey, can sound discordant in certain places on CBS so I try to watch it. I don't change what I think but like any sane person I think about how I convey it to audiences who arrive with different expectations. If you come looking for breakfast and a guy offers you a spicy taco it is confusing.


Tufu2006: How do you turn on your focus for writing? Do you have a routine or favorite food/drink, etc. to help you?

John Dickerson: I write early in the morning. Coffee! Later in the day it’s sunflower seeds and soda water. I need a deadline later in the day to give me focus for writing. I'm a mess. When I was writing my book I spent the afternoon reading and outlining because my writing is shot. I'd like to meditate more but I am not as disciplined as I'd like.


Soaringrocks: One of my great frustrations with political debate is a disconnect between facts and positioning. Global warming, evolution become political footballs where too many news organizations treat it as a balancing act when they report issues. How do you deal with this conundrum?

John Dickerson: It's one of my great frustrations too. I think there are two solutions. One, work harder to convey more facts even in political stories. A lot of times what holds up policy progress are political fights so explaining those is crucial to helping people understand what's going on. And sometimes once you're done with that you don't have time or space to explain the policy. But that's no excuse. I am somewhat surprised that the web hasn't given us a better way to deal with policy—a common set of facts outlined in a way that helps us get through them. I've tried to take cracks at this and I'm not good enough to do it but there are people out there who are. I'd like someone to give me and five other journalists a million dollars and ask us to solve this problem.


Crickontour: What are some of the biggest misconceptions you see about people’s perception of the political process?

John Dickerson: That people are all horrible hacks. They are in a lot of cases. And there are some awful people involved. But a lot of people get into politics because they have really strong faith in this country and in their community and they want to help. I also think that members of Congress are actually more friendly toward one another than we might think. I also think that we think what we see matters the most. Most of what we see is just fringe. The important stuff in campaigns and governing we never see.


13374L: What's the biggest or most important political issue that you don't think anyone is paying attention to? What's being completely overshadowed by drone strikes and the sequester?

John Dickerson: Inequality. We're losing vast portions of our country. People without jobs and without means of digging out.


SaturatedPhats: Any advice for a struggling freelancer?

John Dickerson: Advice: take any writing assignment and create a blog and write, write, write. Write short mostly but also try long and keep at it. Try to match certain styles and then try different forms. Try writing a news story as a poem and then a poem as a news story. Mostly, just write. And never let anyone tell you no.


Bullcocks: Can I touch your hair or must I come to a live Gabfest to do that?

John Dickerson: Sure, just touch the screen and close your eyes.


Burtsbeesfanatic: What kind of day-to-day effort does it take to stay so connected with your readers, and do you think it makes you a better journalist?

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