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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Slate’s chief political correspondent and CBS Political Director John Dickerson responded to questions Wednesday about his work schedule, his writing tactics, and the struggle to stay objective during an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

tmerri4: I've always wondered what working for a magazine like Slate actually looks like. For instance, how often do you go to the office? I'd like to imagine you and David standing at the water cooler chatting, but that seems unlikely. Do you normally work/write from home? Are you constantly on the road or just during campaign season?

John Dickerson: Plotz stands high above the rest of us on a tower made of the bones of his defeated foes. He picks favorites so while most of us must kneel in a constant state of supplication, there are some like Emily who seem to be able to do any damn thing she wants. She has a team of assistants that would populate a hotel courtesy van and all they do mostly is get her salad and witty endings to her sentences. Also it is required that everyone drink Fresca, which can really do the body a mischief over time.

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This is all a lie. I was on the road forever during the campaign and saw neither my colleagues or family. Now I write from home because my books are here but I go into the office 3-4 times a week. It's a fun place with lots of hallway conversation which is better than working at home, but it's a tiny bit more distracting.

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Crickontour: Which TV show would you say provides a more realistic view of D.C. politics, House of Cards or The West Wing?

John Dickerson: False choice! I think West Wing but only because its distorted view of reality is less distorted. Original House of Cards is great though.

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Greslater04: What is your favorite lede that you have ever written?

John Dickerson: Of my own? What a great question. The lede to my mom's eulogy "This is the hardest assignment my Mom's ever given me" is one that isn't a favorite but was helpful because that was so hard to write. This one was a little too clever but still... "Is a shoe-throwing journalist who tries to undermine authority a sabot auteur or a saboteur?"

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IAmNoHorse: How much preparation do you put into the Gabfest each week? David, Emily and you all speak so eloquently about the issues, but it still retains the feeling of a natural dialogue. Do you have prepared remarks in mind going in, and if so, how often do you deviate from your talking points based on the natural progression of the discussions?

John Dickerson: More and more preparation. We email and have a brief chat beforehand but then we never try to argue things out beforehand for fear of leaving our best stuff out of the show. There are no real talking points other than the ones David has to keep the show on track.

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Rustytire: I think a big problem with how we evaluate the job our political leaders are doing is that we tend to ignore the big picture politics. I think questions of President Obama's leadership abilities are a great example of how much people tend to ignore the greater context.

For one, we have divided government. Republicans own the house, and Democrats [own] the Senate and the Presidency. Next, the parties who hold Congress aren't even on the same page with what they want. Third, earmarks have been banned so there's no ability to sweeten a deal. And so on and so on.

So I guess my question is: Do you agree and what can we do about it? The public is so turned off to government, that no one's paying attention. It's just depressing.

John Dickerson: I've written a lot about this. I think we do miss the bigger picture and context.

All the things you mention contribute. Still: I think you can understand context and recognize that president Obama and his team are not very good at Congressional relations. Would it matter? Not sure. Hasn't been tried. Also: we judge leaders on results not the best explanation of all the problems they face. Great leaders create new pathways. That sounds ridiculous and I'm very sympathetic to how impossible that sounds, but I think to be an accurate judge we have to a) understand the context correctly and b) find a way to accurately articulate and measure for that x factor in leadership that has made certain leaders great. Mostly that x factor has been to find a solution when none seemed available.

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Woollams812: Where do you see the greatest value in the content you create? Is your best work in writing, podcasts, or other media?