I have two exemplary pieces of 21st-century writing that I want to share with you. Neither is hot off the CMSes; they’ve both aged just a little in their tabbed casks. They have something deeply in common—though it might not be obvious at first. One is from BERG’s Matt Webb, the other from the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal. This post is going to run a bit long, with a healthy blockquotient, but I think it will end up somewhere interesting.
First: over at the BERG blog, the studio’s director Matt Webb writes weeknote 315. Now, BERG’s weeknotes are always interesting, but this one is a stand-out. It’s long—very long—and transparently written in installments. You can plainly see the rings on the tree, the grain of the writing.
The post begins. Almost immediately there’s a pause, signaled by a section break. Another graf, another pause. Then a section begins like this:
A few hours later – still Saturday – I’m reading an article called A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600–2100 section by section, and interspersing this with reading the monthly Profit and Loss and Balance Sheets of the company from the past year.
And then Matt dives into the details of BERG’s P&L. More sections follow. He touches on sales strategy, supply chain management, even financial stock and flow. (That is, the real kind, not the Snarkmarket kind… but we’re winning the Googlefight, so watch out. Ours might be the real kind soon.)
Later, Matt writes…
I attempt to run the company perpetually at medium-risk, with occasional forays into high-risk to grow – trusting ourselves to surf this tightrope – don’t laugh at the mixed metaphor, that’s what it feels like – and sometimes it takes a while to get my sea legs at a new scale, to discover what a tolerance of “medium” feels like when the numbers themselves change. Your sensitivity and tolerance improve only with practice. I wish I’d been given toy businesses to play with at school, just as playing with crayons taught my body how to let me draw.
I’ve written in these weeknotes before how I manage three budgets: cash, attention, risk. This is my attempt to explain how I feel about risk, and to trace the pathways between risk and cash. Attention, and how it connects, can wait until another day.
…and then of course even later in the post he ends up talking about attention after all.
Got it? Okay.
Next: over at the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal writes up the New York Public Library’s pathbreaking digital projects. Now, on one level, Alexis’s piece is more straightforward than Matt’s. It’s, like, an article. I mean, it even has a nut graf:
With all this change — not to mention a possible $40 million budget cut looming — it would be no surprise if the library was floundering like the music industry, newspapers, or travel agents. (Hey, man, we all get disintermediated sooner or later.) But that’s the wild thing. The library isn’t floundering. Rather, it’s flourishing, putting out some of the most innovative online projects in the country. On the stuff you can measure — library visitors, website visitors, digital gallery images viewed — the numbers are up across the board compared with five years ago. On the stuff you can’t, like conceptual leadership, the NYPL is killing it.
But… look at that nut graf. Look at the voice Alexis is rocking here—the NYPL is killing it—and look at that personal parenthetical: Hey, man, we all get disintermediated sooner or later. Here in the nut, in the very keystone of a long piece ostensibly about the New York Public Library, Alexis is tipping us off: This is actually going to be about me and you and the Atlantic, too.
Then, just a little bit later on, we read this:
I visited the library to see who was behind the excellent work at the library to see how they thought about what they were doing. And maybe I was hoping to pinch some lessons for my own work on how to teach old animals new tricks. The Atlantic was founded in 1857, after all, 54 years older than Patience and Fortitude.
And later, Alexis crosses the streams again…
People love the texture of old stories and the odd solidity of old photos. If you let them use those things for their own purposes, they love them even more. Take the New York Public Library’s stereogram collection. Stereograms were actually publicized by a key member of The Atlantic’s staff at the end of the 19th century, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
…again directly connecting the nominal subject of his piece (the NYPL) to the shadow subject (the Atlantic itself), which is, in fact, the shadow subject of most of his work, on most platforms.
And it’s glorious.
Okay, so now take a step back and consider these two pieces together.
They are written by two very different dudes, in different positions, with different objectives. But I want to argue that both are written in essentially the same style, with common characteristics both superficial—a smart but very informal voice that reads like a long email from your smartest coolest friend ever—and structural:
- They both conjure a sense that the piece is almost being written as you read it. It feels like they’re just a graf or two ahead, and if you picked up the pace, you could catch them—overtake their blinking cursors. It feels slightly chaotic and totally thrilling.
- They both let you inside their heads. With Matt you’re not just reading a list of, like, small-business tips. For the span of a few thousand words, you are riding shotgun as co-CEO of BERG. Likewise, with Alexis, you’re not just learning about the NYPL. You’re grabbing hold of the library’s old-made-new strategy and instantly spinning it around, asking yourself: How can I use this here at the Atlantic? It’s palpable, and it’s awesome.
- But!—they don’t let you all the way inside. There’s plenty withheld here. In fact, here’s the genius of the style: they don’t tell you much at all. What’s BERG’s next big project? Uh, I don’t know. What’s Alexis’s strategy at the Atlantic? We’ll find out when he executes it. Even though their writing feels so revelatory, this isn’t radical transparency at all. It’s, what? Selective transparency? Choir screen transparency? I’m not leveling a criticism—this is a compliment.
I tend to zero in on this kind of writing because I aspire to do more of it myself, and to do it better. Working in public like this can be a lot of fun, for writer and reader alike, but more than that: it can be a powerful public good. The comments on Matt’s post all go something like this: Hey, thank you. I’m running a small studio myself, and this is really instructive. When you let people inside your head, they come away smarter. When you work in public, you create an emissary (media cyborg style) that then walks the earth, teaching others to do your kind of work as well. And that is transcendently cool.
At the same time: surprise is of the essence. And for me, it’s been increasingly difficult to communicate coherently about my day-to-day writing work without either a) being intolerably vague, or b) giving away the good stuff. I just can’t quite find the balance. I’m midway through George R. R. Martin’s latest—these are books famous for their ruthless surprises—and so I’m feeling this really keenly right now. We don’t want radical transparency from George R. R. Martin. We want radical opacity. We want maximum surprise!
But what I see in Matt’s and Alexis’s writing is a growing mastery of this balance. I think it’s an important new skill, maybe even a new liberal art. When you articulate it, it sounds almost like a koan, or part of some samurai code:
Work in public. Reveal nothing.
So what is this post, then? Me working on working in public, in public? Maybe. Actually, I think I might have a shadow subject of my own. As I’ve been writing here, I’ve been thinking (because come on, the scenario is inescapable): Can we get Webb and Madrigal to make something together? BERG and the Atlantic—what’s this going to take?