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What to do when your writing bores you

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Some people say that fighting your way through a first draft is the best thing to do when you're bored by your writing, but Charlie Jane Anders says you just need to shake things up: "Boredom, in fact, means that you’re acknowledging a need to improve, and find ways to at least amuse yourself more. And if you’re not amusing yourself, then what are you even doing? You have a right to be entertained by your own writing, and you should claim that right with both hands."

About the good Old Farmer's Almanac

Old Farmer's Almanac cover

Adrienne Lafrance writes about the secrets of the centuries-old publication's endurance: "It must have seemed, to the people of the 1792, when The Farmer’s Almanac was founded, something like what a smartphone is to people today: a handheld, portable device that contained information about all manner of things — health advice, weather predictions, jokes, recipes, charts detailing the times of sunrises and sunsets, and other 'new, useful, and entertaining' tidbits."

Gawande on why journalism is stressful

Atul Gawande

Rick Berke interviews surgeon/journalist Atul Gawande on the transformation of American health care, the New Yorker's famous fact checkers, and why writing is the hardest part of his job: "By far, the least stressful day of my week is the day I’m in the operating room. There are no phone calls, no email, you’re focused in one direction, and once you start, you have to finish. But when it comes to writing, any number of things can go wrong, and it can be neverending."

Why difficult scientists are good subjects

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Would you rather interview the prickly Stephen Jay Gould or the gracious and courtly E. O. Wilson? John Horgan suggests that his stories about Gould were better than what he's written about Wilson: "Jerks often make more vivid subjects than nice guys. When Murray Gell-Mann derided science journalists as ignoramuses, I thought, 'Yes! This is great stuff!' I couldn’t wait to start writing about him … If all my subjects were unlikable, my job would be much easier."

Dubious benefits from the standing desk

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Sedentary office workers might think they will beat the reaper by standing at their desks, but Beth Mole writes about a study suggesting that more strenuous activity may be the key: "While the study seems contrary to other data on the health effects of sitting, it may actually bolster previous findings that being physically active lessens the ill effects of sitting. Thus it suggests that the choice between a sitting and standing desk could be moot for gym goers."

Galileo as a pioneer of critical thinking

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Maria Popova uses excerpts from the revolutionary scientist's book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican — for which Albert Einstein wrote a modern foreword — to show how Galileo attacked superstition: "Nearly half a millennium before Carl Sagan crafted his Baloney Detection Kit, Galileo established himself as humanity’s premier nonsense-buster and made it his chief mission to counter ignorance and indolence with critical thinking."

Where do book cover blurbs come from?

Leaves of Grass title page

Colin Dwyer traces the history of the book-cover blurb back to an approving note written by Ralph Waldo Emerson to a then-barely-known Walt Whitman upon the publication of Leaves of Grass. Dwyer also discusses the burden of blurbing for its busiest producers: "Some writers report receiving up to five unsolicited galleys in the mail a day, a deluge that's prompted plenty to swear off blurbing altogether. It also prompts a question: How do all the other blurbers do it?"

Putting your writers to the test

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Seeing a test that the Associated Press used to give to job applicants prompts Jack Limpert to ponder the absurdity of giving such tests to prospective writers, as he was asked to do when editing the Washingtonian: "I often was trying to lure a writer or editor into giving up a good job to join a magazine that was growing but with no guaranteed future. Was I going to ask someone I was trying to steal from another magazine if he or she could add 12 and 8 and get 20?"

Why bar charts should begin at zero

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Nathan Yau believes that the value scale on a bar chart should always begin at zero, and he offers a few examples — one tracking his fluctuating weight, another comparing his height to his son's. Problems arise, Yau writes, because the human brain uses the scale as context for reading the bar; shortening the bar confuses everything: "It's true that every rule has its exception. It's just that with this particular rule, I haven't seen a worthwhile reason to bend it yet."

A guide to the perfect back-cover blurb

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For every reader who makes it to chapter 7, dozens if not hundreds may read the copy on your book cover, so you need to make it good, Jessi Rita Hoffman writes: "Use three to five bullet points only (an odd number is best, marketing research shows). With the bullets, tell what the book will do for the reader or what the reader is going to learn from your book. Keep the syntax (style) of the bullet points consistent. This is important, or the list won’t read right."