In the digital world, journalists are faced with a choice. They can write in ever-shorter forms for websites so readers need not scroll down, they can come up with short-form text designed for phones and tablets, and they can send their work in 140 characters to Twitter.
Or they can try the Alex Shoumatoff method: Write nearly 10,000 words and see it go viral – which was the result of his investigation into the ivory trade across Africa.
Alex believes a writer needs at least 10,000 words to do justice to the complexities and ambiguities of their subject.
“There is still a market for the long fact piece, as I’ve learned from the huge response to my last two outings,” he says.
Alex’s 9,720-word piece on the ivory trade, Agony and Ivory, was published in Vanity Fair last year, and was later nominated for a National Magazine Award. His 11,050-word excavation of the history of a vanishing New York civilisation, Positively 44th Street, came out in the magazine this summer. And his latest non-fiction book, Legends of the American Desert, a cultural and natural history of the Southwest which met with rave reviews, spans 500 pages.
Write a ‘vomit draft’
The question is what is the secret of producing top-class writing at speed?
“The guy who could really write fast, knocking off a whiskey-fuelled single draft that was print-ready, was Christopher Hitchens,” Alex says. “I am not a fast writer. It is always a tortuous process.”
Alex starts with a “vomit draft”, a process that he describes as letting your mind run free. He achieves this by putting down any association and anything that comes to mind.
Later, he prunes and shapes his work. And even Alex, who has been described by one of his Vanity Fair editors as “one of the great prose stylists of this or any century”, can struggle to find the right word. Sometimes, at that stage in the process, the right word can come to mind while he walks or sleeps, Alex says.
“But this said, when I am in the zone, on a roll, I do write fast,” Alex says. “The best writing is the most straightforward. Often, as I am explaining something to somebody, it comes out the most naturally and clearly – more so than when I am straining for how to put it while sitting at my computer.”
‘Battle for our planet’
According to Alex, a good writer is made by work, tremendous intellectual curiosity, and knowing how to write by reading the great. A good piece of writing is “like good music,” he says. But when asked which writers today will become the great writers of the future, he answers: “Not many that I can think of.”
Alex has put himself on the frontline of the battle for our planet, with his writing about the fast-disappearing natural world. In 2001, he founded DispatchesfromTheVanishing World.com to raise awareness of the current unprecedented extinction rate of species and traditional cultures and man’s dramatic impact on his habitat.
His writing has already saved ancient redwoods in California and halted a project to install a hydroelectric transmission line in Manotiba. And his investigation into the ivory trade is changing opinions of the nouveau riche on ivory carvings and jewellery in China.
When Alex gives lectures and workshops, he covers his own huge range of writing styles. His list includes literary journalism, writing to effect positive change, writing for the world, investigative journalism, advocacy journalism, literary travelogue, “far-flung” reportage, nature writing, writing about the natural sciences, popular science writing, ethnography, poetry, song-writing, family history and memoir.
However, while his writing styles may be numerous, Alex’s aim is simple and in line with his overriding concern. “To make audiences aware of the seriousness of our ongoing deepening planetary emergency and the thousands of things each of us can do to be part of the solution and not the problem.”