Interview with E.B. Boyd: “A key part of great writing is actually cutting.”

E.B. Boyd is a writer and editor who likes to focus on covering women entrepreneurs. She previously covered Silicon Valley for Fast Company, and her work has been recognized by publications like Bloomberg and The Atlantic.

She has also worked as a ghostwriter for the Wall Street Journal bestseller, Zero to IPO: Over $1 Trillion of Actionable Advice from the World’s Most Successful Entrepreneurs.

Boyd’s expertise in technology and innovation has led her to write for several publications, including Politico, The Information, and Vogue India. Prior to her career in writing, she worked on product teams for Silicon Valley startups. 

Looking for inspiration to help you achieve your writing goals? Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive insights into the routines, habits, and techniques of some of the most celebrated authors in history.

Hi Liza, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Can you tell us about your journey from working in Silicon Valley to becoming a journalist and writer?

I was actually a journalist before I worked in Silicon Valley. I moved to California because the tech world seemed really exciting, and this was during one of the boom periods when they were so strapped for workers that startups would hire anyone with a pulse. But after a decade in the business, I discovered I missed journalism, and so I returned to it and eventually got a job with Fast Company

How has your time working with startups and technology companies influenced your current work as a journalist?

Having a depth of expertise in how tech companies operate—how they decide what to work on, what goes into making a successful product, how business decisions are made—helped me enormously in covering Silicon Valley. I could ask probing questions that wouldn’t occur to people who hadn’t been at those tables. It also helped me find stories: I could see a sliver of something and realize there was probably something super interesting behind it.

When Google announced Google Voice, most reporters understandably focused on its technicalities. I wrote a story about the woman on staff who had traveled the globe to capture people speaking hundreds of languages and dialects, so Google could train its AI to understand all that speech. (To my own surprise, it ended up being one of my most popular stories.)

Can you tell us about a particularly memorable experience from your time working in Silicon Valley?

About a month after I started at Fast Company, Facebook invited reporters to an upcoming press conference. It was early days, and they were launching new features every few months. The invitations always included a hint of what would be announced. In this case, the email had AirMail-style blue-and-red hash marks, so tech reporters assumed it meant Facebook was developing an email system. Their stories universally predicted a “Gmail-killer.” 

Based on my work inside tech companies, I was skeptical. Email is enormously complicated and resource-intensive, and Facebook wasn’t in the habit of copying other giants’ successes. I didn’t have any contacts at the company yet, so I went looking online for clues. I found that both Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg had repeatedly denied over the previous year that they were building anything email-related. Instead, they’d talked about looking for new ways to connect people, including watching how teens were using emerging technologies.

Based on that, I wrote a piece saying Facebook would probably release some kind of next-generation communication system. My editors were biting their nails, because literally everyone else on the beat, including all major U.S. newspapers, was saying email. Still, for whatever reason—maybe because I could explain why it didn’t make sense from a tech company perspective—they published my take. And sure enough, a few days later Facebook launched Messenger.

One of the problems with beat journalism is that few reporters are willing to stray too far from the pack. Many are terrified of looking dumb in front of their peers. It’s OK if everyone is wrong together, the thinking goes, but few want to go out on a limb alone. In the Facebook case, I think one reason why everyone wrote “Gmail-killer” was because a very prominent journalist at a very prominent tech blog said that’s what he thought. So instead of doing their own thinking, they simply assumed he must know. If I could give a single piece of advice to a new beat journalist, it would be to not let the herd dictate their reporting, and instead to have faith in their own research and instincts. 

As the ghostwriter behind the Wall Street Journal bestseller, Zero to IPO: Over $1 Trillion of Actionable Advice from the World’s Most Successful Entrepreneurs, can you talk about your experience working on the book? 

Being a ghostwriter is very different from being a journalist. You have two main jobs: To tell your client’s story from their point of view and in their voice. And then to use your expertise in storytelling to shape it into something readers will enjoy.

Often you’ll have to go over the same material numerous times with your client in order to really understand it. It can sometimes feel uncomfortable to ask about the same things again and again, because the client might wonder why you’re returning to something they already covered. It helps to remind them that, while they know their story inside and out, it’s all new to you. It’s invaluable to spend this time because you’ll often realize after several passes that you’d completely missed a key point that ends up being integral to the story. 

When it comes to the writing, it’s your job to figure out how to slice and dice it so that the story works for the reader. Often, you’ll need to make editorial judgments that don’t necessarily match how the client thinks about their story. For example, you’ll decide the book needs more of X and less of Y. That Story A should be told in the opposite order of how the client usually tells it, and that Story B, which they love, should be cut altogether.

In these moments, part of your job is to translate the needs of a book back to your client—to explain why these choices are going to make for a better experience for the reader and therefore better accomplish the client’s goal of getting their story out into the world.

Do you struggle to stay focused while writing? You’re not alone! That’s why Famous Writing Routines recommends Freedom – the ultimate app and website blocker for Mac, Windows, Android, iOS, and Chrome. With over 2.5 million users, Freedom helps writers stay on task and avoid distractions. Get started for free today and reclaim your productivity!

Your current work focuses on women entrepreneurs. What drew you to this subject and how have you approached writing about it?

The organizational design of today’s workplaces dates back to the postwar period of the last century. While things have changed around the edges, the core remains the same. But today’s employees are significantly different from the employees of that era. And the myriad ways in which we can work has also evolved (as evidenced by the adjustments we all made during the pandemic).

Yet most companies reflexively default to the old-school approaches—once again, as evidenced by the current insistence on returning to offices. Women are often on the forefront of experiencing the ways the modern-day workplace doesn’t work. And I think women entrepreneurs are on the leading edge of rethinking organizational management practices so that they work better for everyone. They’re the most willing to try new things because they are least invested in perpetuating modes of operation that are at best broken and at worst actively harmful.

It used to be difficult to write about these kinds of things because men still dominated mastheads, and many had been trained to think of anything explicitly female-related as “niche.” With the rise of more women to top editor slots, though, we’re seeing an expansion of what constitutes “mainstream” business reporting. The women at Fortune are doing amazing work, and Kathleen Davis at Fast Company has spearheaded important new areas of coverage.

You’ve written for a variety of outlets, including The Information, Vogue India, and The Guardian. How do you adjust your writing style to fit the different audiences and platforms you’re writing for?

Outlets are like restaurants. They might all serve chicken, but they’re going to prepare it differently. A Thai restaurant isn’t going to serve Chicken Cacciatore. A French restaurant isn’t going to serve Thai skewers. The key to pitching stories that land with editors is to study what “dishes” they serve—meaning, take a look at the kind of stories they do: Are they short or long? Are they written based on a couple of phone interviews? Or did the reporter spend time out in the field? Is their tone upbeat and enthusiastic? Or skeptical and critical? Or “just the facts”? Once you have a sense of what they “serve,” you can pitch a “dish” that will fit their menu. 

Earlier in my career, when it came time to write, I’d study the specific way comparable stories from the outlet were written. If they included scenes, how in-depth were the scenes? How many did they include in a 1,000-word piece? In a 3,000-word piece? Did the piece include a lot of substantiation (which newspapers do), or were they comfortable simply asserting something without spelling out all the proof (which magazines do, because it makes for more engaging reading)? Did they turn the people they featured into “characters”? Or did they simply quote them, provide their title, and move on? Then I’d mentally turn those insights into a kind of blueprint for structuring my own piece.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

In non-fiction, most of what you do is not fingers-on-keyboard writing. It’s research and thinking. I don’t want to downplay the writing part; you have to be able to construct an engaging story or book. But the most important work takes place upstream. In non-fiction, you can produce great work even if you only have workman-like writing skills, as long as you’ve found something interesting to write about. But if you’re a beautiful writer, but not such a great thinker or reporter, it’ll be tough to produce something worthwhile.

The research part is self-explanatory. (interviews, reading, tracking down information, field reporting.) The thinking part is not so much. Magazine stories and books that blow your mind are the result of a huge amount of thinking. Often you’ll come across a shred of something that your instincts tell you is the tip of something much more interesting, even though you have no idea what it is. Great magazine writers will sometimes talk about how the genesis of some amazing piece was a line or two in an article about something completely different. 

You need to pay attention when your Spidey sense tingles and, if you have the bandwidth, start digging. That means a lot of online research, of course. But also a lot of random phone calls to people who might be able to tell you where to look. The calls usually go like, “I saw Thing X, and it seems like it’d be really interesting, but I don’t know anything about it, and do you think there might be something worth looking at in there?” In other words, you have to be willing to come across as the dunce you are. Fortunately, most people enjoy talking about the things they know and care about, so it usually works out.

You’ll find a bunch of rabbit holes to go down, and you have to use your judgment to make choices about which seem promising and which to jettison. But even once you’ve figured out the general shape of the story, it still takes a lot of work to boil it down to its pure essence. Any great story ultimately gets distilled to a single specific idea. And then everything that goes into the story—the scenes, the characters, the ancillary ideas, the facts and figures, the commentary—has to serve the purpose of communicating that single idea. 

I did a 9,000-word piece for Fast Company, full of scenes and characters, tension and drama, and mind-blowing data, whose core idea could be summarized as: “The U.S. military invests billions of dollars in optimizing every aspect required to go to war, but it spends absolutely nothing to figure out how to leave a war, and as a result, the effort to pack up and remove all our gear from Afghanistan was a giant makeshift shitshow whose enormous inefficiency is ending up costing you, the taxpayer, $28 billion—that’s $28 billion, just to leave.”

It was such a shocking revelation. But since it was based on 10 weeks on the ground with U.S. troops in some pretty hairy situations, this piece, which could have come across as boring bureaucracy, actually made a bunch of must-read and “best stories of the year” lists. (And its genesis was, as above, based on a random thing I’d heard on NPR a few years earlier, which made me realize there was a giant story to tell that no one was covering.)

(It helps at this point to have smart editors or trusted colleagues to brainstorm with. I can often get 80-90% of the way to the core essence on my own, but I usually need a sounding board to cover the remaining distance. In the above case, my editor at Fast Company, Noah Robischon, played a huge role.)

So lastly, a key part of great writing is actually cutting. You know the famous Michelangelo quote about how he created the statue of David by cutting away everything that wasn’t David. It’s the same with writing. Most non-fiction writers toss out 90% or more of what they gather. A story is only powerful because it’s written as a story, and that means choosing only the things that are needed to tell the story.

Your research might have produced 350 interesting things to say about that person you’re profiling, but the excellence of your writing comes down to choosing only the 12 things that drive home the portrait you want to create. This is where that expression “kill your little darlings” comes in. The best writers are hugely disciplined about cutting anything that doesn’t serve the story, no matter how fascinating it is (or how much effort it took to find).

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that be and why?

Ironically for this site, no one comes to mind, because I actually didn’t get into this business out of a love of writing. People are often surprised to learn that literature was my least favorite subject in school. (I respect its importance, but it was never my thing.) I got into journalism because I’m intensely curious, and this business lets you meet interesting people, go to interesting places, and learn interesting things.

I’ve sat in on surgeries in operating rooms, gone behind the scenes at major tech companies, and flown in Black Hawks over Afghanistan. I once hitchhiked on a private jet down to Haiti to cover an outbreak. Another time, I got to hang out with now-Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a café on Stanford’s campus when he had some time to kill between engagements. It’s never boring.

Being able to write well, of course, is a huge part of the job. Especially as you write longer pieces. Knowing how to structure and thread a story so it’s a delightful experience for the reader takes enormous skill. Knowing how to create tension and evoke emotion is critical. But I think about it more like an architect than a poet. I’m trying to figure out how to build the piece so the right things appear in the right places. I definitely talk with my writer friends when I’m struggling. But our conversations are more about problem-solving—how do I move from point A to point B, for example—than what one typically thinks of as a creative process.

Two books I always recommend, though, are The War of Art by novelist Steven Pressfield and The Creative Habit by dancer Twyla Tharp. The main message in both is that creative work is just that: work. It’s no different from any other work. You can’t sit around waiting for brilliance to strike. You have to show up to your desk and put in the hours, hammering away at your project. The light bulbs come from the work, not before the work.

It’s actually the same in any other industry. Computer programmers write and then scrap tons of code as they figure out how to build a new piece of software. That killer deal at Goldman Sachs went in a million directions before the two sides finally settled on something both could agree on. When you’re generating something new, by definition it’s going to suck for a long time before it doesn’t suck.

And so, when you’re in that period where it does suck, it’s important to remember that that is, in fact, exactly what the work looks like: It sucks until one day it doesn’t. Knowing that helps dispel any panic that might arise when things “aren’t going well.” (That panic is what produces the mythical “writers block.”) Instead, you keep plugging away, and eventually you produce the thing you’re trying to create.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?

Everything I’m reading these days is practical. Some stuff on influence and persuasion. A lot of elder care. Everyone should read In Case You Get Hit by a Bus so their affairs are in order, just in case. Since I spend my days with words, when it comes to distraction at night, I turn to streaming services. There is some amazing storytelling taking place on TV these days. The Netflix series 1899 was extraordinary, as was the movie Glass Onion (also on Netflix). I rewatched both with an eye to how they were constructed. Writers can learn a lot from these mediums. As for Greek-style tragedy and comedy, there is nothing so gripping as watching the implosion taking place on Twitter right now. It’s astounding.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

It’s purely functional. A large IKEA desktop on motorized risers, so I can stand as well as sit. Black metal filing cabinets. A large monitor on a stand connected to my laptop, which I use for typing. Thin cardboard coasters of fictional beers (based on British soccer songs) that I got from a guy on Etsy just because I liked the way they looked.

I also have a giant canvas print of a photo overlooking downtown Manhattan, taken from on high in a skyscraper. Working on your own is isolating, and this print tricks my brain into thinking I’m actually surrounded by a sea of people. (I’m not from NYC, but I’ve spent enough time there for short stints that it feels like a second home.)

Affiliate disclaimer: Some links on this website are affiliate links. We may earn a small commission if you make a purchase through these links, but only promote products we truly believe in. We disclose affiliate links and give honest reviews.

No Comments

    Leave a Reply