On Authenticity, Ownership, and Not Reading the Comments

The editor of Future Tense talks about finding an authentic voice, technology’s impact on writing and publishing, moving on from mistakes, and the appeal of reading and writing in the first person.

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a collaboration between Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. She was previously an associate editor for Slate, where she coordinated social media outreach and edited the medical and religion departments. Her writings on entertainment, politics, and technology have appeared in Slate, AOL News, Seventeen, and The Detroit News, among others.

At the upcoming 2015 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, Torie will speak on several panels, including “Fact & Story: A Balancing Act,” “Pitching to Win,” and “How to Get Published.” Creative Nonfiction’s Shannon Swearingen got the opportunity to speak with Torie about finding an authentic voice, technology’s impact on writing and publishing, moving on from mistakes, and the appeal of reading and writing in the first person.

CNF: You have worked as an editor and writer for various online publications, including Slate and, now, Future Tense. How has the age of internet impacted your career?

BOSCH: It’s difficult for me to imagine what my career would look like without the Internet. I’ve had just a few print-publication experiences—most formatively, I was a columnist for Seventeen from about 2000-2002, when I was a high school student. It wasn’t all that long ago, but when I look back and think about how I would be writing an April piece in December, it makes me laugh. These days, it can be difficult for me to think more than a week ahead. In December, how do you even know April will happen? The skills for print and online writing are fundamentally the same, but the collapsed timeline makes the mindset entirely different.

CNF: Does writing on shorter deadlines work better for you?

BOSCH: I do love a short deadline, because it forces me to make the piece a priority. Otherwise, I will procrastinate, or talk myself out of writing it, or get too busy with other things. Having a looming deadline makes me sit down and actually write the damn thing.

CNF: Do you consider yourself a writer and editor first, or a digital media expert who uses writing as a medium for her expertise? Is it even necessary to establish a difference?

BOSCH: The difference is probably semantic, but I do love words, so: I definitely consider myself a writer and editor first. “Digital media expert” feels a bit fuzzy to me—it speaks to me of spin and PR, unfair as that might be.

CNF: To what extent do you think technology has impacted or will impact the art of writing?

BOSCH: It’s a bit of a cliché to say this, but just about everything is a technology. A pencil is a technology; writing itself could be a technology. To a certain extent, words will always reflect the medium upon or for which they’re written. The New York Times has apparently created an Apple Watch app that displays one-sentence stories—or, as a Tweet I saw pointed out, you might call them “headlines.” What does that mean for the art of writing? I have no idea.

CNF: To what extent do technology and social media play a role in your own writing?

BOSCH: Rumor has it that some people turn off the Internet while they write. I cannot imagine doing that—I so often need to look something up or refresh my memory while I write. However, social media doesn’t influence my writing very much; I don’t often crowd-source topics or anecdotes.

CNF: Is social media important to your career as far as building your “platform” goes? Do you think it’s important for writers to spend a lot of time promoting themselves or building their “brands” on social media?

BOSCH: A strong social media presence can be an enormous help to a writer—some job ads even specify that they are looking for someone who has already cultivated a following. But I think it’s only worth doing if it feels natural. I am simply not good at Twitter. I like to use it to find stories, to see what my colleagues are discussing, but I’m not chatty on it, nor am I a tireless self-promoter. It feels—apologies for using such a touchy-feely phrase—inauthentic. And I think that authenticity, or at least a convincing imitation of it, is crucial to make a social media “brand” pay off.

CNF: Do you think the internet and other technology such as tablets and mobile devices are becoming the new primary outlets for news and literature? How does this affect writers and editors?

BOSCH: For news, absolutely; for literature, I don’t think we’re there yet. There have been some interesting experiments with enhanced e-books, and of course we’ve all heard about the writers who, after being rejected by traditional publishers, found success in self-publishing e-books. But print seems to remain much more prestigious when it comes to literature. While I know a lot of news writers who are perfectly happy, even prefer, to focus on online, I don’t know as many fiction writers who would be happy to have a book come out only in digital form.

CNF: Why do you think writers and many readers of literature gravitate to the good, old-fashioned book?

BOSCH: People always say they love the smell of the pages and the feeling of “curling up with a book.” I think a lot of it comes down to loyalty and familiarity: Most of us who consider ourselves readers and writers discovered a passion for words at an early age. Sitting down with a physical book may evoke the memory of those early years, when it first became clear that writing would be an important part of our lives. Nostalgic feelings aside, however, I think that the true upside of the old-fashioned book is ownership. I love to share and give away my books, but digital rights management makes that impossible (at least, legally) for most e-books from major publishing houses. In that sense, e-books and e-readers interfere with the element of community in reading.

CNF: How do you determine whether an article you’re working on will be in the first or third person?

BOSCH: My default is to include the first person. I think that even an article that is written largely in the third person—as is appropriate when you are telling someone else’s story—should allow for some flexibility to say “I.” The “this reporter” or “a reporter” convention seems to me to be dated and awkward; I don’t think it diminishes a piece to admit that it has been written. It’s a bit like when reality TV shows pretend that they aren’t a reality TV show, forcing participants to refer to “this experience” or some other stilted run-around. That is not to say, however, that I think all pieces should be dominated by the first person. I’ve seen some good stories ruined by the author’s insistence on putting him- or herself front and center. The most interesting element should be at the foreground; sometimes that is the author, but sometimes it isn’t.

CNF:  What do you find appealing about writing in the first person? Do you also gravitate toward first-person narratives as a reader?

BOSCH: I read quite a few first-person narratives. I find the approach appealing because the reason I read, and the reason I write, is to find out about other people’s experiences. I want to know the who/what/when/where of a story, but I am also drawn to the emotional component. As an aspiring fiction writer, I think that reading first-person nonfiction helps me develop a better sense of how people related to one another, and to other people’s interior lives. I think that sometimes first-person writing is dismissed as self-indulgent for the writer—and it can be at points—but when it’s done well, it isn’t just about the author’s navel-gazing; it’s giving everyone else a glimpse of what it’s like to be a different person.

CNF:  What similarities and differences do you find between writing fiction and nonfiction?

BOSCH: Beyond the obvious–facts!–I think that they are fundamentally the same. With both, I strive for authenticity, for clarity, and for freshness.

CNF: Why do you think readers are interested in first-person stories?

BOSCH: We’re all gossips! There are more noble, lofty reasons—as I said above—but I also think that we are all nosy. I certainly am.

CNF: What qualities do you look for when seeking out first-person stories?

BOSCH: I look for an interesting voice, rather than just mimicking others’. (I have seen so many first-person essays written in a Gawker voice!) I also look for both experiences that are similar to my own and very different.

CNF: What advice would you give to a writer hoping to work with you? And what should people expect when working with you?

BOSCH: I would suggest that the writer spend time reading the department that I edit on Slate, to get a sense of the sorts of pieces I’m looking for—they’re about technology’s effects on society and policy. I occasionally publish first-person essays about technology, but I want them to be different, to be surprising. The last first-person essay I published was about how a man’s life with technology has been affected by an accident he had as a child—his thumb was severed and reattached. But it means that using touch screens is more difficult for him. That’s a personal perspective on technology that I had never encountered before, so I loved it. Writers who work with me should expect a sometimes-heavy edit; I do several back-and-forth rounds. But that’s OK! That doesn’t mean I think you are a bad writer, or that I’m about to kill the piece. Stay with me—we’ll get to a piece we’re both comfortable with.

CNF: What is the biggest mistake made by emerging writers who reach out to you?

BOSCH: Writers often send me a topic, not an argument. Slate is a publication that specializes in opinion, commentary, and analysis; if someone sends me a pitch that ends with a long list of questions, I’ll usually respond by saying, “So what are the answers?” I want to know what the takeaway of the piece will be.

CNF: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about publishing your work?

BOSCH: Don’t read the comments. Really, don’t read the comments, especially if you’re a woman.

CNF: Have you found that women writers and editors face more criticism? What for?

BOSCH: Unfortunately, women writers face a great deal more (and different kinds of) criticism in the comments and on social media. Comments about women tend to be crueler and more appearance-based than negative comments about male writers. It’s a deeply frustrating situation.

CNF: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

BOSCH: This sounds trite, but: Read your work aloud. Writers who are attempting to sound sophisticated—and I do this myself—often attempt to cram as much into a single sentence as possible. When you read your piece to yourself and find yourself out of breath, chop that sentence up. Long sentences don’t make you look smarter if they don’t work.

CNF: What’s the biggest mistake you made as a writer? As an editor?

BOSCH: I’ve made some boneheaded errors in my day: a blog post that misconstrued a quote, a hastily composed write-up of an interview that referred to “the Huge Awards” instead of “the Hugo Awards.” I know what the Hugo Awards are, of course, but those sorts of slips of the finger can haunt you. Those mistakes are all relatively minor—we all make them from time to time—but they’ve added up to my biggest mistake: being afraid to write at times. That’s not the lesson to take from a correction.

CNF: How do you move forward after mistakes like these?

BOSCH: When you hit “publish” on the Slate content management system, you’re served a prompt that asks: “Are you sure you are absolutely ready to publish this page for the outside world to judge?” What I can become a little gun-shy about isn’t writing—it’s about publishing. I am always writing, even when I think I’m doing it poorly and it’s only for my own consumption. But when I get a bit neurotic about publishing, I am extra vigilant in asking for frank feedback from colleagues—I’ll ask for a merciless edit. I trust them to be honest with me and to let me know if I’ve gone astray, and I am grateful for their careful eyes.

CNF: If you could go back to the start of your career, what advice would you give yourself?

BOSCH: I would tell myself to relax and that you don’t have to have a piece published in The New Yorker by age twenty-five to have a good career. There are a lot of opportunities out there; you just have to keep plugging along and not let yourself get discouraged.

CNF: How do you deal with rejection?

BOSCH: I’m not very good at it—that’s another reason why I’ve transitioned to be more of an editor than a writer. But now I have to dish out rejection, and that’s difficult, too. I hate to discourage anybody. That’s why I try to encourage writers in whom I see promise to keep sending me ideas. You’ll get there!

About the Author

Shannon Swearingen

Shannon Swearingen is a former editorial assistant at Creative Nonfiction. While studying creative writing at the University of Evansville, she spent a semester abroad at Harlaxton College near London, England; after graduating, she spent five weeks traveling the United States in a Jeep Liberty.

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One thought on “On Authenticity, Ownership, and Not Reading the Comments

  1. Rich interview. Loads of
    Rich interview. Loads of smart, foundational advice. In particular, I applaud the observation about the value of tighter deadlines. After working for years on mid-size newspapers, I learned that deadlines have no tolerance for procrastination and navel-gazing. When I sometimes had four or five stories to write in a morning, for that day’s paper, the operative word was “write.” I later came to advise my own reports to “just spew.” Get it out, on the page, into the computer, then self-edit. Learning to edit your own work — as a key part of the writing craft — is critical. Kill your babies, as someone else put it. Good advice here, as well, to read your work out loud. Varied sentence length is critical to pacing, but the over-long sentence has limited value, especially when it runs the risk of taking the reader to the period without the foggiest memory of what the subject was, back in the day when the whole over-wrought thing began. Thanks for sharing.

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