8 Things We Can All Learn From Elizabeth Kolbert

8 Things We Can All Learn From Elizabeth Kolbert

If you’re looking for an inspiring female author from whose work you might glean a few writerly pointers, you needn’t search far. Whether you’re a hardcore fiction buff or always hungry for a fresh memoir, the world of words is suffering no shortage of brilliant women.

Recent fiction luminaires include Hanya Yanagihara—a longtime writer by trade but a relative newcomer to the realm of novels. Her latest was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize and was a 2015 National Book Award finalist. Then there’s Karen Russell, the MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner whose debut novel was a 2012 Pulitzer finalist. And Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, another “Genius” Grant winner whose novels have garnered a string of awards, and whose speech “We should all be feminists” was sampled by Beyoncé.

The nonfiction side of writing also boasts an abundance of female heroes, like Emily Nussbaum, who won a 2016 Pulitzer for her prolific and thoughtful TV criticism, and her fellow New Yorker writer, Elizabeth Kolbert.

A journalist, author, and adventurer seasoned by more than three decades of writing experience, Kolbert is perhaps best known for her book The Sixth Extinction, which won a 2015 Pulitzer for nonfiction.

Kolbert’s writing is sharp, scientifically complex, politically fraught, and at times darkly funny. In short, she’s exactly the type of author worth studying for hints about the craft. Here are a few we’ve picked up:

1 Leave home. Talk to strangers.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s writing refuses to stay chained to a desk. Not content to muse from home about melting ice sheets, for instance, she journeys with scientists to the distant reaches of Greenland.

Indeed, Kolbert’s travels transport readers to far-flung places like the Great Barrier Reef, the Amazon rainforest, and an utterly wild preserve in the Netherlands. Along the way, she propels us forward using scenes with working experts, providing not just their scientific perspectives but also glimpses into their, er, natural habitats.

It’s the kind of writing that shows not everything has been done or written before—and that truth can be stranger than fiction. Make a habit of venturing outside your head and out into the world, and your writing will be indelible.

2 Show—and also tell.

You’ve probably run across that writerly dictum “show, don’t tell” before, but sometimes the situation calls for both. When Kolbert sets out to explain ocean acidification, she pulls on a wetsuit and takes us scuba diving. Any time she wants to describe a complex scientific finding based on an esoteric lab technique, she goes to the lab and has an expert walk us through the process.

This approach lets Kolbert grapple with wonky concepts (like geologic epochs) while still relating a concrete story (a hike to a rocky outcropping with a group of geologists). When you opt to show and tell, you deliver a bevy of facts in a story that’s more memorable than any sterile treatise.

3 Be adaptable.

It’s good to devise plans, but it’s also good to shred them if they’re not working or if other opportunities arise. In an interview with The Open Notebook, Kolbert relates one small adaptation she had to discover in the field, in order to take notes while swimming:

The most challenging thing was reporting underwater. That is the hardest thing—when you see these amazing things underwater, but what can you do? You can’t take notes. When I was in Hawaii snorkeling, the scientists had these plastic slates with a special pencil to keep track of their experiments, that you can write on underwater. They loaned me one of those, so I took all my notes on my plastic tablet and transcribed it when I got back to shore.

In that same interview, Kolbert also speaks to the process of making adjustments based on her subjects’ schedules:

I try to go on reporting trips when things are happening, but deadlines are complicated and things that only happen once a year are hard to plan around. For the book, a couple of times I tagged along on an expedition. Sometimes people kindly staged expeditions for me, but I had to work around their schedules. Some things took a year to schedule properly. You have a lot more time when it’s your own book. Or maybe you don’t really—my book was way overdue.

Be flexible when you can. Kolbert’s willingness to shrug off her book’s initial timetable eventually paid off with a Pulitzer-caliber result.

4 Let yourself appear in the work, once in a while.

The question of how often you, as the writer, should insert yourself into a story that isn’t expressly about you is often debated.

Kolbert doesn’t readily personalize every story she publishes, but she does occasionally step in and describe her own experiences—like a night she spent at a sleep center with electrodes on her scalp and tubes in her nose for a story about the science of insomnia. In The Sixth Extinction, for a section about backpacking in mountainous Peru, she includes an aside about a shopping bag full of coca leaves presented to her by an ecologist:

The leaves were leathery and tasted like old books. Soon my lips grew numb, and my aches and pains began to fade. An hour or two later, I was back for more. (Many times since have I wished for that shopping bag.)

Kolbert has chosen the setting of this chapter for other reasons, but having brought us here, she doesn’t shy away from a flavorful detail. This is the key: finding a happy middle ground that’s neither self-indulgent nor invisible.

5 Don’t let anyone tell you you’re unqualified.

Your writing doesn’t have to be circumscribed by your credentials. Elizabeth Kolbert is many things, but she is not a scientist. All the same, she’s not dissuaded from researching and sharing insights on subjects from colonizing Mars to the future of automation.

Sometimes what’s important isn’t so much technical expertise as the ability to do your homework and to zoom out and recognize what will be important to your audience.

6 Persist.

Just because recognition doesn’t come overnight doesn’t mean it’s not coming.

Kolbert began her career as a newspaper reporter in the mid-1980s; she headed the New York Times’ Albany bureau from 1988 to 1991. By the time she became a New Yorker staff writer in 1999, she’d been grinding out stories for some fifteen years. Even then, she was still years of hard work away from the National Magazine Award she eventually won for her 2005 series The Climate of Man.

Be patient; keep showing up and putting in the work.

7 Keep your readers guessing.

A reader who can easily predict what you’re about to say may not remain a reader for long. One way Kolbert keeps us hooked is by interjecting an occasional wry observation or utterly startling turn of phrase, as with the ending of this thought:

If nearly half the occupations in the U.S. are ‘potentially automatable,’ and if this could play out within ‘a decade or two,’ then we are looking at economic disruption on an unparalleled scale. Picture the entire Industrial Revolution compressed into the life span of a beagle.

Weren’t expecting that, were you? One other pointer we glean from Kolbert—this technique is most effective when applied sparingly; you don’t want to wear it out.

8 Enjoy the work.

Kolbert’s writing could hardly be called whimsical, and often gravitates to matters of extinction and survival. The subjects can feel as grim as a cave full of diseased bats in winter. But that doesn’t mean the day-to-day work of finding words for it is miserable; Kolbert makes a point of traveling to fascinating places and seeking out compelling characters.

Though few writers have the luxury of working exclusively on projects they cherish every minute of, the job doesn’t have to be a pure slog. Find and nurture the aspect of writing that drives you, and the rest will be that much easier.

Your writing, at its best.
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