Stephen Baker

The Numerati
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Keeping the math cover story out of the blog... For months on end

July 21, 2008Writing the book

(This is a blog post from early '06, written after I had finally published the cover story that led to The Numerati)

I’ve been leading a secret life on this blog. For months and months I worked on this math cover story. I was talking to mathematicians and people who use math, and it was dominating my thinking. It was in many ways the most interesting thing going on—and I couldn’t blab about it in the blog.

This created a disconnect, one that I think is going to continue to frustrate mainstream bloggers like us. On many days, I had to wrench myself away from math, visit my aggregator page and force myself to switch subjects. Occasionally, I gave in to temptation and posted a thought or two about math. In this battle between two subjects, math didn’t always win out, of course. I’m sure as the editors waited for the story and saw blog posts continue to go up, they had good reason to wonder if blogging was getting in the way.

I think blogging strongly influenced the development of the story. When it came time to write, I wanted to write it in a looser more conversational style, like the blog. What’s more, I wanted to be clear with readers from the very start that I knew very little about math, that I was an outsider visiting this world. That sort of disclosure is much more common in blogs. In traditional journalism, by contrast, we usually write as though we know what’s going from the start.

So I wrote a first draft in first person. Some people liked it, some didn’t, but I’m sure they all agreed that it didn’t read like a traditional BW story. The top editors said, in effect, nice try. But they wanted the traditional approach: Less me, more clarity.

So I ripped it up and started over. During this process, I tinkered with some cover ideas that might attract even mathophobes. Those too got the nix. What do you think?
paris math cover.jpg


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