Why Gay Talese does his reporting on “laundry board”

This morning, I was reading the print version of The New York Times when a thin, one-column story in the city section caught my eye: “When Panhandlers Need a Wordsmith’s Touch”. In the story, the writer uses a first-person voice to describe how he was walking to the bank and wound up talking to panhandlers, and discovered that the economic downturn is hitting them pretty hard too.

The writer suggests that a panhandler ought to wear a sign invoking the Obama stimulus package. Indeed, the writer even offers to composed a message for the guy — at which point I hit upon this incredibly odd passage:

I stopped talking and reached into my pocket for one of the strips of laundry board on which I make notes when I’m interviewing people. On one strip of laundry board I wrote: “Please Support Pres. Obama’s Stimulus Plan, and begin right here … at the bottom … Thank you.’’ I handed it to him, and he said he’d copy the words on his sign and have it on display the following day.

Wait a minute: This guy does his reporting on strips of laundry board? My mind boggled. What in god’s name are “laundry boards”, anyway? And what sort of oddball cuts them into pieces instead of using a regular notepad? That the mere phrase “laundry board” — and the packrat-like behavior here — made me immediately think, “wow, this guy must be like 124 years old or something.” So I glanced down to the bottom of the story, where the byline was printed, and saw that it was …

… Gay Talese. Bingo! Not quite as old as I’d suspected — he’s only 77. Nonetheless, he’s of that generation of writers that — as he noted in this interview here — is most comfortable writing his stories longhand. Only after he’s written longhand does he transfer his work to a typewriter, and only at the very end of the editing process does he shift over to a computer (which he uses, as he points out, “like a typewriter,” as opposed to a networked data-processing machine).

I’m not being critical here; on the contrary, I love hearing about the kooky, idiosyncratic methods people use to gather, process, and compose information. Each method — paper, typewriter, computer, smoke signals — has a built-in cognitive style, things it’s good and bad at. For example, when I’m reporting at my desk and doing interviews, I always type on my computer, because I can rip along at about 80 words a minute. My interviews notes are thus extremely complete — almost a word-for-word transcription of what my interviewee said.

But when I do use paper notes — such as when I’m out in the field — I enjoy the fact that the lower bit-rate of data recording forces me to make choices, instant by instant, about what’s interesting and worth recording, and what isn’t. When I type notes, it’s a “publish, then filter” system, whereby I capture everything and only later on decide what’s crucial for the story; when I take notes on paper, it’s an older-skool “filter, then publish” system. The thing is, the latter approach can sometimes yield more pentrating insights into what I’m reporting on, because when you’re forced to think on the fly it can have the effect of really sharpening my focus: When I have to make split-second decisions about whether I have time to record something, it tends to make me notice everything more vividly.

When I’m finally writing, the cognitive styles of computer versus paper tend to complement one another. The cut-and-paste, move-it-around-and-see-what-happens nature of digital text makes it easier to be playful with how I’m structuring a piece. But sometimes when I’m stuck I’ll pull out a pad of paper, because paper slows me down, and being forced to think more slowly can be incredibly useful. (Also, writing on paper allows me to draw swoopy arrows and talmudic sidenotes that can result in big breakthroughs about how to structure a long article.) I’ve never actually tried writing a long feature on a typewriter, but I suspect it’d be a pretty fascinating experience.

Given Gay Talese’s awesome impact on journalism, I’m assuming that whatever writing systems he’s got work incredibly well for him. Now I’m savoring the mental image of him stalking Frank Sinatra back in 1966 for his seminal Esquire profile, and carrying around slips of laundry board to scribble notes.

I’m still mystified, though. Can anyone explain precisely what the hell “laundry board” is? (Collision Detection reader Dave pointed out that Talese actually does explain in the article what laundry board is — it’s the 14 by 8 inch cardboard “that the dry cleaner sends home with my shirts.” I, being a crack investigative journalist, managed to breeze past that passage in a 543-word article. Winner.)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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