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50-for-50 interview: Erin Kissane, standard-bearer

I have a weakness for precision and an obsession with integrity, which means I pretty much live in awe of Erin Kissane. Perhaps she has closetfuls of dreadful, sprawling first drafts somewhere, but all she shows the world are the finely honed essays, tweets, and articles that describe to us, impeccably, how to handle our outward-facing work. Her delightful volume on content strategy, produced for the similarly elegant entity, A Book Apart, relates everything you need to know about creating digital content in 81 deliciously readable pages; it is the first book which, once I’d devoured it in digital form, I felt compelled to order in print as well. But for all of her thoroughness and exactitude, and despite the rather daunting standards she sets to live up to, in the end, you fall for Erin. How can you not? Her mission—to help us care more about the work and the words we choose, because these are the things that connect us to one another—comes from the heart. And pink hair? Sold.

When did you decide to become a writer?

I didn’t ever make a decision about it. Writing is how I think through complicated things, and how I connect ideas. It’s the other half of reading, for me. I read to learn; I write to think.

That’s the easy way for me to answer this question, and it covers the professional work that people associate with my name. But there’s also something else, which is at least as important: writing is a way of taking every experience I’ve ever had, every bit of skill I’ve gained, and all the loosely connected bits of knowledge rattling around in my head, and making something out of it. It still astonishes me that we can do that.

Who was your favorite teacher?

I’ve had so many good ones. My seventh-grade English teacher, who was a delight, began every class by having us write for ten minutes in notebooks that he kept for us. We could write anything, and we could choose whether or not to have him read what we’d written. All he cared was that we sat down and wrote for the full ten minutes.

I think that’s when I really got into the habit of processing thoughts and problems in writing. It’s such a simple thing, but it made a huge difference in the way the class felt and went. For years after that, I filled up so many spiral notebooks writing, and I still do a lot of longhand writing, even though most of what I write is now on the computer.

What do you love to write about?

Everything I’m interested in. I’m a little bit of a crusader for things like clarity and transparency and the ethical use of language, so I do enjoy writing about those things, but writing is so integrated into my life that it’s not really a topical thing, for me so much as an interface between the world and my brain.

When I’m writing fiction, which I tend not to talk about, I tend to write about the experience of being a kid. We all have this extraordinary experience of being ourselves and yet changing in radical ways as we grow (emotionally, physically, neuro-structurally), and I remember quite vividly being afraid, as a kid, that I’d forget what that was like. Writing about the fundamental weirdness of being a kid has helped me keep a strong connection to my earlier selves.

What has writing taught you?

The importance of going slowly—of returning to drafts and letting things settle and clarify, and of thinking ideas through carefully instead of making a good guess and dashing off. I like to go quickly and write while I’m riled up about something, but the introduction of deliberation and care has been really good for my head.

How has writing made you stronger?

Because I write so much, I’ve finally come to understand that I’m really only effective when my head and brain are both fully engaged. My writing really suffers when I’m only half present—when I’m emotionally disengaged or intellectually bored—and that has forced me to deal with this need to integrate my life. That’s not to say that I only work for environmental charities now, or anything, but it does mean that I have to find the spark in every project: something that fuels the belly-fire and lights up my brain. Without that, my work gets drab and I’m a misery to be around.

Also, during some of the darker spells in my life, I’ve found that the total absorption I experience while writing has been the best way of staying sane.

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?

You’ll find your people. And they’ll be the ones who love you for your hyper brain and weird heart, not despite it.

(Oh, and the internet? You’re going to LOVE IT.)

What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?

Favorites are too hard. Well loved things from a few categories is a list I can make, though.

  1. The Waves, by Virginia Woolf (pre-now-novel
  2. Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson (post-now-novel)
  3. Tekkonkinkreet (Black & White), by Taiyo Matsumoto (manga)
  4. Kill Screen (magazine)—if this doesn’t sound like your thing, just try this
  5. (smartyface blogs)

And I’ll cheat and also say Walter Benjamin! Liz Hand! Christopher Alexander! John Clute! Twitter!

Also: thank you, Colleen, for inviting me over! It’s quite an honor to be in this company.

Erin Kissane is a reader, writer, editor, and web content geek. She’s the author of The Elements of Content Strategy (A Book Apart, 2011) and the co-founder of Contents, a new digital magazine about online communication and publishing, the first issue of which will emerge from the editing mines later this fall. She was formerly editor of A List Apart magazine and editorial director at Happy Cog Studios in New York, as well as a freelance writer and editor.

These days, she leads content projects at Brain Traffic, a content strategy consultancy made of smart people who like cake. At night, she reads, cooks, and writes blog posts, thesis chapters, love letters, and drafts of novels. She lives in Brooklyn with two cats and a very charming boy.

Raising $50,000 in 50 days for an amazing group of girls