How did you become a writer?
I'm a newspaper journalist from way back, including a brief stint as a reporter, but I became an author through my career as an editor, with an assist from the Web. In 1993, when nobody had ever heard of the Web, I met my future wife talking about tennis on an online service called Prodigy. A couple of years later, when we got these newfangled "Internet" accounts, we decided to try our hand at creating Web sites, and she called dibs on tennis. So I had to come up with something, and I thought about the style notes I was always crafting -- for the desk I was running then, at the Washington Times, and even a decade earlier at my college paper in Tucson. So I started the Crusty Old Slot Man's Copy-Editing Peeve Page, which became The Slot, and from the get-go my goal for the Web site was to get a book deal. I came very close to signing with a book "packager" -- not vanity publishing or self-publishing, but not quite traditional publishing either -- but stopped myself and thought, no, if I can do it this way, I can do it the right way. So I bought a directory of literary agents and I found a good one and she found some interest, and I distilled a decade or two of idiosyncratic rants on usage and style into the raw material for "Lapsing Into a Comma."
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
There must be a genetic component to my writing. My father's father, who died long before I was born, was a sportswriter in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, and my dad, though he never went to college, was an expert speller and a big word guy. Maybe it's the Irish in us. My mom has a way with words herself. My two younger brothers went into journalism -- not only journalism, but copy editing. I set a bad example. The youngest, Kenneth, is a prolific blogger who just wrote a collection of memoir-ish essays. He'll be outselling me in no time. The middle brother, Terence, is very talented as well: He regularly produces bright, thoughtful columns explaining the editing process to readers of his newspaper, and I hope he'll try his hand at something bigger.
My freshman-English professor at the University of Arizona -- Richard Ames, who was visiting from the University of Wyoming -- was a big influence. I've always had a flair for writing, but up till then I tended toward the showoff-y, throwing in big words whenever I could, and he taught me the value of simplicity. I'm not sure I have any particular influences among big-time writers, but I draw inspiration from virtually every book I read. Bill Bryson's travel books are high on my list, for the deftly wielded humor and the attitude. Nicholson Baker, especially "The Mezzanine" and "Room Temperature," for the detail. I delved into the world of John Updike, Baker's idol, relatively late in life, but the "Rabbit" series blew me away. As a writer, I look at those books the same way I look at Roger Federer matches from my club-level perspective as a tennis player. As in: Yeah, there's something I'll never be able to come close to doing.
When and where do you write?
When I have writing to do, I set the alarm clock. I don't have the luxury of being a full-time writer, but I do have the luxury of a day job that takes place at night. So instead of getting up at 10 and puttering about until I hop on my bike to head to work at 2 or 2:30, I get up at 8 and go downstairs to my desk (my office is technically a dining room, but we're not the dining-room types) and try, try, try to do one or two or six hours of typing.
What are you working on now?
I just finished my third book, which I've titled "Yes, I Could Care Less," and so I'm back to sleeping in for now. I'm not sure there's another language-usage book in me, but I've said that before, so who knows? I do have sort of half a manuscript in an altogether different genre sitting around, about my teenage flirtation with boxing, and I do hope to flesh that out and shop it around someday.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
I'm not sure I've ever suffered from writer's block in the traditional sense, unless you could call the drastic drop in my blogging output a huge example of it. For better or worse, I write on my own terms, and I'm blaming Twitter for the tragic decline in my attention span. What I did suffer from a lot in the past year was organizational block. I had snippets that needed transitions, and Part B didn't really fit between Parts A and C, and so the final two months or so before my manuscript deadline were like doing a huge jigsaw puzzle. It's the sort of thing where the answer seems obvious once you've found it, but the finding part is just a nightmare.
What’s your advice to new writers?
New writers would do well to remember something I need to keep reminding myself: You can do whatever you want. There are traditional forms and structures and genres and outlets that you really should learn and know and prove a certain competence with, but beyond that the really good stuff is often in newly invented forms and structures and genres, or strange interweavings of the old ones. If I may use a tennis analogy, which I do way too often, I think back to hearing good ol' Stan Smith trying his hand at color commentary in the late 1980s, doing his monotone impersonation of the monotone sportscaster he assumed he was supposed to be. Just painful. And then I think of his fellow ex-jocks Mary Carillo and John McEnroe and, for one magical night in the U.S. Open booth, Andre Agassi -- how Mary and John and Andre mastered the art of just being themselves. You don't need to be a tennis fan to get that point: Be good, but be yourself.
Bill Walsh is a copy editor at The Washington Post and a 30-year veteran of newspaper journalism. After graduating from the University of Arizona journalism program in 1984, he worked as a reporter, copy editor and page designer at the Phoenix Gazette and as a copy editor and occasional page designer at the Washington Times. In 1997 he joined the Post, where he started as a page designer and copy editor and has held various copy-chief positions. He has written three books on language: "Lapsing Into a Comma" (2000), "The Elephants of Style" (2004) and "Yes, I Could Care Less" (coming soon). He has run The Slot: A Spot for Copy Editors, www.theslot.com, on the Web since 1995 and offers 140-characters-or-less usage commentary on Twitter as @TheSlot. He lives in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C., with his wife, Jacqueline Dupree.