Rebecca Onion

How did you become a writer?

I assume every “Advice to Writers” reader loved English classes and worked for the literary magazine in high school and college, so that’s a given. I’ll answer this question by describing how I came to be paid for writing. My first “real” job was as a staff writer at YM Magazine, in the early 2000s. I freelanced for a while between leaving YM and going to graduate school in 2005. I completed a Ph.D in American Studies, at the University of Texas at Austin, in 2012. In graduate school I got into historical research in a big way, which totally changed the set of things I thought of as “My Subjects.” I freelanced a bit during graduate school, and am just now returning to full-time paid writing. 

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

My freshman-year English teacher, at Milton Academy in Massachusetts, helped me turn an elementary-school love of reading and words into an ability to analyze and explore the workings of poetry and prose. (Shout-out, Jim Connolly!) That class, and Milton’s other great English classes, brought me together with people who loved writing, some of whom are still close friends today. With them—Sarah Bennett, Elanor Starmer, Cristie Ellis, and Julia Turner (who’s now the editor at Slate)—I learned the joy of passing around poems, making word-nerd jokes, and writing loooong emails. 

In college, many late-night discussions of submissions to the Yale Literary Magazine instilled a healthy fear of cliché and overwriting. Christina Kelly, my favorite editor at YM, taught me a lot about specificity, accuracy, and a sparing approach to prose. My advisors in graduate school, Julia Mickenberg and Janet Davis, imparted a love of research and an infectious sense of historical curiosity. My editors at Slate—I’ve primarily worked with John Swansburg—are great at framing and developing stories, noticing lapses in argument, and generally suggesting shape for my shapelessness.

And my dad, Perry Onion, writes with a dry wit that’s inspirational.

When and where do you write?

I try to treat it like a full-time job: 9-7, M-F, with time out for lunch, exercise, and appointments. Of course, I’m not actively writing all of that time; I’ve got research, interviews, email, and Twitter to break up my bouts with Word. If I’m on deadline, I use the program Antisocial to cut the cord to the Internet and dive into the topic at hand. On the weekends (unless I’ve got a big deadline) I read magazines and novels, cook, and send out my newsletter

As for place: If I’m at home, in Ohio, I write at my desk, by a sliding door that looks out on a forested gully. Suet hanging from the window attracts birds, which, in turn, attract our cat; watching her watching them makes for a great break from the desk. If I’m traveling—at my parents’ house in New Hampshire, or in a hotel room or an Air BnB—I write from whichever desk is free, behind as many closed doors as possible. I used to write well in coffee shops, but I’m now addicted to using more than one computer monitor, which really helps when you’re doing work that draws from a plethora of documents. 

What are you working on now?

My history blog for Slate, The Vault, is a five-day-a-week job, so that’s constant. I’m in the middle of completing some bits of academic writing that I committed to before I decided to transition out of academia for a while: an article on chemistry sets and the toy safety movement of the early 1970s, and a few book reviews, including one of a set of graphic novel biographies of scientists that I’m really excited to write. I have a bunch of pitches that I’m working on, around the edges of those larger projects. And I’m finishing up revisions on an article for Slate, about the digitization of historical medical images. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I think “writer’s block” works differently for people who write heavily-researched nonfiction. I tend to sublimate my nervousness about a given assignment into research, so that I find myself following more and more leads, rather than just sucking it up and getting started with the writing part. That way I can fool myself into believing that I’m moving forward. (In graduate school, we called this “productination.”) I also get “blocked” about revisions—even revisions that I know won’t be too painful. In every single case, if I can force myself to open the Word document and get going, I’ll feel much better within fifteen minutes. (Knowing this fact doesn’t help me do it, though.) 

What’s your advice to new writers?

Again, this is probably much more useful to people writing nonfiction, but I argue that new writers should strive to be as curious and well-read as possible. Develop some core competencies, but also diversify your interests; try a lot of different approaches. Don’t get hung up on any one failure. Pitch as widely as possible, with an attitude of detached striving. 

I have a few quotes on post-its over my desk. One is from Pat Kirkham’s biography of Charles and Ray Eames. Kirkham writes that Charles often referred to this quote from the Bhagavad Gita: “Work done with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done without such anxiety, in the calm of self-surrender.” +1 to that. 

Rebecca runs’s history blog, The Vault, and writes about history and culture for publications including Slate, the Boston Globe Ideas section, Aeon Magazine, and Lapham’s Quarterly’s Roundtable blog. (An archive of clips is available on her website.) She holds a Ph.D in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. Her first book, Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Public Science in the United States, is under contract with the University of North Carolina Press.

Follow Rebecca on Twitter: @rebeccaonion.