Q&A: New York Times Writer Caity Weaver’s Secret Weapon? A Dictionary.

New York Times writer Caity Weaver has channeled her insatiable curiosity into some of our favorite stories, writing about everything from glitter factories, to Maya Rudolph, to the year 1994 for the style section and the Times Magazine. She was previously at GQ, where she wrote a series of sensational celebrity profiles, including a 2016 feature on Kim Kardashian that broke the website’s traffic record. (You might remember the lead: “Kim Kardashian West’s boob is so soft it makes velvet feel like splinters.”) She recently talked to Jacob about those leads, how she comes up with her inventive stories, and her biggest tip for other writers.

This transcript has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity. Click here to listen to the podcast. Subscribe today to hear more great conversations!

Jacob Feldman (JF): Let’s start off even before the reporting phase and well before the writing phase, at the idea phase for you. One of your strong suits is finding the story, whether it’s about glitter or whether it’s about mozzarella sticks. How do you come up with ideas and how do you know when an idea is worth pursuing?

Caity Weaver (CW): Well I never know. Maybe at some point after it’s done and published, maybe at the end of the day I’ll know it was worth pursuing, but definitely never while I’m in the midst of it. I’m really lucky that I’ve worked now at a few places that basically just let me run wild and any weird idea that popped into my head they have by-and-large been willing to let me pursue, sometimes ending up in the middle of nowhere with nothing really to show for it. But other times, it does work out.

The glitter story is a funny example: I was actually researching another story when I got that idea and the idea was genuinely just me watching a YouTube video of something that was not glitter and thinking “oh that’s looks like glitter, I wonder how they make glitter,” and asking my editor “can I research how they make glitter?” And she said, “OK.”

JF: Is running wild something you always looked for in a job or is that just kind of what has happened for you?

CW: I actually feel like I work best with very strict parameters, so these ideas that have been things that I was interested in have all kind of felt like flukes in a way—I would much rather be given a very specific assignment and have to operate within strict guidelines.

JF: And how often do you get the OK on a story and then nothing happens?

CW: I would say pretty rarely. It happens every once in a while: There was a joke especially at GQ, where we were all in Slack, that I would use all my best material in Slack; I was constantly getting ideas and getting distracted by things. But it’s rare that I would sit down and really research something and put a lot of time into it and not have anything to show for it.

JF: Maybe we can stick with glitter as the example: Do you have an idea of a story right from the get-go? How much changes during the process in terms of what the story ultimately looks like?

CW: That’s a great example to stick with because the idea from the beginning was “what is glitter, and how is it made?” And I thought it would be a lot easier to report— I thought people wouldn’t be able to wait and have me come and see how they make glitter. It turned out that was one, actually, where there was a point early on where I thought maybe I had wasted time and would have nothing to show for it, because it felt like “am I going to try to completely do a write-around here? I have no idea how glitter is made!” And I’m looking at patents for machines I don’t understand that are from 50 years ago. 

So I would say for something like that I try to always have an idea in mind and then I generally stick to it. Which is not to say that I know exactly what I’m going to find, but I try to pay attention to what I want to know from a story and the questions I have. Because I know I’m definitely not so unique that I am interested in things that no one else on the planet is interested in. I feel like I’m a pretty good representation of the average human so if I don’t know how they make glitter, I bet a lot of people don’t know how they make glitter.

We can’t swear and can’t use as much caps lock. But other than that I’ve actually been really pleased with how little I think I’ve had to change my style.

—Weaver on writing for The New York Times

JF: I want to ask about the celebrity writing you’ve done and it’s kind of the same question, but when you would get an assignment or an idea for a celebrity, whether it’s Kim Kardashian or Gal Gadot or whoever, do you have an idea of what is interesting to you about them from the beginning that you then pursue, or do you try to stay open well into the reporting process?

CW: So of the covers I did at GQ I’m pretty sure the only one I ever pitched was Dwayne Johnson, “The Rock.” I pitched him on my memo before I even had the job when I just had to come up with a bunch of ideas, and I didn’t end up getting a chance to do him for like a year. I think all I wrote down was “I want to work out with ‘The Rock.’ ” I basically did “The Secret” and made that happen. But beyond that it’s kind of the same thing I said for glitter. So if someone comes to me and says “Oh, OK, we want you to write about Kim,” then I just immediately start trying to figure out the questions I want to ask her and the things I want to know about. I’ll also ask my friends “Is there anything that you want to know about Kim Kardashian?” 

And I was lucky with Kim that I had a few friends who were real Kardashian experts and who gave me very-very-very specific detailed questions. I actually did end up bingeing all of the “Keeping up with the Kardashians” that had aired to that point—so several seasons. And I told Kim that and she was horrified, like “Oh my god, that’s a lot of time.” Just seeing what I’m curious about and what other people are curious about is a good way to guide the writing process. And if I go into it with a really specific idea, I’d probably get too set in it and not want to change it, which I think would be a bad thing. So I try to go into it with basically no preconceived notions: just a bumbling idiot full of questions (laughs).

JF: When you’re introducing yourself at the beginning, how do you start a sit-down with a celebrity? What kind of face do you think about putting on or representation do you think about putting forward in those first few moments?

CW: I just try to seem like a normal person. Before I did my first interview ever at GQ I was talking to an editor there and he gave me advice that haunts me to this day that I still think about a lot. I asked him, “Any tips as I’m about to head out the door?” And he said, “Just remember, this is the worst part of their job, they hate doing it, they’ve heard every question before, and they don’t like you.” And I was like, “Oh, OK.”

Every once in a while someone will ask me, “Do you feel like you’re friends with any of them?” It’s like, No. I know that they’re at work and I’m at work and I certainly wouldn’t want to be friends with someone who came and asked me all of these questions. And I think that’s good, in a way, because if I really wanted to be their friend I wouldn’t ask probably a quarter of the things I ask. I really try to go in and do it with the energy of someone who’s like “OK, I have two days to spend with Justin Beiber, I’m never going to see him again, this is it, any question I’ve ever had, time to throw it out.”

JF: Does it feel different or do you act differently when you do get a sense you guys are clicking versus not clicking?

CW: I would say that I’m a fairly social person in general, and I’m also not a quitter, so I basically won’t let us not click in some way, even if I’m fighting tooth and nail. I have definitely had people who, for sure, did not want to be talking to me. It’s fine for them, but I’m being paid to get them to say something, so I have to fight until the last moment, and as the ship is going down, I have to keep trying to get something out of them. So I think I probably come into it with a big energy.

JF: I imagine you wanted to write celebrity profiles, right? But you’ve kind of moved more towards this experiential storytelling, whether it’s visiting Trump hotels or visiting a glitter factory, so I’m curious about that transition. 

CW: Well it was a transition to profiles, because I got my start—my full-time paid start—at Gawker, which no longer exists, and for the most part no celebrities would talk to Gawker. So when I got the job at GQ and I was interviewing with the then-editor-in-chief Jim Nelson, he asked what I wanted to do, and I said I really wanted to try writing celebrity profiles. I love reading them, I’d never written one, and then the first one he ended up giving me was Justin Beiber. So I was like, “OK, I got what I asked for.”

The experiential stuff has just always been things that I was able to do at Gawker because it didn’t rely on publicists granting access. So I think of it as a mix. I haven’t done as many profiles now that I’m at the Times but that’s just because there are so many people working at the Times and things don’t always line up. I actually work for both the Style section and the magazine, but I would love to get back into doing more. I really enjoy doing them. 

JF: You mention moving to the Times: Obviously being at Style is its own world, but when you’re reaching out to sources for stories, how have you noticed they react differently to you being a New York Times reporter, compared to your previous stops? 

CW: Well, when I tell people where I work now, I think they pretty much always know what it is, which is very exciting and they’re not completely confused, like, “GQ, it’s a men’s magazine? Gawker, what’s that?” And I would say, sometimes, people will grant access and they’re delighted to talk to you, but other times you will get ignored or get a no. It definitely does not open every door, but I’d say it makes me feel confident going in that I’m not going to be looking crazy or I’m not going to be looking like just some random person with my Gmail address reaching out. I at least have the domain name behind me, which makes me feel good going in.

JF: Have you noticed it affect your writing style at all or your reporting style?

CW: I think I’ve pretty much been able to keep the same writing and reporting style. There are a couple things, like we can’t swear and can’t use as much caps lock. But other than that I’ve actually been really pleased with how little I think I’ve had to change my style.

I…write thinking this is the crazy version full of insane things that we’ll fix later when we’re doing the real version. And then I just always run out of time and that’s what ends up getting published.

JF: I mentioned this a little bit but I’m curious: So many of your stories are journeys you’re taking, whether it’s literally across the country, or whether it’s trying to figure something out. I’m curious if that’s a style you read or what about that you’re drawn to, in terms of style?

CW: I don’t know if it’s a style I seek out, necessarily. I’m just a big reader in general. I love reading. I read books, I read magazines, I check Twitter fiendishly. So I’m trying to think if there’s anything I really don’t like to read, because maybe that would help me figure out what I do like to read. Off the top of my head: I do try to be a really omnivorous reader: I read a science fiction book earlier this year that I loved and I am not normally a big reader of science fiction, it just appeared on some obscure library list. Some librarian from some department from some branch of the New York Public Library, I think, recommended it, and I loved it. So I think maybe to some extent I do read things that people recommend to me, but I try to give everything a chance, because it’s a good way to learn new vocabulary words, and weird facts and find topics that had never occurred to me. 

It’s kind of the same reason that I love when I’m at a party meeting people who don’t work in media. Because I just want to know, oh my gosh, what does everyone do all day at work? What’s your job? I have friends who work in banking and I have asked them so many times to explain to me: OK, you go into work and what do you do? And they’ll say “Oh, I manage portfolios.” And it’s like, ‘No, what do you click? What are you looking at? Are you sending emails? Is it a lot of spreadsheets? It seems like a lot of spreadsheets.”

I think I’m kind of just a nosy, curious person by nature, and I try to absorb everything that I can. So maybe travel appeals to me for that reason, because I like going to new places and seeing what’s what. 

JF: Do you feel like you kind of get the answers eventually or do you feel like you constantly have more questions?

CW: Both. I often find people are perfectly willing to answer your questions and then of course, the more you learn about something, the more interesting it becomes. That’s one thing that I try to keep in mind with writing: Nothing becomes less interesting because you learn more about it. So even if it seems like a topic you are not going to like that is going to be boring, it will become interesting when you can give yourself a reason to care about it and learn about it. 

JF: On the flip side of that, when you’re reading and talking to people, do you feel like you still have your professional brain on and that you’re learning? Or does it feel like you’re able to take off the professional reporter hat and still acquire the vocab and story ideas and this and that?

CW: I don’t think I’m ever putting on a different hat, I just try to listen to what people are saying and let my natural curiosity guide me. I was at a party recently with people who worked in another industry. They worked in the tech industry—but they didn’t found Airbnb or anything, they did computer stuff—and I ended up asking them, “How do you make electricity?”

And we had to keep paring it back, and it was like “No, no, before then, before then,” and eventually they were able to explain it to me like I was a child. It’s still kind of complicated: I honestly cannot remember off the top of my head how you do it. There was a point a couple weeks ago when I absolutely could have told you how electricity is physically created, but now the most I could say is that if I re-read the explanation I would understand it right away instead of having to be walked through it for 15 minutes (laughs). 

JF: You mentioned the eclectic input at parties and in reading, and I was fascinated at the opening of your story about Focus Brands, which owns Cinnabon, and what other brands?

CW: Cinnabon, Auntie Anne’s, Jamba Juice—which is, I believe, now called just “Jamba.” Carvel ice cream, and there are a few smaller chains that I didn’t have growing up in Pennsylvania so they were new to me. Let’s see if I can get them all: Moe’s, Schlotzsky’s… I think I’m forgetting one or two.

JF: McAlister’s Deli. 

CW: Oh, McAlister’s, yes. 

JF: You guys didn’t have those in Pennsylvania? We had them in North Carolina. 

CW: Yeah, yeah, yeah, I think maybe those chains are a little bit more popular in the South—the ones I wasn’t familiar with—because I had a friend from Virginia who knew all of them. 

JF: Right, so these are casual food brands, but the story opens up with Abigail and John Adams writing letters. Do you remember where you came across that or how that ended up being the top of the story?

CW: I read or heard that John Adams quote about “the generations” years ago, and I always liked it and every time it pops into my head I think, “You know what, I know exactly what he’s talking about.” So that’s just one of those things that’s always kind of floating around my head and it was like, maybe I can shoehorn it in at the top of this story. I also kind of always write thinking this is the crazy version full of insane things that we’ll fix later when we’re doing the real version. And then I just always run out of time and that’s what ends up getting published.

JF: Are there other examples that jump out to you of stuff you didn’t think was going to end up in there? I’m putting you on the spot, but anything not just in this article but in any article?

CW: Truly everything I’ve ever written. Definitely the Kim Kardashian lead for her story for GQ—I wrote that as the airplane was touching down after I had flow out to California to meet with her. We were about land and I was like, “Hm, I haven’t started writing this story yet and I want to have something to show my editor.” So I just dashed that off on my phone really fast. 

It’s so often just what I write first is what ends up being the story. I could probably count on one hand—also I have a bad memory so that’s why I could count them on one hand—the number of times I’ve completely changed, say, a lead, to something else.

The editor’s role is really to help save me from myself…and give me a word count and then renegotiate the word count with me at the 11th hour.

JF: This might sound silly, but have you tried? Is it just simply not as good when you do it, when you mess with stuff?

CW: I generally write it and if I’m OK showing it to someone, I let my editor—I have a lot of faith in editors—I’ll let my editor say, “This doesn’t work at all.” 

And if the editor is OK leaving it in—oh, the Maya Rudolph thing, that’s another good example! I wrote about Maya Rudolph for the magazine and it was like, “Oh, this probably will all get cut,” but if they are fine leaving it, I trust that their tastes are not so specific that they are the only people in the world who will react neutrally or positively to that lead. So why mess with it?

JF: So, the answer to this seems to be everything, but what does excite you now? What kinds of things, what types of things have you found are worth the time and energy to get to the bottom of, or to visit? 

CW: I don’t think it’s really changed. I think I’m such a blank slate who is basically interested in whatever. I really like watching shows like “Antiques Roadshow” where you never know what they’re going to bring up and you never know what they’re going to say, so you’re basically covering, in theory, the entire span of human history. I don’t know that they’ve ever gotten anything older than, say, 600 years old. But it’s like, OK, great, I would love to hear an expert tell me about this. That’s what I like. So I like finding out the most I can about whatever pops into my head. 

JF: You mentioned the trust in the editors and that’s so important. What role do editors play for you? Is it merely the end of that process there being the gatekeeper? What kind of role have you figured out works best with you?

CW: They are the people who receive the 200,000 words I have filed for this 800-word story and then eliminate most of them. I think I’m usually pretty good at taking edits because I’ve also been an editor, so I know how irksome it is when people really push back against edits, and unless it’s a very specific line I really, really like, I’ll generally listen to them. Because if it’s something, for instance, that they said, “Well, I really didn’t know what you meant here,” I just want to cut it. Because I can’t explain to everyone who will read it what I meant there, so if you don’t get it on first read, we should lose it or rework it. And the thing is, I also am filing so much that we definitely need to be cutting things. 

JF: And how do things work there: Do you have a word count right away? Does some stuff in print have a word count and some stuff doesn’t? How does that shake out?

CW: I always ask for one and then sometimes they’ll give me one. Often people will say “Oh, I’m so bad at word counts, I don’t know,” and I also don’t know, so if they say, like, 600 words, I will go open a random news article and copy and paste until I see about how long 600 words is. For some reason I just can’t keep it in my head. And then I also tend to write very nervously until I hit whatever that count is, and then I can kind of relax because I think: OK, no matter what I’ve written enough at this point. Then everything else after that is gravy, but unfortunately sometimes I’m writing way too long. Although I also do, again, because I’ve been an editor, like to kind of do a first edit myself and cut things where it’s just a completely ridiculous tangent, and I don’t even want to waste my editors’ time by sending them this. I would say the editor’s role is really to help save me from myself, point out what does not make sense, and give me a word count and then renegotiate the word count with me at the 11th hour.

JF: You’ve mentioned being a voracious Twitter user and I’m curious about the role the Internet at large plays in your process, whether there are times you cut it out at some point in the process you mentioned. I imagine you could have been watching YouTube videos and reading patents about glitter for months and months and months. From the idea creation phase through writing, how do you kind of mediate that relationship you have with the Internet?

CW: I use it a lot for research and really I’d say it’s most valuable to me as a portable version of the Oxford English Dictionary. I am so thankful that my library card gets me access to that: It’s such an incredible resource, it’s so fun to go through and just try to figure out what I’m trying to say.

JF: How do you use it? What are you doing in there?

CW: I’ll look up the actual definition of a word or if I need a synonym but I can’t quite think of what I’m trying to describe, I’ll enter a word that seems kind of related. Also, if you go to the thesaurus section of the OED online, they break it down in these really neat abstract categories. So it could be “emotions,” and a subcategory is “anger,” and then it says “furious anger,” and you can just keep going and it gets narrower and narrower and narrower. 

I’d say it’s maybe an inefficient way, sometimes, to do it, but it’s always interesting. I’m always learning new things and then I try to incorporate them into my vocabulary if I’m able to. I had a really good French teacher when I was little—not that I speak great French now—but she was a really interesting teacher and she was always teaching us about the connections between words, showing us how a French word is and is not related to an English word, or why it looks the same but has a totally different meaning. So I’ve always been really interested in the kind of patterns that emerge in language and the OED is a nice place to just run wild finding more of those. 

JF: Do you have a favorite entry or a recent entry that you particularly enjoyed?

CW: Recent entry, hmm. I wonder if I enter it on my computer right now, if anything would pop up. Let me see. Oh, this is funny. 

So I guess the most recent thing I looked up was the word “bustling.” So, let’s see. I would not say that’s a word I particularly care about or use often. I can’t remember why I was looking it up. I think probably in that case I didn’t want to say “bustling,” but I wanted to find a word with a similar meaning so I had to start there. 

Let’s see, what’s the etymology here, can we find it fast? Oh, interesting.

At least an early definition of it was related to “bluster.” Huh, I didn’t know that. So, yeah. I’m using it all the time and I’m always encouraging writers if they ask me for tips, I say get a library card and use the OED because it’s such an amazing resource.

JF: For me, I think that obsession over words would become a bit paralyzing in the writing process. But by writing quickly, maybe you’re able to not obsess over each and every word?

CW: Oh no, I completely obsess over each and every word. I obsess probably more than anyone I know or at least as much as the people I know who also obsess over them. 

JF: Is there a benefit to that or is it all personal?

CW: I think it’s mainly a personal benefit (laughs). There’s definitely satisfaction, especially looking at someone else’s sentence and tweaking it a little bit. I really like doing that. I love if someone wants me to look over an email—I love to look over an email (laughs). I’d say I still treat language very obsessively and I try to be a precise writer. I always tell people I’m better in writing than I am in person. 

JF: Is there anybody you love to read for the diction they use or that you find yourself getting new things out of their writing?

CW: I read recently—well a couple of years ago at this point—a book called The Magnificent Ambersons.” I think it won the Pulitzer, years and years and years ago, and so it’s very clearly an old-timey book with old-timey subject matter. But I was still laughing out loud at some of the lines because they were just so wry (laughs). They were so precise and able to be funny not quite a century later. I was really impressed by that. 

I love reading Kurt Vonnegut, I love reading Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who now writes for the Times. I guess everyone I like reading is precise with language but I’m struggling to think of a writer who is not. And maybe I’m struggling to think of them because I don’t read them. Even the friends I like instant messaging with, I’d say they’re good conversationalists, so it’s fun.

I completely obsess over each and every word.

JF: Do you keep a list of good words and sentences you come across or do you store it all mentally?

CW: I sometimes keep a list of words I didn’t know the definition of, to try to learn them. But I don’t really keep a list of words I like. That’s probably mental. But there’s a word I’ve now used this year, twice, in the Times, so I think I finally know it. It’s “choropleth map”: it’s those maps maps that use shading to show population density or income level, something like that. When I first started trying to write it, I kept writing “chloropleth,” like “chloroform,” so I’m still kind of nervous to drop it in conversation, but it’s choropleth, and I’m feel really proud that that’s now a word I know. 

And the first time I put it in the paper I got an email, or maybe even two, from people who were like, “this was very obnoxious of you to do.” But I also got an email from someone who said “Oh, I didn’t know that word, I’m so happy to know it.” And I wrote back, “That’s why I put it in, so we could learn it!”

JF: Those are your people.

CW: Right, exactly. I think if you give people enough context, that’s the thing. It’s not showing off if you are, first of all, learning the word yourself, and also trying to help other people learn the word. But I wouldn’t just say it like, “Oh you don’t know what a choropleth map is?” and never elaborate.

JF: So my last question for you: Whether it’s etymology or what someone does at a desk from nine to five, is there anything that you’ve been fascinated by that you don’t think you could write about because it’s too boring or niche? Is there any curiosity you think wouldn’t make a story?

CW: No, because if you learn about it, then it becomes interesting. That John Adams quote, if I can shoehorn that into a lead, I think I can pretty much just shove anything in there. 

Thanks for checking out The Sunday Long Read Podcast. For more conversations with writers, subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen. And for the week’s best stories delivered to your inbox every weekend, sign up for our flagship Sunday Long Read newsletter