Im Melinda Wenner Moyer, Author of How to Raise Kids Who Arent Assholes, and This Is How I Work

Whenever I’m stressed by feeling “too busy,” I often look to writers who seem to have a supernatural ability to get things done. One of them is Melinda Wenner Moyer, a science journalist who has found time to finish her manuscript, launch a newsletter, and keep me updated about all of it on Twitter—even during a pandemic.

Of course, Melinda’s not supernatural, but she does have a knack for efficiency, which can be both a gift and a curse. Her book How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes is coming out soon, and has the type of title that balances authority (she wrote a parenting column for years) with down-t0-earth pragmatism. I spoke with her about how she gets things done, manages distractions from her kids, and who inspires her to get things done.

I’d love to hear what your work life was like before the pandemic, and what it looks like now. How has it changed?

I have pretty much always worked from home (except while on reporting trips), from a small desk in the corner of the bedroom. Before the pandemic, my kids (now nine and six) would get on the school bus at 8:15 a.m. Then I would exercise, and then I would work from 9:15 a.m. until 6:30 p.m. (the kids got home from school at 3:30 and then we had an after-school nanny). My husband usually left for work around 7 a.m. and came home around 7:30pm.

Once the pandemic hit, from March through August the kids were home, as was my husband, and we had no nanny, so work life was much more chaotic. I would have maybe three or four solo work hours during the official work day—an hour on, an hour off, with my husband and I alternating work time versus kid duty. That said, I often sacrificed one of my allotted work hours to take a walk or exercise. I needed alone time.

Also, I won’t lie: I was often trying to work while I was on kid duty, so that meant working from the kitchen table with at least one child in my face, interrupting me every three minutes asking for snacks. I never thought I’d be able to do that, but I guess our brains find ways to adapt. (I now realize—because it just happened while I was typing this—that when I hear my kids talking to me while I’m writing, I somehow switch off my ears, finish my train of thought, and then turn my ears back on again and engage with them.)

I wrote a bunch of New York Times pieces over the spring/summer while my kids were right there, constantly interrupting. (I remember one time—and I think I only remember it because I wrote about it —I was helping my son with a science project while my daughter was asking me how to spell “mermaid” while I was browning meat for dinner while a source was calling me. Literally all at the same time.) I also did a lot of writing at night, from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. or so. I actually enjoyed my evening writing blocks, because they were the only ones that were longer than an hour and uninterrupted.

I’m pretty surprised at how productive I managed to stay during this time. I think maybe it was because I was sticking to simpler stories that I could report and write over a 2-3 day period, and those somehow felt manageable. And I felt like work kept me sane in some important way. I know many, many parents who simply couldn’t focus on work during the early months of the pandemic, and I 100% understand why. But for some reason, I craved work. I needed it.

Starting in September, the kids went back to school in-person, and I’ve been able to work fairly normal hours again. Still a lot less than pre-COVID, but it feels amazing. I know I am incredibly fortunate. So many other parents are still in the impossible situation of having to juggle work, plus kids at home, plus remote school, and I feel for them every day.

Your book is called How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes. Where did you come up with that? Did your kids do something particularly asshole-ish?

The journey to my book was an interesting one. I’ve wanted to write a book for about a decade but have never been able to settle on the right idea. Meanwhile, all my friends kept asking, “why don’t you write a parenting book?” because I’d written a parenting column for Slate since 2012 and this kind of writing came naturally to me. But I always scoffed at the idea, and I think it came down to sexism: I knew that parenting writing wasn’t taken seriously—people often refer to it as “mommy blogging,” after all—and dammit, I wanted to be taken seriously as a science journalist. I just never seriously considered it.

Fast forward to October 2018, when Brett Kavanaugh was being confirmed. I was really upset to be living in a country in which so many millions of Americans were eager to confirm someone to the highest court who had just been accused of sexual assault. Trump had also just mocked Christine Blasey Ford on national TV.

I was horrified that our country seemed to celebrate and reward assholes, and that these assholes were the powerful role models that my kids were learning from. As a mother, what I wanted more than anything else was to make sure that my own children didn’t grow up to be assholes, too. I was out to dinner with my husband for our anniversary and I remember thinking about Kavanaugh, sighing, and then blurting out, “I should just write a book called How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes.” It honestly just came out of nowhere. Then my husband and I looked at each other, and he said “that’s it!”

I contacted my agent the next day and started writing the proposal that week. (I had also, by the way, just finished another book proposal on a totally different topic that I realized I didn’t want to pursue, so it was really funny timing. My email to my agent was basically “Hi, let’s trash that other idea, I don’t like it anymore, and also I have a new one!” I’m amazed he stuck with me.)

As for why this particular parenting idea stuck—I think it’s because I realized that a parenting book like this could be quite meaningful and important. It dawned on me that parents actually have a lot of power—by shaping our children’s character, we can collectively shape our country’s character. I wanted to help parents do that.

When you have a lightbulb moment and are excited about a new project, how do you keep momentum and keep from being distracted by the next big idea?

I often find that once I dig into the reporting of a piece, I just get more and more fascinated, and I have more and more questions I want answered. That curiosity keeps me going. That said, sometimes the excitement lags. I often try to break down stories into smaller deadlines: by next week I want to have finished my interviews; by the following Wednesday I will have finished reading the relevant studies and gotten my transcripts in order. Having those smaller deadlines to hold me accountable makes a difference, because I love that feeling of having checked things off.

Sometimes I even create spreadsheets or to-do lists so I can cross things out one by one and see that progress visually. When I’m really struggling, I think about my sources, especially if it’s an investigative piece or a story in which sources have taken risks or have made other sacrifices to talk to me. I owe it to them to keep pushing forward and get the piece out there.

One time during the pandemic I needed to dig back into a very dark and sad piece to make a revision. The thought of engaging with the topic really turned me off. So I first made tiny goals: to work on the piece for just 10 minutes a day for a few days. And then when I was finished with the 10 minutes, I would take a break and then work on something else. Knowing that I only had to look at the piece for that short period of time really helped—and by about the third day I was dying to spend more time on it, and I finished the revision soon after.

With two kids, you’re often in a loud environment. Do you have strategies for blocking out distractions and focusing when there’s so much noise?

Sometimes I turn on my phone’s white noise app to block out distractions. When it’s really loud, I’ll put in earbuds with white noise. I have also been known to strategically relocate my children when they are doing loud activities.

Are there any other platforms or apps you use to help manage your workflow?

No, I just always have in my head when a particular deadline is and what the structure and scope of the piece dictate in terms of who I need to talk to and what other research I need to do. Then I work backwards and calculate when the various steps need to happen.

For organizing my research, though, I adore Scrivener. I used it not only for my book, but also for big features. I love how it visually organizes everything, and makes everything easy to find. I also now use Otter.ai transcription software so I don’t have to spend hours transcribing interviews. And I’ve recently started using the Night Shift setting on my iPhone to reduce how much blue light I see in the hours before going to bed. I think it’s helping me fall asleep faster.

Do you have any tools or gadgets you just can’t live without?

My neck/back massager and my heating pad, for sure. I herniated a disc in my lower back in 2013 and I’ve had issues pop up since from time to time. (Election week was especially bad.) I’m also always cold, so the heating pad does double duty—I use it to calm my back and also keep me warm. I also have a large external monitor set exactly at eye level so that I don’t strain my neck while I work. And a phone headset so that I can type while I talk. I couldn’t live without that!

I also love my Kindle, which I use to read books both for work and for pleasure. It’s great because I can read in the dark even after my husband goes to bed. I do sometimes buy hard copies of books, in part because I want to support my local bookstore, but I love the convenience of the Kindle, which I’m certain gets me to read more than I otherwise would.

Do you have any favorite shortcuts or life hacks that make your work and/or family life easier?

I’m always trying to be productive and thinking of ways to be more efficient. Put another way—and this is not a good thing, really, and my therapist hounds me for it—I almost never relax. If I’m overseeing my six-year-old’s shower, I’m also using the time to update my professional Instagram or catch up on Twitter. When I clean up the kitchen, I often listen to news podcasts. If I’m waiting for curbside grocery pick-up, I’m on my phone shopping for Christmas gifts. If I sit down to work and I realize I can’t dig into that gnarly feature, I’ll brainstorm productive things I can actually handle (like maybe answering the latest Lifehacker interview email). On the weekends, I rarely sit down. I’m always fretting around trying to do something useful. It’s probably pathological.

One big thing I did about six years ago was to switch entirely to home workouts. I didn’t want to waste time driving to and from the gym. I do Suzanne Bowen’s barre workouts, and honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been stronger. They also save me money. It’s been wonderful during the pandemic to not have to completely overhaul my workout routine. I still work out with her six days a week, and I really appreciate that I’ve been able to keep that sense of normalcy.

This isn’t to say that I don’t allow myself hobbies (although my husband always says I need more). In the afternoons, I’ll sometimes stop work early to make elaborate dinners, because I love cooking and sitting down to comforting meals with my family. I bake a lot on the weekends (and make ice cream nearly every week). Those things aren’t productive in a career sense, but they’re productive in a give-me-joy kind of way.

What lesson have you learned from the pandemic that you’re going to take with you when we’re eventually released fully back into the world?

I started taking long walks during the pandemic (while listening to podcasts, of course) and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. They get me outside and have connected me with my neighborhood in ways that I love—for instance, I often see neighbors gardening and we always wave hello.

I have also learned that I basically never need to use a hair dryer. My hair is just fine when it air-dries. More time saved!

Finally, I’ve learned that shorter pieces can be just as rewarding as big deep-dive features, and are often more efficient and lucrative. For many months of the pandemic, I couldn’t wrap my head around big stories and only took on quick-turnaround pieces, and my income went up quite a bit, which was really interesting.

Who else would you be curious to know how they work?

Oh, that’s easy. I have three, and they’re all working mothers. One is Brown University economist Emily Oster. She teaches, she does economics research, she writes a regular newsletter, and recently she undertook a huge research project to track the spread of COVID-19 in U.S. schools. She’s written two very successful parenting books, too.

The second is New York Times magazine contributor Taffy Brodesser-Akner. When her novel Fleishman Is In Trouble came out, she seemed to be everywhere at once, doing everything at once. But not only is she insanely productive, her writing reads as if she spent four years on every sentence. It feels like every piece of hers breaks an unwritten rule in journalism, but is always so much better for it. I want to know how she manages to be so productive and also so original.

Finally, there’s New York Times science reporter Apoorva Mandavilli. Throughout the pandemic she’s been writing multiple breaking-news science stories a day, often on rather gnarly topics, and I wonder if she ever sleeps.