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Why author Adam Winkler doesn’t wait for inspiration to start writing

Our October pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club, “Now Read This” is Adan Winkler’s “We the Corporations.” Become a member of the book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.

"We the Corporations" by Adam Winkler

The day the Citizens United decision came down in 2010 — when the Supreme Court ruled that corporations could spend money to influence elections — law professor Adam Winkler knew immediately what his next book would be about. He’d trace the history, much of it unknown, of how corporations had won many of the same constitutional rights as individuals.

Eight years later, Winkler published “We the Corporations,” a startling history of corporate power and influence, a National Book Award finalist, and this month’s book club pick.

Below, Winkler shares his daily writing routine (he says it’s more work than art), the one book he’d recommend to mostly everyone (hint: it’s by Bill Bryson), and the best writing advice he’s ever received (mostly, keep it simple). Read more from Winkler below.

1. What is your daily writing routine?

When working on a book, I try to make it as much like a 9 to 5 job as possible. I sit down at the computer every weekday morning and begin to write, even if I feel blocked or don’t have much to say. There is tremendous value in keeping at it, writing because I have to, not waiting until inspiration hits. Often it is just the process of writing that sparks inspiration. I have found this routine works best if I ignore email, the Web, and my phone. Writing may seem like an art form to some, but for me it’s a job that requires discipline and structure.

2. What is your favorite childhood book? Or one book you think everyone should read?

One book I find myself returning to over and over again is Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” It is a masterpiece of nonfiction storytelling, bringing the history of scientific discovery to life by recounting the stories of how the discoveries were first made. The result is that the reader learns about the biggest, most complicated ideas in science, but in the most enjoyable way: by learning about the often unusual and quirky people behind them. I’m not sure everyone should read it, but I’ve returned to it so many times you might say I’ve read it enough for everyone.

3. What is something you’ve seen, watched or read that you think is overlooked and deserves more attention?

I think the historical materials around the adoption of the 14th Amendment are overlooked and deserve more attention. Americans are often obsessed with the “Founding” generation, with legal scholars emphasizing the original understanding of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, and historians filling our bookshelves with biographies of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton. But the Founders’ handiwork didn’t last, and ultimately led to the Civil War. The Reconstruction Amendments – the 13th, 14th, and 15th – radically overhauled American government and is appropriately called the “Second Founding.” Yet how many Americans know of Bingham, Stevens, and Howard? Garrett Epps’s “Democracy Reborn” is a good place to start.

4. What is the best piece of writer’s advice you’ve received?

The best advice on writing I’ve received was to write simple and straightforward sentences. When I first imagined myself as a writer, I thought I needed elaborate prose that made each sentence sing. Instead, I now try to pare down my sentences. Short and clear is better than complex and florid. This leads me to drop many adjectives and adverbs, which can weigh down a sentence. One other piece of advice I’ve followed is to always write with a thesaurus open next to me; it is an author’s best friend.

5. Can you describe the moment you knew you wanted to write this particular book? And when did you know it was over?

The day in 2010 when the Supreme Court issued the “Citizens United” decision, I knew I would write the book that became “We the Corporations.” In the 1990s and early 2000s, I had written extensively on campaign finance laws limiting corporate spending. But few other legal scholars were writing on that topic. After I received tenure at UCLA School of Law, I decided to focus on other, more high-profile issues, like the Second Amendment. As I was finishing my book on guns (“Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America”), Citizens United came down. I knew right then what my next book would be about: the hidden history of how corporations won constitutional rights. I knew the writing of the book was over when my editor said, “Enough. You’re done.” I’m still not sure he was right.

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