AJ Jacobs on Accepting Challenges and Crafting Compelling Writing

AJ Jacobs is a bestselling author, editor at large for Esquire magazine, contributor to many high profile publications, and occasional lecturer. He has a habit of attempting impressive feats in his books- ranging from reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannia to becoming a human guinea pig and subjecting himself to a litany of radical lifestyle experiments.

Below, AJ shares tips on pursuing impressive feats of your own, contributing to sought-after publications, promoting books, and creating engaging work that sparks readers' interest.

Photo of AJ Jacobs by Julie Jacobs

Photo by Julie Jacobs

One of the biggest barriers between people and their dream jobs is a willingness to take risks and try new things. As someone who has tried everything from living Biblically to becoming the healthiest person in the world, what advice can you give to people who have trouble drumming up nerve and initiative?

I always say that pretending has a lot of power. If you don't feel courageous, pretend you are courageous. Ask yourself what would a courageous person do, and do that. There's a great quote from the founder of Habitat For Humanity: "It's easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting."

Did Simon & Schuster reach out to you about The Know-It-All, or did you reach out to them? Did you have an agent at the time?

I reached out to them. I had the idea because my dad started to read the encyclopedia when I was a kid. I did have an agent at the time, because I had done some smaller books, like one called "America Off-Line."

Have your experiences with high profile publications, radio programs, and television shows been sparked by personal relationships, out-of-the-blue pitches you sent, or inquiries from editors and producers? What advice would you give to writers, entrepreneurs, and authors who aspire to appear on or contribute to these channels?

A little of both. It definitely helps to make connections. So go to cocktail parties, conferences, meetups if you can. But I also did out of the blue pitches. The key is to have a fully formed idea, not just "I wrote this book, put me on TV." More like, "I wrote this book, and would love to do an article on 5 Ways to Keep Your Skin Healthy (or whatever the topic is).

How has your experience as a contributor to various publications and an editor at large for Esquire helped you better promote your books (i.e. What have you learned about effectively pitching story ideas and interviews)?

One key thing? When pitching an editor or producer, be familiar with their work. And compliment them on something specific they worked on. People love the compliments! (As long as it's sincere, or semi-sincere).

Given that your books and articles really resonate with audiences, what advice would you give to nonfiction writers who seek to create compelling, engaging work?

A couple of things, which are certainly far from original.

  1. Tell the truth. Be okay with exposing your flaws. You have to learn to be vulnerable.
  2. Try to think about your story like you've never heard of the topic before. Try to approach it with the fresh eyes that a reader/customer might have.