Working by Robert Caro Summary

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Working by Robert A. Caro
Researching, Interviewing, Writing

My Thoughts

Robert Caro’s biographies, The Power Broker about Robert Moses, and the series on Lyndon Johnson are among my favorite books. His explanation of his writing process is fascinating. Especially his thoughts on how he prepares to write a book, outlining, and how he counts and charts his words written at the end of every day.

Key Questions

  • Series of questions he likes to ask when interviewing people for biographies:
  • What did you see?
  • But what did you see?
  • What does that mean?
  • What else did you see?
  • What does that mean?
  • What else did you see?

General Notes

Robert Caro’s Writing and Outline Process

Robert cannot start writing a book until he has thought it through and can see it whole in his mind.
Before he starts writing the book he boils it down to 1-3 paragraphs.
That process might take weeks.
He writes and re-writes the paragraphs over and over again. The paragraph(s) must state a cohesive narrative theme of what he is trying to accomplish with the book.
Boiling the book down to a paragraph or two is terribly hard. Once you get it, the whole next seven years [or time that is taken to write the book] is easier.

He turns the paragraph(s) into an outline of the whole book.
Example, the fifth volume of his Lyndon Johnson biography has a 27 page typed outline.

Next, he types an outline of each chapter.
A long chapter may have a seven-page outline.
The outline is the chapter in brief without any of the supporting evidence.

Each chapter gets a notebook. He fills the notebook with all of the material he wants to use, quotations, and facts from all of the research he has done.

Every digression must come back to the theme, and have the theme in the digression, to maintain the unity of the story.

Example paragraph of The Path to Power narrative theme.
Tries to show what the country was like that Lyndon Johnson came out of. Why he wanted so badly to get out of it. How he got out of it, and how he got his first national power in Washington through the use of money.

Robert writes and re-writes everything he writes over and over.

Robert Caro’s Schedule

Robert generally gets up at 7 a.m. and walks to work through central park, outlining the first paragraphs that he is going to write that day.
As he gets into writing a chapter, he gets more and more excited, he wants to get in there and write so he starts getting up earlier and earlier.
He starts every day by re-reading what he wrote the day before.
If he is doing the research, he will have lunch with friends, but if he is writing he eats a sandwich at his desk.
He wears a jacket and a tie to work to remind him that it is a job.
He tries to write 1,000 words every day, at least three pages per day. He counts his words at the end of every day, he counts the lines at 10 words per line. He keeps a chart on his door to track his progress daily.

When interviewing eyewitnesses, he will ask the same question over and over, often 5 or 6 times, before getting to an answer.
Example: What did you see? But what did you see? What does that mean? What else did you see? What does that mean? What else did you see?

Related Book Summaries

Hope you enjoyed this and got value from my notes.
This is the 25th book read in my 2019 reading list.
Here is a list of my book summaries.

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