Q&A: Physicist turned Cracked.com columnist

flickr.com/photos/fastlizard4/5953113143/ flickr.com/photos/fastlizard4/5953113143/

Luke McKinney did what anybody with three degrees in Physics would do: he became a humor writer for Cracked.com. Wait, what? Read on to find out about Luke’s career path and why he describes his job as “getting paid to be excited about learning”.

When did you become interested in humor writing?

luke bio I’ve always been interested in humor and physics. I’d planned on an academic career right from the start, so I never considered comedy as anything but fun, but over time I found myself doing more and more.

Sticking up satirical safety posters around the lab, writing comedy academic papers, spending far too long on article-length e-mails to friends in other parts of the world.

Humor makes everything better, especially when you’re working.

What path did you take in college?

I first went to college to do computer science, but changed to physics, figuring that I could always buy a computer for my home, but a high-energy laser system was less likely to be in my personal budget. Physics became my entire life plan. I never doubted that I’d be an academic, a professor poking reality and then telling people about. Over time that morphed into a focus on lecturing as I learned how much I enjoyed interacting with people and telling stories. That evolved its final form when I became a humor writer instead.

You have to write every day, and if you can invent some way to write more often than that, do that too. And tell me how.
Why physics?

Existing! Physics is everything. It’s the fundamental truth of existence, and our most powerful tool for making the most of doing so. It’s the satisfaction of solving an abstract puzzle coupled with the achievement of doing things that don’t just change but actually are the world. And since it obeys rules and equations, it’s really quite simple compared to things like people and emotions. But we’re all expected to work with those every day.

Last year, you were an author on a paper studying the “ablation and thermal effects in treatment of hard and soft materials and biotissues using ultrafast-laser pulse-train bursts”. What on Earth was that all about?

That’s using some work I did back in university. The lab has an interesting tweak on laser processing. Longer pulses can ablate material but cause thermal effects in the material left behind, melting and burning the surrounding area, while ultrafast pulses can vaporise the target material so neatly the surrounding material doesn’t even notice it’s gone. By using thousands of ultrafast pulses so that they’re spread over that longer timescale, you can neatly remove the target material while causing controlled thermal treatment of the borders left behind. The idea is that would be useful for annealing materials (I was working on fused silica), or cauterization in surgery. I haven’t been involved in that for a while though.

How long have you been writing for Cracked.com and the CBS Man Cave?

I got my first article into Cracked six years ago. Being contacted by Cracked changed my life. Until then the idea of being paid for writing simply hadn’t occurred to me. They’re brilliant about giving people a chance to get paid for words – anyone interested should check out http://www.cracked.com/write-for-cracked/. I’ve been writing for CBS Man Cave for a year and a half.

Do you write every day?

Of course! You have to write every day, and if you can invent some way to write more often than that, do that too. And tell me how. As a freelancer the real challenge is remembering to do something useful other than writing every day as well.

That’s why scientific training is so powerful: it permanently upgrades the your brain, and everything you do with it from then on.
Do you write for other publications?

Yes, as many as will have me. Right now my other clients include GameGavel.com, Outfunny.com, and a bunch of others, including copywriting firms. You, person reading, do you want to hire a writer? Contact me at luke@lukemckinney.org.

How often do you rely on your Physics background when writing columns?

Always. I also rely on it when I’m mixing drinks or walking down the street. Scientific training improves your brain. It isn’t a set of equations, it’s a system for interacting with the world. It helps you solve problems, develop thoughts and avoid mistaking desire or laziness for facts and reasons.

How much research do you find yourself doing for a typical column?

As much as possible in the time available.

There’s a great tip by Teller (of Penn &), he says “Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth.” He’s talking about magic, but it applies to everything. Don’t measure out your effort in terms of how much you’re getting paid, or how long the piece should be. Make as much effort as you possibly can. This piece is a piece of you, sent out into the world to stand alone, and it won’t be able to say “This one was rushed” or “They weren’t paying much”. Or if it does say those things to a reader, that’s even worse.

There are a lot of pieces where you can tell that someone reached the desired word count and thought “done”. In my favorite columns, my first draft was triple or quadruple the final word count, which is brilliant, because I can brutally compress and combine and cut and cut and cut until what’s left is the best. Then, of course, you cut some more.

Michaelangelo talked about cutting away the bits of marble that weren’t statue. Writers have to do that too, but they have to squeeze out the two ton chunk of marble in the first place. As you’d imagine, that can be painful. So painful many people think that’s the work. But that’s just the start.

If your article contains everything you know about a subject, it’s immediately obvious. And not in a good way.

To be good at what you do, which do you need more: writing skills or a sense of humor?

They’re not separable in that way. People like to think of brains as little Dungeons & Dragons characters, with different skills and abilities they can level up independently, but it’s a single super-connected network. Everything you put in gets processed and blended and affects everything that it comes out. How good you are at anything subtly influences how good you are at everything else. That’s why scientific training is so powerful: it permanently upgrades the your brain, and everything you do with it from then on.

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