Founding editor of Quartz Africa and the current editor for strategic initiatives at Rest of World, Yinka Adegoke, believes strongly in ideas: ‘A competent writer with a great idea will often end up with a great story while a great writer with a decent idea will end up with a good story—at best.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I read a wide range of children’s books in my much younger years from the Terrance Dicks novel adaptations of the TV series, Doctor Who, to the post-war Enid Blyton staples. In my early teens, I started dipping into my dad’s books and I remember reading Alex Haley’s Roots years after the original TV series had aired. But a lot of what I read back then was what one might loosely call ‘airport novels’; so lots of Robert Ludlum (Bourne Identity), Arthur Hailey (Hotel and Airport) and Len Deighton (The IPCRESS File). In school, I was introduced to Charles Dickens and Shakespeare but importantly, also to Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something?
Pretty much everything I spend time with changes my mind in some small or marginal way, otherwise it almost wasn’t worth reading. I don’t remember any big changes recently, but I do remember quite vividly how I felt after reading Alex Haley’s Malcolm X biography as a young man. It was both eye-opening and energizing.
Reading Dillibe Onyeama’s Nigger at Eton as a teenager didn’t so much change my mind as it exposed the crude ordinariness of the British ruling classes in a way I hadn’t considered before then.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I’m not sure I have a defined process. I’m a great believer in the strength of an idea. If you have a really strong idea and the research/data/anecdotes to flesh it out, your story will flow onto the page with minimal effort—and then you can edit for grammar and fact-checking afterwards.
What’s the greatest story /piece of journalism you’ve ever read?
I don’t have any one book or piece of journalism I’d describe as the ‘greatest’. But every few years I return to the ‘African Trilogy’ edition of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God—the latter is particularly underrated. The three novels help me remember some of the core existential questions about Nigeria and modern Africa. I think returning to a 500-page collection every few years is the highest compliment I could pay an author.
We have many great writers across the continent but next to no world class outlets for telling our stories.
What’s a common misconception about African journalism/African storytelling?
This question requires a book, which I might one day write. The misconception from conversations I have in New York might be that there aren’t great journalists in Africa. The short version is we have many great writers across the continent but next to no world class outlets for telling our stories.
It means African journalists and writers who want to succeed on the global stage have to adapt their writing and reporting to the demands of the outside world. This produces exceptional talent in places but too few to really influence the overall storytelling and change long-held perceptions anytime soon. Newer publications like The Republic and The Elephant in Kenya are among those trying to help change that as well as hybrid models like we had at Quartz Africa, but more is needed.
As an editor, what’s more important to you: the story or how it is written/produced?
The most important thing to me is the idea. I covet writers and colleagues who have great ideas. Great story ideas take care of themselves because everyone wants to be part of something potentially great and we collaborate to make it happen even against the odds. Of course, most of the time we’re dealing with good ideas, not great and sometimes they’re about topics which don’t necessarily grab the average reader. This is when how it’s written and produced becomes ever more important with strong writing, catchy pull quotes, illuminating charts and (over?) ambitious headlines.
My belief is that a competent writer with a great idea will often end up with a great story while a great writer with a decent idea will end up with a good story—at best.
When you work on a story, what’s the most exciting for you: the process, the end result or audience feedback?
The reporting process can definitely be exciting, particularly for more investigative stories, when you get that breakthrough like when a key source finally returns your call and drops a gem which changes the whole trajectory of your report. The end result of what a story looks like on page is almost always satisfying. Audience feedback can be pleasing especially from people who probably know the topic better than you but reach out to say they learned something new from your writing. But this shouldn’t ever be the reason a journalist reports a story.
What is the most important contribution an editor makes to a piece?
Helping the writer with focus and clarity in their storytelling, shutting out the noise and challenging their biases and preconceived notions. A good editor should also be dispassionate about what the story needs to work while at the same time being passionate about bringing the story to fruition.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
That the word ‘that’ is often redundant as it is in this sentence.
Who’s an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
I’m excited to follow the career of Oyinkan Braithwaite after I read My Sister, the Serial Killer in one (long) flight from Cape Town to New York, a couple of years ago.
Who are the journalists you’re most excited about today (and why?)
As someone who cares deeply, as stated earlier, about developing and growing the pool of African talent, I’m always excited about the next set of young African journalists coming through and how I might be able to help them grow. I’m not just keen on seeing the writing or reporting talent, but look out for integrity, genuine naivete and passion about their craft. I can’t name individuals to avoid future hiring conflicts ;-), but regardless of my direct relationship I just want to see more young Africans take this trade seriously and to do so with care.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
For reading these days, it’s been American and African history and especially the way they intersect. I’m currently reading Howard French’s fascinating Born in Blackness and recently finished Heather McGee’s excellent The Sum of Us. I enjoy these themes beyond the traditional book or journalism formats, so I also explore podcasts and newsletters like African History Extra by Isaac Samuel and Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American.
The most important thing to me is the idea. I covet writers and colleagues who have great ideas.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a series of columns exploring the fallout in the African tech space from the downturn in the global venture capital world.
Question from Lennon Mhishi: Do you have a specific reader in mind when you write?
As a journalist, it often depends on what publication I’m writing for. For Rest of World, I’m writing for a globally aware reader who wants to understand the impact of tech in emerging markets. That person could be someone from that region, in the diaspora, or a person who has business/social interests there.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft:
When do you accept that an idea or concept you had in mind to write will definitely not work?⎈
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