James Braxton Peterson is a professional writer, editor, and consultant from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He provides writing and editing services, as well as consulting services for diversity, equity, and inclusion to a wide range of clients. Peterson has a PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania where his academic research focused on African American literature and black popular culture. As a columnist for The Philadelphia Citizen Peterson spent much of 2020 penning a series of articles about racial disparities in the pandemic called “The Color of Coronavirus.” Peterson continues to write about race and culture for the Citizen.
Where did the idea for your career come from?
I decided to be a writer during my graduate training when I was learning how to become an academic and a critical writer. At the same time, I really developed a quiet affinity for creative writing. Reading the great works of African-American and American literature really inspired me to want to be a creative writer. I haven’t published anything yet, but I think the desire in me comes from that impulse.
Learning how to write in a fairly intense academic setting is what sharpened my chops and allowed me to write for a lot of different venues on a lot of different subjects. I write about comic books sometimes for Comic Book Resources and Comic Crusaders, which are websites about comics. I write about politics and race sometimes. I ghostwrite for different people. I think my desire to be a writer and my versatility comes from my training in graduate school.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I’m up early these days. I’m up before the sun rises and I usually try to dive right into work. That usually involves some document editing for different clients. As the day progresses, I’ll move into the more challenging work I have to do for the day which is sometimes research around particular topics for clients or taking Zoom calls to troubleshoot different challenges that I might have with clients in terms of wherever they are in their writing project, or their diversity/equity/inclusion process. I then try to wind down around dinner time.
I’m the cook in my house and I cook dinner just about every night for my family. Even though my kids are both in college, they’re both at home right now because of the pandemic so that means I have to get back on my daily cooking game. I try to do some work in the evening after dinner time to set up my work for the next day just to make sure that I can remain productive.
How do you bring ideas to life?
The way you bring ideas to life in writing is through imagery and clarity. Some of my favorite writers are those who are concise and able to get a point across in as few words as possible. One way you do that is through imagery and trying to be as clear and concise as possible in your writing.
What’s one trend that excites you?
This is a nerdy trend, but in the world of comic books, writers and editors are making the title of many comics much longer than usual. Most folks are used to a short title like Spider-Man or Superman, but some of the cooler comic books coming out now have longer titles like We Only Find Them When They’re Dead or Something is Killing the Children. Essentially, they have sentence-long titles. I absolutely love that trend. It’s a radical departure from how comic books and graphic novels are titled, and it adds a more cinematic feel to certain genres of comics.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I am obsessed with deadlines and deliverables. As a writer you have to operate a lot behind deadlines, and as a consultant you have to be laser focused on what your deliverables are. My challenge is to not be discouraged when I don’t make the deadline but to actually use that time constraint as motivation to get the work done.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Be patient. Keep working hard. Life is going to give you some devastating blows, and it’s really going to be all about how you recover from them.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
iPhone are not the best phones. The Google Pixel is really one of the best phones, and very few people agree with me on that.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I’m always in a position of wanting to listen and learn. I want to learn from other successful entrepreneurs, obviously, and to listen and learn from my clients about what their needs are. I like to run my mouth a lot, but the best strategy as an entrepreneur is to really be a great listener and an avid learner.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Being patient with word-of-mouth referrals and really understanding that doing good work and having the talent to do good work is what will build my business. Now that doesn’t work for all kinds of businesses, but my business is really a referral business, and that means I have to be patient with it and understand the ebbs and flows in a way that makes it sustainable over time.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I think I’ve had failures in the past based upon communication. A lot of the work that I have to do is collaborative with clients. I think I’m much more deliberate about that now, and much more detail oriented about communication processes and the work that I have to do.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I think there is a need for a professional interface with new technologies in order to assist with editing. For example, every streaming service that I watch needs better editors for the subtitles and the closed captioning. I don’t know how that business works, but every service needs it. When I look at websites or things I read on a regular basis, I often think we need more editors in the world. There’s just no question about that. Editing is needed in the tech space because technology requires words, and I get the feeling that there are not enough writers and editors in that space.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
Quiet as it’s kept, I am an art collector. My wife and I recently purchased an original piece of art from Kyle Baker, who is a comic book artist who worked on one of my favorite graphic novels. It was the artist’s proof of a work that he did for that graphic novel. That has got be the best $100 that we spent recently.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
GoodNote. It’s an Apple app on my iPad that you can use to take notes. You can use the Apple pencil and you can write the notes out and it will transcribe them as typed text. You can bring in little images and avatars to make your notes more interactive. It takes a little while to get used to but it’s a pretty cool and productive way to take notes.
I have to take notes for a lot of different things, and I have usually used a regular notebook for this, but over the years I have gone through so many notebooks. I realized the best practice for me going forward is to digitize it, and GoodNote is the software that I now use for that.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
Every American should read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. It’s a short book, but it is brilliantly and beautifully written by Douglass. Given where we are in this nation right now, it provides some insights into American history that are invaluable for all American citizens.
What is your favorite quote?
One of my favorite quotes is from James Baldwin in one of his many interviews about writing and art in general. He says: “. . . if you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover, too, the terms with which they are connected to other people.”
• Writing is the lifeblood of life. It’s at the core of a lot of professions, human interaction, and all kinds of communication. We undervalue writing at our own peril.
• No matter how long the haul, hard work and dedication to craft will always pay off.
• I think that what I’ve learned in life is that there’s a lot of twists and turns along the way but you have to stay focused on faith and family because those are the things that will get you through it all.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.