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Draft No. 4 | On The Writing Process by John McPhee

10 November, 2022 - 7 min read


I. Brief Summary

McPhee is an American writer. He is considered one of the pioneers of creative nonfiction. He is a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A collection of linked essays that detail various aspects of McPhee's approach to "creative non-fiction." All of these essays appeared in The New Yorker. McPhee understands how to give readers enough, but not too much.

II. Big Ideas

  • Main takeaways:

    • Start by writing a great lead.
    • A thousand details add up to one impression.
    • Great writing is done four times over.
    • Writing is selection. Only keep the most interesting parts.
    • Never market research your writing. Write about what interests you.
  • Readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones. And I hope this structure illustrates what I take to be a basic criterion for all structures—they should not be imposed upon the material. They should arise from within it.
  • Eliminate distractions. Focus on one element of the story at a time.
  • Writing a successful lead can illuminate the structure problem for you and cause you to see the piece whole–to see it conceptually, in various parts, to which you then assign your materials. You find your lead, you build your structure, you are now free to write.
  • Always write your lead (redoing it and polishing it until you are satisfied that it will serve) before you go at the big pile of raw material and sort it into a structure.
  • Writing is a matter strictly of developing oneself.
  • Don’t rely on memory.

III. Quotes

  • No one will ever write in just the way that you do, or in just the way that anyone else does. Because of this fact, there is no real competition between writers. What appears to be competition is actually nothing more than jealousy and gossip. Writing is a matter strictly of developing oneself. You compete only with yourself. You develop yourself by writing.
  • A piece of writing has to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there.
  • It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.
  • I’d much rather watch people do what they do than talk to them across a desk.
  • Another mantra, which I still write in chalk on the blackboard, is “A Thousand Details Add Up to One Impression.” It’s actually a quote from Cary Grant.
  • Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft.
  • Writers come in two principal categories -- those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure.
  • A lead is good not because it dances, fires cannons, or whistles like a train but because it is absolute to what follows.
  • Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word?
  • For nonfiction projects, ideas are everywhere. They just go by in a ceaseless stream.
  • The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus.
  • If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you “just love to write,” you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists?” And unless you can identify what is not succeeding—unless you can see those dark clunky spots that are giving you such a low opinion of your prose as it develops—how are you going to be able to tone it up and make it work?
  • “Norman Maclean called A River Runs Through It fiction, and the word “fiction” appeared in the book’s front matter. A River Runs Through It was autobiographical fact in nearly all aspects but one. For private reasons, the author had shifted the site of his brother’s murder and, being Norman Maclean, considered that change and others quite enough fabrication to disqualify the text as nonfiction.”
  • It is possible in managing a quote--not to say manipulating a quote--to present something that is both verbatim and false.
  • When you have writer’s block. You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair.
  • The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something–anything–out in front of me.
  • You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you only have one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in–if not, it stays out.
  • Forget market research. Never market research your writing. Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.
  • In complex situations, quotations, fairly handled, can help keep judgement in the eye of the beholder.
  • Another way to prime the pump is to write by hand.
  • As a nonfiction writer, you could not change the facts of the chronology, but with verb tenses and other forms of clear guidance to the reader you were free to do a flashback if you thought one made sense in presenting the story.
  • The lead—like the title—should be a flashlight that shines down into the story. A lead is a promise. It promises that the piece of writing is going to be like this.
  • The title is an integral part of a piece of writing, and one of the most important parts, and ought not to be written by anyone but the writer of what follows the title.
  • I have no technique for asking questions. I just stay there and fade away as I watch people do what they do.
  • If you look for allusions and images that have some durability, your choices will stabilize your piece of writing. Don’t assume that everyone on earth has seen every movie you have seen.
  • In the making of a long piece of factual writing, errors will occur, and in ways invisible to the writer.
  • Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again—top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time.
  • What is creative about nonfiction? It takes a whole semester to try to answer that, but here are a few points: The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and the touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece (does it get up and walk around on its own?), the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material, and so forth. Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.
  • Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material—that much and no more.