Writing Advice from John McPhee

From one of my all-time favorite writers of nonfiction, here are some excellent tips for all writers:

  • “You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages.”
  • “Readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones.”
  • “Often, after you have reviewed your notes many times and thought through your material, it is difficult to frame much of a structure until you write a lead. You wade around in your notes, getting nowhere. You don’t see a pattern. You don’t know what to do. So stop everything. Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead.”
  • “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.”
  • “I always know where I intend to end before I have much begun to write.”
  • “Editors are counselors and can do a good deal more for writers in the first-draft stage than at the end of the publishing process.”
  • “If I am in someone’s presence and attempting to conduct an interview, I am wishing I were with Kafka on the ceiling. I’d much rather watch people do what they do than talk to them across a desk.”
  • “Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license.”
  • “Writing is selection. When you are making notes you are forever selecting. I left out more than I put down.”
  • “I have never published anything on a science that has not been vetted by the scientists involved.”
  • “Writing has to be fun at least once in a pale blue moon.”
  • “If you look for allusions and images that have some durability, your choices will stabilize your piece of writing.”
  • “In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day — yes, while you sleep — but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists.”
  • “With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of — at least ninety-nine to one.”
  • “If something interests you, it goes in — if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got.”
  • “Forget market research. Never market-research your writing.”
  • “I scoop up, say, ten times as much stuff as I’ll ultimately use.”
  • “Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.”

 

 

I’m going to recommend his latest book, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, before I’ve even read it!

About SSH

Philadelphia native and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell, Shaw Homer has lived in Costa Rica for over 30 years, where she has taught languages and worked for environmental NGOs. In addition to writing for the local press, her fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in both print and on-line literary and travel journals, as well as on her blog, writingfromtheheart.net. Her travel memoir, Letters from the Pacific, received excellent Kirkus and Publishers Weekly reviews. Her most recent book is Evelio’s Garden: Memoir of a Naturalist in Costa Rica. She and all her books can be found at www.sandrashawhomer.com.

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