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!

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