→ Freya Howarth
‘Read more’—it’s advice every aspiring writer and editor has no doubt heard countless times. But what should we be reading? Fortunately for us, many excellent writers, editors and literary critics (basically professional readers) have taken the time to write about their practice. In Draft No. 4, John McPhee shares his thoughts on field research and structure in nonfiction writing.
John McPhee distils writing advice from a long career as a journalist writing for the New Yorker and Time magazine, among other publications. This is a gossipy book full of anecdotes about encountering bears in Alaska, rafting down rivers, hopping on trains and trucks, all for the sake of a good story. For these stories alone, the book is worth a read, but McPhee’s advice is also refreshingly practical, as he takes the reader through his writing process, letting us see how he resolves challenges. His advice for overcoming writer’s block seems genuinely helpful: write a letter to your mum explaining what you’re trying to write and where you’re struggling—then keep going.
Contemporary writers may feel a tad jealous about the freedom, time (often months) and resources McPhee was given to research and write articles—luxuries few writers could dream of today in the fast-paced, constantly updating world of internet journalism. Even if such timeframes are unrealistic for most writers now, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from McPhee’s process about taking the time to really reflect on material, letting ideas simmer and thinking about how to go about writing something before putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).
McPhee has an idiosyncratic approach to structure and uses strange swirling diagrams to illustrate his methods. For McPhee, an article or book begins with research, then structure comes in to organise all the disparate ideas and stories gathered along the way. According to McPhee: ‘You can build a structure in such a way that is causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction’ (20). Yet, despite the primacy of structure, it should ‘be about as visible as someone’s bones,’ and should always emerge from the material, rather than twisting the material to suit the structure (34).
The act of writing is often portrayed as something that comes from a moment of divine inspiration, a communion with the writing muse. Maybe this is because many writers don’t want to pull back the curtain to reveal the mechanical, messy processes behind creativity; or maybe they can’t find the words to talk about their process in a useful wa y. McPhee has no such qualms; he happily shares his thoughts about how he figures out what goes where, about text-editing software and editing techniques, and about the proper way to use a dictionary. McPhee emphasises writing as a craft, with a methodical process behind it and based on concrete considerations about structure. It is reassuring to see that a craft-based writing method can, equally, yield creative, successful writing.