Just finished John McPhee’s, Draft No. 4.
I could pithily summarise it as …
- Practice a lot of things.
- Work at finding your thing.
- Practice you thing (lots! deeply! a fuckton.)
- Work within established rules.
- Bend the rules to fit your thing.
- Break the rules once you know your thing deeply!
McPhee writes about the craft of writing.
But the advice could apply broadly to any creative endeavour.
This series of essays and lessons and backstory was also hugely confirming to me.
Because, while I may not have McPhee’s grace and economy, most of his advice is something I have always understood and done intuitively.
Like he’d say something and then illustrate it.
Like he struggles, even now, the way I do, every time I sit down to write.
That these things take time. (and that we can be ok with it)
That my prose is grasping at the way he writes. Sturdy, workman-like, no muss, no fuss.
The journey is hard work for most people, the gifted are few.
I’d would have called it the definitive book, the first book to read, on the craft of writing, if I had not already read, Caro’s, Working.
This is what I’d written about Working …
if you haven’t read the Power Broker, you should
if you haven’t read the Lyndon volumes, you should
this book is Caro’s account of the work, that went into those works.
the ceaseless toil, the thankless years, the people and their stories
Caro is Caro, master of the craft.
There are only a few explicit lessons here.
but plenty if you care enough to read between the lines
plenty if you make this an annual read, like i will
McPhee treads the same ideas on a different path, and I loved both journeys (I love Caro, only a little more).
So now, I have two books that I’d recommend as books to read on the craft.
Highlights from the book follow (all emphases, mine),
After putting the two cards together, and then constructing around them the rest of the book, all I had to do was write it, and that took more than a year.
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. That perfect circle was a help to me, but it could be a liability for anyone trying to impose such a thing on just any set of facts. A structure is not a cookie cutter.
Certain Baroque poets, among others, wrote shaped verse, in which lines were composed so that the typography resembled the topic—blossoms, birds, butterflies. That also is not what I mean by structure. A piece of writing has to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there. You do that by building what you hope is an unarguable structure. Beginning, middle, end. Aristotle, Page 1.
Each of those structures, from the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies, was worked out after copying with a typewriter all notes from notebooks and transcribing the contents of microcassettes. I used an Underwood 5, which had once been a state-of-the-art office typewriter but by 1970 had been outclassed by the I.B.M. Selectric. With the cassettes, I used a Sanyo TRC5200 Memo-Scriber, which was activated with foot pedals, like a sewing machine or a pump organ.
The note-typing could take many weeks, but it collected everything in one legible place, and it ran all the raw material in some concentration through the mind.
The notes from one to the next frequently had little in common. They jumped from topic to topic, and only in places were sequentially narrative. So I always rolled the platen and left blank space after each item to accommodate the scissors that were fundamental to my advanced methodology.1
After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and then coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size. If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders. One after another, in the course of writing, I would spill out the sets of slivers, arrange them ladderlike on a card table, and refer to them as I manipulated the Underwood.
If this sounds mechanical, its effect was absolutely the reverse. If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. Every organizational aspect was behind me. The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated just the material I had to deal with in a given day or week. It painted me into a corner, yes, but in doing so it freed me to write
People often ask how I know when I’m done—not just when I’ve come to the end, but in all the drafts and revisions and substitutions of one word for another how do I know there is no more to do? When am I done? I just know. I’m lucky that way. What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.
It is so easy to misjudge yourself and get stuck in the wrong genre. You avoid that, early on, by writing in every genre. If you are telling yourself you’re a poet, write poems. Write a lot of poems. If fewer than one work out, throw them all away; you’re not a poet. Maybe you’re a novelist. You won’t know until you have written several novels.
Ben Jonson summarized the process when he said,
“Though a man be more prone and able for one kind of writing than another, yet he must exercise all.”
Gender aside, I take that to be a message to young writers. Art is where you find it. Good writing is where you find it.
After all those one-on-one sessions discussing back-door plays and the role of the left-handed comma in the architectonics of basketball—while The New Yorker magazine hurtled toward its deadlines—I finally said in wonderment, “How can you afford to use so much time and go into so many things in such detail with just one writer when this whole enterprise is yours to keep together?”
He said, “It takes as long as it takes.”
As a writing teacher, I have repeated that statement to two generations of students. If they are writers, they will never forget it.
Shawn also recognized that no two writers are the same, like snowflakes and fingerprints. 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. An editor’s goal is to help writers make the most of the patterns that are unique about them.
Students have always asked what I do to prepare for interviews. Candidly, not much. At minimum, though, I think you should do enough preparation to be polite. You would not have wanted to ask Stephen Harper what he did for a living. Before, during, and after an interview, or a series of interviews, do as much reading as the situation impels you to do. In the course of writing, you really find out what you don’t know, and you read in an attempt to get it right. Nonetheless, you get it wrong, especially if you are an innumerate English major and you are writing about science.
But science, for me, is the exception that probes the rule. I have never published anything on a science that has not been vetted by the scientists involved.
Once captured, words have to be dealt with. You have to trim them and straighten them to make them transliterate from the fuzziness of speech to the clarity of print. Speech and print are not the same, and a slavish presentation of recorded speech may not be as representative of a speaker as dialogue that has been trimmed and straightened.
Please understand: You trim and straighten—take the “um”s, “uh”s, and “uh but um”s out, the false starts—but you do not make it up.
It isn’t all like that—only the first draft. First drafts are slow and develop clumsily because every sentence affects not only those before it but also those that follow. The first draft of my book on California geology took two gloomy years; the second, third, and fourth drafts took about six months altogether.
That four-to-one ratio in writing time—first draft versus the other drafts combined—has for me been consistent in projects of any length, even if the first draft takes only a few days or weeks. There are psychological differences from phase to phase, and the first is the phase of the pit and the pendulum. After that, it seems as if a different person is taking over. Dread largely disappears. Problems become less threatening, more interesting. Experience is more helpful, as if an amateur is being replaced by a professional. Days go by quickly and not a few could be called pleasant, I’ll admit.
“Dear Jenny: 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. 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. 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 I have left out is the interstitial time.
You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version—if it did not exist—you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. 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. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.”
Martha calls me up nine times a day to tell me that writing is impossible, that she’s not cut out to do it, that she’ll never finish what she is working on, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth and so on, and I, who am probably disintegrating a third of the way through an impossible first draft, am supposed to turn into the Rock of Gibraltar. The talking rock: “Just stay at it; perseverance will change things.” “You’re so unhappy you sound authentic to me.” “You can’t make a fix unless you know what is broken.”
She said, “My style is always that of what I am reading at the time—or overwhelmingly self-conscious and strained.”
I said, “How unfortunate that would be if you were fifty-four. At twenty-three, it is not only natural; it is important. The developing writer reacts to excellence as it is discovered—wherever and whenever—and of course does some imitating (unavoidably) in the process of drawing from the admired fabric things to make one’s own. Rapidly, the components of imitation fade. What remains is a new element in your own voice, which is not in any way an imitation. Your manner as a writer takes form in this way, a fragment at a time. A style that lacks strain and self-consciousness is what you seem to aspire to, or you wouldn’t be bringing the matter up. Therefore, your goal is in the right place.
So practice taking shots at it. A relaxed, unself-conscious style is not something that one person is born with and another not. Writers do not spring full-blown from the ear of Zeus.”
Jenny said, “I can’t seem to finish anything.”
I said, “Neither can I.” Then I went back to my own writing, my own inability to get going until five in the afternoon, my animal sense of being hunted, my resemblance to the sand of Gibraltar.
It is toward the end of the second draft, if I’m lucky, when the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show to other people, something that seems to be working and is not going to go away.
After reading the second draft aloud, and going through the piece for the third time (removing the tin horns and radio static that I heard while reading), I enclose words and phrases in pencilled boxes for Draft No. 4.
If I enjoy anything in this process it is Draft No. 4. I go searching for replacements for the words in the boxes. The final adjustments may be small-scale, but they are large to me, and I love addressing them. You could call this the copy-editing phase if real copy editors were not out there in the future prepared to examine the piece.
You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don’t you try to find such a word?
If none occurs, don’t linger; keep reading and drawing boxes, and later revisit them one by one. If there’s a box around “sensitive” because it seems pretentious in the context, try “susceptible.” Why “susceptible”? Because you looked up “sensitive” in the dictionary and it said “highly susceptible.”
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. 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 use the dictionary after the thesaurus, the thesaurus will not hurt you.
So draw a box around “wad.” Webster: “The cotton or silk obtained from the Syrian swallowwort, formerly cultivated in Egypt and imported to Europe.” Oh. But read on: “A little mass, tuft, or bundle … a small, compact heap.” Stet that one.
I call this “the search for the mot juste,” because when I was in the eighth grade Miss Bartholomew told us that Gustave Flaubert walked around in his garden for days on end searching in his head for le mot juste. Who could forget that? Flaubert seemed heroic. Certain kids considered him weird.
In the search for words, thesauruses are useful things, but they don’t talk about the words they list. They are also dangerous. They can lead you to choose a polysyllabic and fuzzy word when a simple and clear one is better.
The value of a thesaurus is not to make a writer seem to have a vast vocabulary of recondite words. The value of a thesaurus is in the assistance it can give you in finding the best possible word for the mission that the word is supposed to fulfill. Writing teachers and journalism courses have been known to compare them to crutches and to imply that no writer of any character or competence would use them. At best, thesauruses are mere rest stops in the search for the mot juste. Your destination is the dictionary.
Suppose you sense an opportunity beyond the word “intention.” You read the dictionary’s thesaurian list of synonyms: “intention, intent, purpose, design, aim, end, object, objective, goal.” But the dictionary doesn’t let it go at that. It goes on to tell you the differences all the way down the line—how each listed word differs from all the others. Some dictionaries keep themselves trim by just listing synonyms and not going on to make distinctions. You want the first kind, in which you are not just getting a list of words; you are being told the differences in their hues, as if you were looking at the stripes in an awning, each of a subtly different green. Look up “vertical.” It tells you—believe it or not—that “vertical,” “perpendicular,” and “plumb” differ each from the two others. Ditto “plastic, pliable, pliant, ductile, malleable, adaptable.” Ditto “fidelity, allegiance, fealty, loyalty, devotion, piety.”
I grew up in canoes on northern lakes and forest rivers. Thirty years later, I was trying to choose a word or words that would explain why anyone in a modern nation would choose to go a long distance by canoe. I was damned if I was going to call it a sport, but nothing else occurred. I looked up “sport.” There were seventeen lines of definition: “1. That which diverts, and makes mirth; pastime; diversion. 2. A diversion of the field.” I stopped there.
His professed criteria were to take it easy, see some wildlife, and travel light with his bark canoes—nothing more—and one could not help but lean his way. I had known of people who took collapsible cots, down pillows, chain saws, outboard motors, cases of beer, and battery-powered portable refrigerators on canoe trips—even into deep wilderness. You set your own standards. Travel by canoe is not a necessity, and will nevermore be the most efficient way to get from one region to another, or even from one lake to another—anywhere. A canoe trip has become simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain, a diversion of the field, an act performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself.…
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? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out.
At base you have only one criterion: 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. 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.
Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material—that much and no more.
Green 4 does not mean lop off four lines at the bottom, I tell them. The idea is to remove words in such a manner that no one would notice that anything has been removed.
Just like I do here! ↩