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Writing Advice from John McPhee

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John McPhee

Hi guys! This post is from a past email from my storytelling newsletter. If you'd like to receive these as soon as they're written, sign up to my email list here.

I wanted to start this week's storytelling newsletter with some writing advice from an amazing writer. John McPhee is/was a legendary writer for The New Yorker and I just got done re-reading Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process which is a book of his essays on non-fiction writing.

McPhee spends the bulk of the book explaining how he told many of the real stories that he has become famous for. To become such a prolific writer he had to develop a rigorous planning process.

He would research and observe people for weeks or even months at a time, noting all of it down. Only once he had his notes in order, could he begin to meticulously plan the structure of his stories. In Draft No. 4 he even drew diagrams of his stories' structures, which I thought was a cool extra detail.

As storytellers and writers of both non-fiction and fiction, we'd do well to emulate a planning process like this. Here are some of the keys that I took away from John McPhee's book:

First Drafts Are Meant to Be Hard

The biggest mistake new writers make is diving headlong into their novel with zero planning, and expect it to look like the finished piece as they're writing it.

This is impossible—no-one is that good. Professional writers plan their structure meticulously. This might take more time at first, but when you have a goal, you'll find writing SO much easier.

Also, recognise that drafting is a phase in itself. See the first draft just as the initial 'splat' of your thoughts onto paper. Your second, third, and fourth drafts are you chipping away at the marble until it starts to resemble what you can publish.

Take bestselling author Neil Strauss's advice: First drafts are for you. Second drafts are for your readers. Third drafts are for your haters.

"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."
—John McPhee

It's Okay to Emulate a Famous Writer's Style until You Find Your Own

In writing my first non-fiction book, which is coming out this winter, I found myself emulating the style of a very famous author whom I look up to and greatly respect. This man gave me the inspiration to write my own books, and his unique writing style makes his stories come alive.

When you're new and starting out in this craft, these long creative projects require a lot of discipline. It's scary enough to think of your 80,000 word tome floating somewhere in your brain.

We make these projects easier by a). breaking it down into small, manageable chunks, b). writing on a topic we love, and c). taking cues from more experienced authors. Just as sports athletes have coaches, we can have our own masters, even if we've never actually met them.

In time, as you write more books, you'll develop your own signature style. Give it time, have patience, it'll happen if you focus on the work.

"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."
—John McPhee

Write in a Concise Style

While reading through this book, I noticed that McPhee writes a lot like Stephen King. They both have a tight and expressive style that seems to flow effortlessly. He never bogs you down in super-long sentences.

This isn't natural, and has to be trained. In my upcoming book I have a whole chapter on concise writing where I drew a lot of advice from McPhee and King's styles. My book's not out till winter, but for now here's a taster that's very actionable:

  • Avoid adverbs if you can—use a stronger verb instead
  • Write in an action-first, subject-oriented style—"The boy rode the bicycle" is better than "The bicycle was rode by the boy." The first one is a lot more natural to our brains. Here's a post from Scott Adams business writing
  • Use the simplest, most descriptive word possible—Don't be That Guy/Girl who always says "whilst" where "while" will suffice
  • Cut out restrictive usages of "which"—This advice only caught my notice this second time reading the book. He says that his editors would note that every time he uses "which", he's making a restrictive clause. Do a text search on your manuscript for "which" or "that" and see if you can reword it better—perhaps refactor it into two sentences

There are way too many pearls of writing wisdom in Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process to list in an email, so I reiterate my recommendation to check it out if you can. If you do read it, let me know how it goes!

Hi guys! This post is from a past email from my storytelling newsletter. If you'd like to receive these as soon as they're written, sign up to my email list here.

Posted on: 5th October, 2018

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