Writing with the Master – The Magic of John McPhee

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mcphee

If I could study non-fiction writing with anyone, it would be John McPhee.

He is a staff writer at The New Yorker, a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and he won that award in 1999 for Annals of the Former World.  Even more impressive to me, he can turn any subject — truly, any subject — into a page turner.

An entire book about oranges? Check. Bark canoes? Done.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve raved about his books like a sweaty-palmed fan boy.  Personal favorites include the bite-sized Levels of the Game (about one epic tennis match), Coming into the Country (about the Alaskan wilderness), and his amazing collections of short stories (don’t miss Brigade de Cuisine in this one).

Now, a confession.  I did have the chance to study with McPhee as an undergrad at Princeton.  I still have all of the class notes.  I consider it one of the biggest strokes of luck in my life.  And… simply mentioning it makes me nervous as hell that I’m going to leave a typo in this post.  Besmirching the fine legacy of Professor McPhee!

Translated into my native Long Island-ese: If I fuck up anything in this post, it’s all my fault, and I didn’t listen to Professor McPhee well enough. He tried his best.

Now, moving on…

The below piece on McPhee is written by Joel Achenbach, a fellow graduate of McPhee’s class. Joel is now a staff writer for The Washington Post and the author of six books.

The profile recently appeared in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and I absolutely had to share it with you. It’s the incredible story of a master writer, master teacher, and fascinating human being I aspire to emulate.  There’s so much to learn from McPhee, and the below is a laugh-out-loud sampling.

I’ve left in the graduation years to preserve the context.

Enjoy!

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John McPhee ’53 has many moves as a writer, one of which he calls a “gossip ladder” — nothing more than a stack of quotations, each its own paragraph, unencumbered by attribution or context. You are eavesdropping in a crowd. You take these scraps of conversation and put them in a pile. Like this:

“A piece of writing needs to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there.”

“Taking things from one source is plagiarism; taking things from several sources is research.”

“A thousand details add up to one impression.”

“You cannot interview the dead.” 

“Readers are not supposed to see structure. It should be as invisible as living bones. It shouldn’t be imposed; structure arises within the story.”

“Don’t start off with the most intense, scary part, or it will all be anticlimactic from there.”

“You can get away with things in fact that would be tacky in fiction — and stuck on TV at 3 o’clock in the morning. Sometimes the scene is carried by the binding force of fact.”

The speaker in every instance is John McPhee. I assembled this particular ladder from the class notes of Amanda Wood Kingsley ’84, an illustrator and writer who, like me, took McPhee’s nonfiction writing class, “The Literature of Fact,” in the spring of 1982. In February, McPhee will mark 40 years as a Princeton professor, which he has pulled off in the midst of an extraordinarily productive career as a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of more than two dozen books.

When the editor of this magazine asked me to write something about McPhee’s class, I knew it would be the easiest assignment ever, though a little nerve-wracking. It was, because most of McPhee’s former students have saved their class notes and marked-up papers (Marc Fisher ’80: “I’ve never lived anywhere without knowing where my notes from his class are”).

When I meet Rick Klein ’98 at a coffee shop down the block, we examine forensically Rick’s class papers and the McPhee marginalia, the admonitions and praise from a teacher who keeps his pencils sharp. McPhee never overlooked a typo, and when Rick (now the hotshot political director at ABC News) wrote “fowl” instead of “foul,” the professor’s pencil produced a devastating noose.

McPhee’s greatest passion was for structure, and he required that students explain, in a few sentences at the end of every assignment, how they structured the piece. (McPhee noted on a piece Rick wrote about his father: “This is a perfect structure — simple, like a small office building, as you suggest. The relationship of time to paragraphing is an example of what building a piece of writing is all about.”)

Rick reminds me that the class was pass/fail.

“You were competing not for a grade, but for his approval. You were so scared to turn in a piece of writing that John McPhee would realize was dirt. We were just trying to impress a legend,” he says.

Which is the nerve-wracking part, still. He is likely to read this article and will notice the infelicities, the stray words, the unnecessary punctuation, the galumphing syntax, the desperate metaphors, and the sentences that wander into the woods. “They’re paying you by the comma?” McPhee might write in the margin after reading the foregoing sentence. My own student work tended toward the self-conscious, the cute, and the undisciplined, and McPhee sometimes would simply write: “Sober up.”

He favors simplicity in general, and believes a metaphor needs room to breathe. “Don’t slather one verbal flourish on top of another lest you smother them all,” he’d tell his students. On one of Amanda’s papers, he numbered the images, metaphors, and similes from 1 to 11, and then declared, “They all work well, to a greater or lesser degree. In 1,300 words, however, there may be too many of them — as in a fruitcake that is mostly fruit.”

When Amanda produced a verbose, mushy description of the “Oval with Points” sculpture on campus, McPhee drew brackets around one passage and wrote, “Pea soup.”

That one was a famously difficult assignment: You had to describe a piece of abstract art on campus. It was an invitation to overwriting. As McPhee put it, “Most writers do a wild skid, leave the road, and plunge into the dirty river.” Novice writers believe they will improve a piece of writing by adding things to it; mature writers know they will improve it by taking things out.

Another standard McPhee assignment came on Day One of the class: Pair up and interview each other, then write a profile. It was both an early test of our nonfiction writing skills and a clever way for McPhee to get to know his students at the beginning of the semester.

McPhee’s dedication to his students was, and is, remarkable, given the other demands on his time. One never got the sense that he wished he could be off writing a magazine story for The New Yorker rather than annotating, and discussing face-to-face, a clumsy, ill-conceived, syntactically mangled piece of writing by a 20-year-old.

He met with each of his 16 students for half an hour every other week. Many of his students became professional writers, and he lined up their books on his office shelf, but McPhee never has suggested that the point of writing is to make money, or that the merit of your writing is determined by its market value. A great paragraph is a great paragraph wherever it resides, he’d say. It could be in your diary.

“I think he loves it when students run off and become field biologists in Africa or elementary school teachers,” Jenny Price ’85 tells me. She’s now a writer, artist, and visiting Princeton professor.

McPhee taught us to revere language, to care about every word, and to abjure the loose synonym. He told us that words have subtle and distinct meanings, textures, implications, intonations, flavors. (McPhee might say: “Nuances” alone could have done the trick there.) Use a dictionary, he implored. He proselytized on behalf of the gigantic, unabridged Webster’s Second Edition, a tank of a dictionary that not only would give a definition, but also would explore the possible synonyms and describe how each is slightly different in meaning. If you treat these words interchangeably, it’s like taping together adjacent keys on a piano, he said.

Robert Wright ’79, an acclaimed author and these days a frequent cycling companion of McPhee, tells me by email, “I’d be surprised if there have been many or even any Ferris professors who care about words as much as John — I don’t mean their proper use so much as their creative, deft use, sometimes in a way that exploits their multiple meanings; he also pays attention to the rhythm of words. All this explains why some of his prose reads kind of like poetry.”

Just to write a simple description clearly can take you days, he taught us (once again I’m citing Amanda’s class notes): “If you do it right, it’ll slide by unnoticed. If you blow it, it’s obvious.”

We had to learn to read. One of his assignments is called “greening.” You pretend you are in the composing room slinging hot type and need to remove a certain amount of the text block to get it to fit into an available space. You must search the text for words that can be removed surgically.

“It’s as if you were removing freight cars here and there in order to shorten a train — or pruning bits and pieces of a plant for aesthetic and pathological reasons, not to mention length,” McPhee commanded. “Do not do violence to the author’s tone, manner, style, nature, thumbprint.”

He made us green a couple of lines from the famously lean Gettysburg Address, an assignment bordering on sadism. A favorite paragraph designated for greening was the one in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that begins, “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine.” (McPhee, in assigning this, wrote: “Caution: You are approaching what may be my favorite paragraph in a lifetime of sporadic reading.”)

One time the young Bob Wright used the word “minced” in an assignment. In their bi-weekly office conference, McPhee challenged Bob to justify the word. Bob offered his reasoning. McPhee looked up “minced” in the hulking Webster’s. “You found the perfect word,” McPhee declared.

McPhee’s career coincided with the rise of “New Journalism,” but he never was really part of that movement and the liberties it took with the material. A college student often feels that rules are suffocating, that old-school verities need to be obliterated, and so some of us were tempted, naturally, to enhance our nonfiction — to add details from the imagination and produce a work of literature that’s better than “true” and existed on a more exalted plane of meaning. We’d make things up. McPhee wouldn’t stand for it.

Amanda remembers being called into his office one day: “I could tell something was wrong because he wasn’t his usual smiling self. He had me sit down and glared at me a moment. Then he asked me very sternly whether I had made up the character I had allegedly interviewed for my paper that week about animal traps and snares — I’d talked to an elderly African American friend of my grandparents, whose snare-building skills helped him survive the Depression. Once I convinced him that Oscar was a real person, McPhee sat quietly a moment, then smiled and said it was one of the best papers he had received. Those were some of the finest words I’ll ever hear.”

Perhaps there are writers out there who make it look easy, but that is not the example set by McPhee. He is of the school of thought that says a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for other people. Some people joke about lashing themselves to the chair to get a piece of writing done, but McPhee actually has done it, with the belt of his bathrobe.

Here’s David Remnick ’81, the McPhee student who is now McPhee’s editor atThe New Yorker: “You were working with a practicing creative artist, a writer of ‘primary texts,’ as the scholars say, but one who was eloquent, detailed, unfancy, and clear in the way he talked about essential things: description, reporting, structure, sentences, punctuation, rhythm, to say nothing of the emotional aspects of writing — anxiety, lostness, frustration. He didn’t sugarcoat the difficulty of writing well. If anything, he highlighted the bitter-tasting terrors, he cherished them, rolled them around on his tongue. But behind all that was an immensely revealing, and rewarding, glimpse of the writing life. Not the glamour or the readings or the reviews. No, he allowed you to glimpse the process, what it meant to write alone in a room.”

Marc Fisher, my Washington Post colleague, points out that part of McPhee’s magic was getting students to slow down. “He catches adolescents at exactly the moment when we’ve been racing to get somewhere in life, and he corrals our ambition and raw skills and somehow persuades us that the wisdom, the power, and the mystery of telling people’s stories comes in good part from pressing down on the brakes, taking it all in, and putting it down on paper — yes, paper — in a way that is true to the people we meet and the lives they lead.”

I doubt many of us ever took a class that resonated so profoundly over the years. Part of it was that McPhee felt invested in our later success, regardless of our vocations. You could knock on his door years later and confer with him about your writing, your personal issues, your hopes and dreams. How many teachers are willing to be Professor For Life?

These are tough times in my business, which the people in suits now refer to as “content creation.” Revolutionary changes in how we consume information have created challenges for anyone who is committed to serious, time-consuming writing, the kind that involves revision and the search for that perfect word.

But I don’t think anyone can obliterate the beauty of a deftly constructed piece of writing. This is particularly the case if you’ve written it yourself. It’s like hitting a great golf shot; you forget the shanks and slices and remember the one exquisite 3-iron.

One day in McPhee’s class, he praised a sentence I’d written about the Louise Nevelson sculpture “Atmosphere and Environment X,” near Firestone Library. He had me read it aloud. The hook was set. I don’t always think about it consciously, but that’s pretty much what I’ve been trying to do for more than three decades — write another sentence that might win the approval of John McPhee.

Joel Achenbach

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Question of the Day:  What is your best writing tip or lesson learned?  Please share in the comments!

Interested in more on the craft of writing or art of creativity?  Here are a few resources:
In-depth interview with 7x New York Times bestselling author and Rolling Stone interviewer, Neil Strauss
The Odd (And Effective) Routines of Famous Minds like Beethoven, Maya Angelou, and Francis Bacon
Behind the Scenes: How to Make a Movie Trailer for Your Book (or Product)

Posted on: December 11, 2014.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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76 comments on “Writing with the Master – The Magic of John McPhee

  1. This is very cool. I moved to Alaska for 7 years after reading Coming Into The Country. I was able to see a lot of the state, meet a lot of people with varied stories, and he had nailed it.

    Like

  2. Sorry for this off-topic comment, just wanted to make sure you see this…
    I have no idea what treatment(s) you’ve tried for Lyme disease, but there are two things you might want to consider:

    (1) Ozone. Google “dave asprey ozone” and to get to the podcast with Dr. Rowen, who talks about using this stuff for treating Ebola.

    (2) Search YouTube for “cannabis oil lyme disease”. There appear to be a number of individuals who have used this for themselves.

    Hope this helps.

    Cheers, Chris

    Like

      • I was just thinking the same thing.

        Thanks for taking time to talk about writing. I really enjoyed this. You, Ryan Holiday and Neil Strauss are my primary inspirations when writing and editing. I would love to hear more about the nuts and bolts of your process and that of other writers.

        Like

      • Brilliant post – fun and well written. Thank you. I thank Kate for the introduction. Wish I had McPhee – wish I had him at least as an editor. Hat’s off to a true educator.

        Like

  3. I love to read about writers like McPhee. If you are interested in reading from another good author, try Elmore Leonard. Inspired by Ernest Hemingway, he tries to remove himself from the story, and just describe the details.

    For example, many amateur authors would use words like, “suddenly.” But if the unfolding events are well described adverbs are redundant.

    Of his famous 10 rules for writing, my favorite one is:
    “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

    http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/12940.Elmore_Leonard

    Like

  4. “I’d be surprised if there have been many or even any Ferris professors who care about words as much as John — I don’t mean their proper use so much as their creative, deft use, sometimes in a way that exploits their multiple meanings…”

    Is that supposed to be Princeton professors? Or do you have a stable of old professors that together form “The Ferris Professors” and spend their spare time as a brain trust meeting to solve the world’s biggest problems and/or pulling off elaborate heists? Please say it’s the second one, because now I want that movie to happen.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m always amazed at how many great writers are John McPhee students (yourself included Tim). My favorite non-fiction piece by one of his students is called “Dr. Don” by Peter Hessler. I read it for a class and I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn how to write. When I was done with the piece, the only thing I said was, “Wow, this is how you write about a person.”

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/09/26/dr-don

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Wow! What a mesmerizing piece of writing. Not a stray word or comma, indeed! I’ve always known that it’s harder to take away things from your writing than add to them. Thank you. This has been very enlightening:-)

    Like

  7. Oh I wish I could study under him. Sounds like a magic experience, where upon finishing his class you unexpectedly realize you have evolved into a new version of yourself.

    Like

  8. Thank you for sharing this, Tim. For a writer, anguishing over a string of words and then having someone delight in your work provides unparalleled joy – perhaps only a writer would understand.

    I’ve always wanted to write. As a two-year-old I used to scribble on paper in an illegible text; as a six year old I declared I wanted to grow up to be a “writer of books” and as a teen I studied an advance course in English so that I could write my first short story. But then I went to law school and became a lawyer for seven years.

    Two and a half years ago, feeling off course in the trajectory of my dreams (and after reading your book, The Four Hour Work Week), I was spurred to quit law and pursue a new career in writing.

    But before I did, I took your advice. I plucked up the courage to email someone I admired: Tim Neville, writer for Outside Magazine and someone who’d recently interviewed one of my heroes, Ueli Steck.

    I asked him: What’s something that you know now that you wished someone had told you when you first started writing?

    Two weeks later, I got this response:

    “I was thinking about your question. At first blush, it seems like such an easy thing to answer: I wish someone had told me that writing is something you study and then let go of. That’s the only way you’ll find your voice.

    But then I gave it a little more thought, and now I think I wish someone had told me that it would indeed be possible to have a job like this, that it probably will not make you rich, and that despite the fun you will still need to treat it like a business and work. That said, creativity and a staggering curiosity for life will inevitably lead to good writing.

    That sounds a bit forced, but I think you get the idea.”

    I jumped out of bed and quit my job that very week. I am now a Hong Kong based freelance journalist, and although there is much to learn, I remain staggeringly curious. It’s been the best advice I’ve ever received.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Thank you for sharing this, Tim. For a writer, anguishing over a string of words and then having someone delight in your work provides unparalleled joy – perhaps only a writer would understand.

    I’ve always wanted to write. As a two-year-old I used to scribble on paper in an illegible text; as a six year old I declared I wanted to grow up to be a “writer of books” and as a teen I studied an advance course in English so that I could write my first short story. But then I went to law school and became a lawyer for seven years.

    Two and a half years ago, feeling off course in the trajectory of my dreams (and after reading your book, The Four Hour Work Week), I was spurred to quit law and pursue a new career in writing.

    But before I did, I took your advice. I plucked up the courage to email someone I admired: Tim Neville, writer for Outside Magazine and someone who’d recently interviewed one of my heroes, Ueli Steck.

    I asked him: What’s something that you know now that you wished someone had told you when you first started writing?

    Two weeks later, I got this response:

    “I was thinking about your question. At first blush, it seems like such an easy thing to answer: I wish someone had told me that writing is something you study and then let go of. That’s the only way you’ll find your voice.

    But then I gave it a little more thought, and now I think I wish someone had told me that it would indeed be possible to have a job like this, that it probably will not make you rich, and that despite the fun you will still need to treat it like a business and work. That said, creativity and a staggering curiosity for life will inevitably lead to good writing.

    That sounds a bit forced, but I think you get the idea.”

    I jumped out of bed and quit my job that very week. I am now a Hong Kong based freelance journalist, and although there is much to learn, I remain staggeringly curious. It’s been the best advice I’ve ever received.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. On an unrelated note regarding the first question about a 4HWW update on your recent podcast. A tenth anniversary of the book would be great but the resources will again become outdated soon enough. I think it would be helpful to update the resources page on this blog with all your most recent recommendations. People trust your opinions and I don’t think anyone would care if were an affiliate system.

    Just my two cents.

    Like

  11. As a writer of nonfiction, I’m delighted when anyone is enthusiastic about nonfiction. Thank you for that, to start. There are a lot of good insights about writing in the article. And didn’t know about the book Oranges. I’m a food historian, so clearly that needs to go on my reading list. Thanks for that tip.

    Like

  12. Thank you for introducing me to John McPhee, Tim and Joel. I found the article fascinating so have been off for the last little while reading McPhee’s article on Structure, on The New Yorker website. Astounded is all I can say and I will be reading more. I’m feeling very ripped off at the moment, at not having had a teacher like that? Thanks again.

    Like

  13. Tim, powerful writing!

    I got lost in the email and forgot what else I had going on. I felt like I was in his class at one point, tying to win his approval with everyone else.

    Can’t remember the last time that happened in an e-mail.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I once won a $9,000.00 writing contest for the journal, “Medical Economics”, against 200 other writers about an experience I had as a physician. A patient literally died right in front of me when I had to break bad news to her. It took me a total of one hour to write it. I’ve never been able to write that well since. I think great writing can come from anyone who can transfer intense personal experience on to a page. For me, the words came pouring out of me like tears.

    Like

      • that’s not what Simone de Beauvoir said about her writing versus Jean-Paul Sartre’s; she observed that he is rather detached in real life, yet can somehow infuse his writing with intense emotion. I think writing is a craft, similar to making jewellery. I think writing and living are completely separate.

        Like

  15. Best writing advice I’ve received:

    1. Writing conveys the emotions of the writer.
    2. Define words before you use them.
    3. No needless words.
    4. No timidities.
    5. Don’t convey stress.

    And of course:
    “Writing is thought crystallized on a piece of paper, which you can refine.”

    Beautiful post. If it was an ad, I’d pay a lot to attend his class.

    Like

  16. Tim, I really enjoyed the article. Although I have never had the pleasure of meeting John McPhee, I feel as though I know him just a bit through your oberservations. Thanks!

    Like

  17. Tim!

    Thanks once again. Every week you inspire me and introduce me to new ideas, people, books and situations. This is my number one source of great information and all of your posts are a true asset to any entrepreneur. This has once again ignited the fire in my belly and reminded me of why I went self employed in the first place!

    Marcel

    Like

  18. Hey Tim! I´ve been reading you for a while now, consuming your podcasts while working out, reading your posts and inhaling the way you approach things, and let me tell you that it has given me the inspiration to follow many of my projects and ideas:)

    I would like to say that writing to me, from poetry, lyrics, to texts, and beyond, is not just an art, it is a drug.

    You can start writing little parrographs and build a gigantic text that might be read by many and elevate their minds, or you can pour tears on eyes with beautiful phrases, you can leave zooning any skeptical with depictions of their worst nightmares, or intimidate the toughest of men with few but very acute words.

    Regardless, writing is the web of the writer, where he unfolds his true being, his essence.

    Anyone can be a writer, but not everyone can write.

    In the same fashion, everyone can be writing, but only you have that unique point of view demanding to be seen.

    Never forget that😉

    Wish you success in everything you chase!😀

    Saludos de Venezuela😛

    Like

    • The three writers who have most beneficially influenced my own prose are James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and George Orwell: see, for example, Joyce for his punctilious verisimilitude, Pound for his “Diction is Condensation,” and Orwell for his acute observations on language and thought in “Politics and the English Language.”

      Judging from this tribute to McPhee, he offers his students much of the same writerly advice as my own three most influential mentors.

      Ken Rogers

      Like

  19. >”He is of the school of thought that says a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.”

    Compared to everything else in the text, this gem is a tiny one, but it stood out to me. Brilliant writing is hard – meant to be. Striving to cure clumsiness, verbosity, blandness of your own prose is tough but always worthwhile.

    The bit about choosing the perfect word is also great. Language is so rich – why throw around words indiscriminately? Better to expend a shred more effort by using the right ones.

    Like

  20. Hi, I know exactly what you mean by that one perfect sentence.You came with the closest explanation, I think, to “— write another sentence that might win the approval of John McPhee”.
    And a heartfelt Thank You for Everything you share :):):)

    Like

  21. Tim, thanks so much for sharing this piece.

    Such a good piece of writing. I had some good laughs thanks to Joel’s easygoing and (seemingly) effortless style, and because the individual stories reminded me of some of my own college writing classes and the feedback I got as well.

    But maybe most important: It reminded me that my true writing love is non-fiction, and not the business writing I’m doing these days. I’d love to take a sabbatical to attend that class!

    A good teacher knows when to pass on something of value. Thanks again for the reminder about great non-fiction! And good luck with your own non-fiction and screenplay projects!

    Like

  22. Thank you for a lovely story with lessons. Writing has always been a challenge for me, i seem maths and science orientated.
    Using metaphors is what i am playing with lately and i will be careful to use them wisely!

    Like

  23. I went to high school with Jeff Danziger(Christian Science Monitor cartoonist now) who taught me (and my classmate Frank Miller) the value of incisive word choice. Later I had the luck and privilege of studying at Bread Loaf School of English, and then taking classes with Edward Abbey in Tucson. While most of my writing is business related, McPhee remains one of my heroes; thanks for the exposition. Great writers connect us in ways that no other discipline does with the ability to objectify our responses. You have an excellent talent with that. JPO

    Like

  24. “Pick one person, real or imagined, and write to that person. – John Steinbeck

    This was a beautiful post, Tim. It ignited a passion for words in my. Thank Tim for sharing it, and thank yo Joel for writing it.

    Like

  25. I feel as if I am dangling in suspense. How to green the passage from Heart of Darkness, without simultaneously strangling it?

    Webster’s Second Edition? On my wish list. And the first quote on the rung of the “gossip ladder”….satisfying to know your writing has arrived and is ready for a cup of tea.

    Thank you Tim. It would be wonderful if John McPhee could be persuaded to make a media exception.

    Like

  26. A beautiful article, Tim. Thank you. I haven’t been writing for the past year or so and I miss it. This was fuel for my creative furnace.

    The best writing advice given me was to “omit needless words!” This is followed by the reminder that “writers write – being published has nothing to do with it.” Whether or not he actually gave the advice, my brain attributes both of these pearls to Stephen King. (If he is omitting needless words, can you imagine what the first drafts look like? Yowza!)

    Like

  27. Great piece, Tim. Thank you. Here are a few humble thoughts on writing.

    1. Plan what you’re going to write and how you’re going to say it.

    Start strong.
    Be compelling in the middle.
    End powerfully.

    2. Aim to help your reader remember 3 to 5 points they’ll deem worthy of further remarks.

    3. Be fruitful and florid while avoiding the syrupy and the flowery.

    4. While well-placed insights and hints can act as bait to keep your reader reading, it’s vital that you deliver on your promises. Always under promise and over deliver, never the other way around.

    5. Assign words a monetary value: a deft sprinkling of 5 cent words often adds greater value than any clutch of $50 words.

    6. Be concise, compelling, and clear. Use details to give context rather than to boost word count.

    7. Brevity matters.

    8. Language is fluidly illegitimate. Learn the rules, then smash them: split that infinitive. Start sentences with ‘and’, ‘because’. It’s perfectly fine to use a single word in a sentence. Really.

    9. Content is not king. The royalty of writing is context, relevance, meaning, and salience.

    10. Embrace short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. Don’t ramble.

    11. Write with passionate emotion. Edit for logical flow. Less is more.

    12. Write like you speak.

    13. Language commands attention. Write to be read, to be heard, and to be understood. Write to be remembered; to empower; to move people; to action; to tears, or to laughter.

    (I spent a year at Princeton. I did not study with John McPhee).

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  28. Tim, I have listened to 4 Hour Work Week and watched many of your Youtube vids. Thank you for putting my life on “Commencement de la fin”. I said goodbye to the corporate world in October, without a plan. I am loving it! I don’t know what course I will travel yet, but I love the anticipation. Gramercy!
    I love this article because I don’t see many people touting “Critical grammar skills” these days. It is shocking to me how teachers can write some of the most horriffic referral letters for their students! Unfortunately, spelling and grammar have been repudiated in the “HyperTech” world we reside in.

    I will definitely read John McPhee’s books!

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  29. I had a similar mentor named Leonard Michaels at UC Berkeley. Wish I had more time with him. His big short story achievement is “City Boy.” Also, Ben Masselink (screenwriter) at USC grad school.

    Michaels’ advice on producing “fiction?” Get out there and live. Writers too often stay in and over-think their words. You need to have real experiences in order to capture moments worth writing about.

    Another thought: I love Hemingway for the reasons in Joel’s article here. You take away. You simplify. (Editing Conrad must really have been hell.)

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  30. In high school I learned how to stretch my ideas into ten pages by making sentences longer, by using the most verbose possible phrasing of every idea, by simply adding words. In college I learned how to write forty pages and then cut out all of the BS to arrive, with higher quality, at the assigned ten. In grad school I learned how to do far better research to build my ten lean, meaty pages into forty lean pages that could withstand scrutiny.

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  31. Thanks for this Tim. I shirk the discipline required to sit down and do the writing I need to do far too often. The best comment from him was “a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for other people”. I physically and psychically breathed a sigh of relief. I figure if it’s that way for him it must be cool to be the way I am about it also. Now it’s time to get on with it.

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  32. Tim,
    Thank you for sharing this fine essay and introducing me to a new author. I look forward to picking up one of his books soon.

    I would also add that Joel makes a great point about the lasting impact that a dedicated teacher can have.

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  33. Hey all,

    I’m an awful writer & reader. I did a mash-up/combination of notes on how to improve writing from the following sources: James Altucher’s writing blog post, the above John McPhee post, William Zinsser, two friends of mine, and lastly a Brain Pickings post.

    It’s my notes so my bad if it’s confusing, but maybe it’ll help:

    https://www.evernote.com/shard/s358/sh/ec3809c8-7c58-41c9-87a1-93c0720a1034/7b782f144c76eb55ef6c0fdfdf02e0a5

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  34. For me, this professor was Alice McDermott. While this piece of advice is a far-reaching one (and probably was told to her by somebody else before she told it to us), it has meant the world to my writing: a piece should always be about The Thing and The Other Thing. You’d be amazed–or maybe you wouldn’t–at how many stories handed in in an undergraduate fiction workshop are really only about the superficial action of the piece. That small, confounding phrase swept them right out.

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  35. Hi,

    I love this post.I will share this post to all my followers hope they like this post.I love to see some more post from your side.Your way of presenting this post is very nice.That is great think.
    Thank you so much for this post!
    Have a nice day!
    Regards,
    varija tripath

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  36. Thank you for introducing me to John McPhee. It would be such an epic experience to study under him. As a lover of book myself, reading this article makes me want to read one of his. I’ve always wanted to write…LOL but that is one talent I discover a long time ago that I don’t posses. Thanks for sharing this.

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  37. Hi Tim,

    I have a question – what are your thoughts on debt? Do you believe in credit cards or other forms of financing? Why or why not?

    Thank you,
    Abbey

    P.S. Apologies if you already have a blog post on this, I did a quick search and didn’t see anything.

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  38. Do I remember John McPhee? Yes. Very well. Basin and Range. Deep time and geology made so sexy to me it hurt. Putting dry shifting plates into erupting volcanos of freaking fun. Late night run-ins with cattle and aliens on the road to and from the left-over silver mine in Nevada…igots as door stops. Time travel…oh, John, you soooo rock!

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  39. The Annals of a Former World changed how I think about the world and my place in it. All the more surprising as I live in the frantic world of sales and marketing and tomorrow. I no longer pass out copies or plead friends and family to read and subsume the deeper stuff as it seems to imply erudition and a scholarly streak I lack. But, I am no Charlie Tuna – the book explained the earth to me in an approachable and remarkable way. Prior to that, I probably had used Geology in a sentence twice in my life. And even better, I discovered John McPhee. Now for some Shad.

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  40. My best advice for writing fiction is to make it exaggerated, sexual, or humorous. To play in your head until the energy finds its way to your hands making the process physical towards an imagineered landscape for escape.

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  41. May success follow you, each and every place you go. In the halo of prosperity, may you always glow. May you get everything, that you could ever ask for. Great times lie ahead for you, of that we are very sure. Well done.
    Regards:
    Healthmoor.com

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  42. When it comes to choose from one of the best fiction writers. I always choose John Mcphee. He is all in one fiction writer with the quality of extensive and attractive writing. His writing will remain attracting readers for decades.

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