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John McPhee on structure

Jan 17, 2013
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John McPhee on structure

You can build a strong, sound, and artful structure. You can build a structure in such a way that it 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.

There’s a (paywalled) piece by John McPhee in the January 14, 2013 New Yorker on how he has to find the structure of his feature stories before he can get down to writing them.

I had done all the research I was going to do…. I had read all the books I was going to read, and scientific papers, and a doctoral dissertation. I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it.

He likens the process to cooking:1

The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intent to cook for dinner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with.

Pre-computer, McPhee started out by typing out all of his notes, leaving blank space after each one. After studying all of his notes, he’d write out elements of the story on index cards, each representing a component of the story.

All I had to do was put them in order. What order? An essential part of my office furniture in those years was a standard sheet of plywood—thirty-two square feet—on two sawhorses. I strewed the cards face up on the plywood. The anchored segments would be easy to arrange, but the free-floating ones would make the piece.

And then it was time for the scissors:

After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and 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 ladder line 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 only 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.

It’s interesting to note that McPhee usually has his beginning and ending in mind when he starts writing. How does he know when he’s done?

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.

See also:

(Thx @twliterary)


  1. Funny to contrast McPhee’s cooking metaphor to David Rakoff’s: “Unlike cooking, for example, where largely edible, if raw, ingredients are assembled, cut, heated, and otherwise manipulated into something both digestible and palatable, writing is closer to having to reverse-engineer a meal out of rotten food.” 

59 notes

  1. slimcoincidence reblogged this from austinkleon
  2. livinghitsthenailonthehead reblogged this from austinkleon
  3. clerestories reblogged this from austinkleon and added:
    I’m in the period of my thesis right now where I’m doing the grocery shopping. Very soon I have to dump it all out and...
  4. missxx reblogged this from austinkleon
  5. elaine4queen said: yep. even with computers, being visual, i like to type it all out, cut it into bits, then sellotape the whole thing together as a scroll.
  6. melissaleeanne reblogged this from austinkleon and added:
    Structure!
  7. sonipaul reblogged this from austinkleon
  8. moodboardinthecloud reblogged this from austinkleon
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