Wick Communications

Write with structure

In Writing techniques on 5 Oct 2017 at 3:42 pm

I confess I have never spent much time with the writing of John McPhee. I don’t regularly read the New Yorker and his books always seemed to center on East Coast things that didn’t immediately interest me.

Well, now I’m sure I was wrong. Last week’s New York Times Magazine piece set me straight.

The portrait is of a highly disciplined writer who spends more time on getting the structure right than choosing just the right word. Most of us don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about the architecture of our writing. Too often we pick up the paintbrush and start slinging bright colors on the page before we’ve hung the drywall.

McPhee says his interest in the structure of his work began long, long ago when a teacher made him write an outline before getting on with the writing. My guess is you don’t do that. I myself generally only outline things when I’m contemplating a long narrative. Otherwise, I convince myself that I have already done that heavy lifting solely with my mind’s eye. Most of the time, I’m fooling myself. A quick outline, jotted on a napkin, might be all it takes to make sure your story begins where it ought to and hits the right notes as it careers on to the ending.

The weird snail-shell looking thing at the top of this post is McPhee’s image of a story that became “Travels in Georgia,” an essay he wrote for the New Yorker in 1973. …

Another pictogram looked like this:

In that one, he intended to tell the story of character D through characters A, B and C. Get this: He came up with the structure first, and then spent months trying to find the right people to fit that structure. The story was less important to him than the way he told it.

His new book, “Draft No. 4,” takes readers into his process. Count me in.

Clay

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