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NON-FICTION: SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER?

December 17, 2017

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As someone who works in technology and is, at the same time, interested in writing, I always imagined good writing was the result of an intense creative process, fuelled by an endless supply of caffeine, in which a spontaneous stream of ideas flows all the way from God-knows-where to the writer’s brain, then fingers, and finally settles on to screen or paper.

However, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee — a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who also teaches creative non-fiction at Princeton University — has altered my viewpoint. The amount of planning he undertakes to write a piece puts the engineer in me to shame; I never associated creativity in writing with meticulous planning.

Draft No. 4 is a collection of McPhee’s previously published essays and sheds light on various aspects of writing: giving writing structure, relationships with editors and publishers, frames of reference, writer’s block, revisions and drafts, omissions etc.

Good writing is mostly revision, argues a prize winning author

McPhee explains in detail how to structure a piece since he believes structure can make people turn pages. His interest in structure dates from high school when a teacher asked the students to provide a structural outline for a piece of writing. McPhee uses such outlines extensively in his projects and also emphasises their use to his own students.

Before working on a structure, McPhee prepares. He begins with a set of extensive notes which he then types, as this gives the whole theme shape in his mind. He cuts the typed notes into pieces and arranges them on a table, referring to them when required. The author shares various diagrams — doodles, arrows, circles and snail-like figures — to conceptualise his structures. This I found quite unique; the practice of building the structure first allows him to make use of thematically-dominated formations instead of the more common chronologically-based ones, and he also cites examples where chronologically structured pieces wouldn’t make much sense.

To frame the structure, McPhee advises writing leads — initial sentences or ideas that spark readers’ interest — first, although they are hardest to write. Think of this practice like a promise, he suggests, that authors should never break.

I develop software for a living, but McPhee’s use of the computer as a writer surprised me. Someone at Princeton University’s IT department introduced him to a text editor called Kedit, and also wrote some computer programmes that became an indispensable part of the author’s toolkit. These programmes help McPhee find “fad” words in a document and also indicate if a word is used too many times. They also take care of words that the author doesn’t want to use more than once in a document. Part of me wishes McPhee could have made these tools available to the public as well!

On the relationship between authors and editors, McPhee shares interesting insights. Some editors he has worked with had an incredible work ethic; one, to McPhee’s surprise, read 80,000 words overnight. He writes that editors should understand the demands of time involved in creative work. One editor — when McPhee asked how he was able to go into minute details with just one writer when his job involved so many other things that needed to be taken care of — answered, “It takes as long as it takes.” He also suggests that editors shouldn’t become rewriters, and writers should strive for the survival of their voice. According to McPhee, good editors groom young authors by editing their pieces themselves, often going from comma to comma together.

In writing, McPhee emphasises the importance of using an appropriate frame of reference — the lens through which a story is told. Some authors want their work to last decades, but they shouldn’t because most frames of reference quickly become obsolete. He writes how he once tested a piece he had written about high school students: he went to a class and called out the terms used in the piece, and asked students to raise their hands if they recognised those terms. This is an interesting method, although I am not certain how testing a frame of reference on people who are not your audience would be helpful.

The book has some useful ideas on managing writer’s block. A student once wrote to McPhee about his frustrations with this problem; McPhee asked him to write a letter to his mother, telling her in detail about his frustrations and then about the subject he was stuck on. The student was to continue writing about the subject, eventually remove the “Dear mother” and keep the rest. This is similar to the ‘rubber duck principle’ in the software industry whereby an engineer can often solve a problem by explaining the issue to a rubber duck on his desk.

The essence of writing, writes McPhee, is revision, since “writing is three or four times over, never once.” The most important thing is to have the first draft on paper, even if it doesn’t make much sense. This is crucial, since one cannot even think of improvements until the first draft is ready. When McPhee’s first draft is ready, he works on the second draft by reading the first aloud. He makes improvements. The second draft is complete when he actually wants to show his writing to other people. His third draft is ready when he’s removed things that he heard while reading that didn’t make sense. After his third draft, he pencils boxes around words for ‘draft no. 4’. He tries to find better, more suitable words for these words in boxes, using a thesaurus — though he warns one should use a thesaurus carefully. However, I found him a little lacking on details about how exactly he makes the transition from draft to draft and when exactly does he know that a certain draft phase is over.

One dilemma that haunts perhaps all writers is what, and what not, to include. While at Time magazine, McPhee developed the habit of omitting a significant portion of his finished pieces to fit allotted space. He thinks omitting, without altering the structure or author’s tone and style, can improve the final outcome. As a writing exercise he even gives his students pieces of notable writings — for example, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address — and asks them to trim them.

Overall, Draft No. 4 is a great book that shows how a good contemporary writer approaches his craft. I did, however, find it hard to believe that someone who insists so much on a definitive and concrete structure before writing a piece was willing to put together already-written pieces in the form of a book, since this runs contrary to the advice given.

The reviewer works in the software industry and is a freelance writer

Draft No. 4: On the
Writing Process
By John McPhee
Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, US
ISBN: 978-0374142742
208pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 17th, 2017