On Bullshit« an older post
a newer one »When Breath Becomes Air

Draft No. 4

Book Notes

Okay, I really don't know where I found the recommendation for this book, or why exactly I picked it up to read, other than it is a book on writing. Except that this is a book on writing non-fiction, and, well, let's be real, I write fiction.

Unsurprisingly, however, I enjoyed the book. I read it more slowly than I normally read books because much of the advice McPhee gives is embedded in the stories he tells. The format of the book is some varied order of story-lesson-example repeated, with the themes of structure, editors, checkpoints, and the like.

The book is such a great book for writers, not only because McPhee is a fun writer with an intelligent moustache (his joke, read the book to understand), but also because the structure of the book is as instructive as the lessons in it. The book is so much more enjoyable in the story-telling than it would be with only the lessons.

Which is, one would think, one of the points.

The last part of the book talks about the confidence of writers and how words, any words, down for the first draft, are often the hardest part of writing. I do so appreciate this part of the book a lot. Draft No 4 is usually the winner, YMMV.

I appreciated this book a lot, for the stories, for the structure, and for the lessons. I strongly recommend the book for anyone who writes non-fiction, but not necessarily of the technical sort.

Even more so, however, new pieces can shoot up from other pieces, pursuing connections that run through the ground like rhizomes. Set one of these progressions in motion, and it will skein out in surprising ways, finally ending in some unexpected place.
Page 11

I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it.
Page 17

Mrs. McKee made us do three pieces of writing a week. Not every single week. Some weeks had Thanksgiving in them. But we wrote three pieces a week most weeks for three years.
Page 18

This ... is awesome.

To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.
Page 19

“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.”
Page 20

The white space that separated the Upset Rapid and the alpinist said things that I would much prefer to leave to the white space to say — violin phraseology about courage and lack of courage and how they can exist side by side in the human breast.
Page 23

The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated just 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.
Page 35

Kedit’s All command helps me find all the times I use any word or phrase in a given piece, and tells me how many lines separate each use from the next.
Page 38

Or, as Tracy Kidder wrote in 1981, in The Soul of a New Machine, “Software that works is precious. Users don’t idly discard it.”
Page 43

"I don't know WHAT he is talkinga about," she thinks as she laments the loss of OSX 10.6.

Often, after you have reviewed your notes many times and thought through your material, it is difficult to frame much of a structure until you write a lead. You wade around in your notes, getting nowhere. You don’t see a pattern. You don’t know what to do. So stop everything. Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead.
Page 49

Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead. If the whole piece is not to be a long one, you may plunge right on and out the other side and have a finished draft before you know it; but if the piece is to have some combination of substance, complexity, and structural juxtaposition that pays dividends, you might begin with that acceptable and workable lead and then be able to sit back with the lead in hand and think about where you are going and how you plan to get there.
Page 49

... if the piece is not to be a long one, you may plunge right on and out the other side and have a finished draft before you know it; but if the piece is to have some combination of substance, complexity, and structural juxtaposition that pays dividends, you might begin with that acceptable and workable lead and then be able to sit back with the lead in hand and think about where you are going and how you plan to get there. Writing a successful lead, in other words, can illuminate the structure problem for you and cause you to see the piece whole—to see it conceptually, in various parts, to which you then assign your materials. You find your lead, you build your structure, you are now free to write.
Page 49

In slightly altered form, I’m including them here. I would go so far as to suggest that you should always write your lead (redoing it and polishing it until you are satisfied that it will serve) before you go at the big pile of raw material and sort it into a structure.
Page 49

All leads — of every variety — should be sound. They should never promise what does not follow.
Page 50

A lead is a promise. It promises that the piece of writing is going to be like this. If it is not going to be so, don’t use the lead.
Page 50

Morning Star one year, I was full of admiration for the way Evan S. Connell would briefly mention something, amplify it slightly fifteen pages later, and add to it twenty pages after that, gradually teasing up enough curiosity to call for a full-scale set piece.
Page 52

What to include, what to leave out. Those thoughts are with you from the start. While scribbling your notes in the field, you obviously leave out a great deal of what you’re looking at.
Page 56

Broadly speaking, the word “interests” in this context has subdivisions of appeal, among them the ways in which the choices help to set the scene, the ways in which the choices suggest some undercurrent about the people or places being described, and, not least, the sheer sound of the words that bring forth the detail.
Page 57

I wanted the story of the voyage to begin in total darkness on the ship’s bridge at 4 a.m. in the southeast Pacific Ocean off Valparaiso, and to be given the immediacy of the present tense.
Page 58

Of course, ValparaIso, Chile, not ValparAiso, Indiana.

Still, caught my attention.

Ending pieces is difficult, and usable endings are difficult to come by. It’s nice when they just appear in appropriate places and times.
Page 60

If you have come to your planned ending and it doesn’t seem to be working, run your eye up the page and the page before that. You may see that your best ending is somewhere in there, that you were finished before you thought you were.
Page 60

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.
Page 62

It dealt with tedium, and the yearning of people who go to sea to get off the sea.
Page 70

Grass is always greener, etc.

Shawn edited the piece himself, as he routinely did with new writers of long fact, breaking them in, so to speak, but not exactly like a horse, more like a baseball mitt.
Page 71

Love this analogy.

In discussing a long fact piece, Mr. Shawn would say, often enough, “How do you know?” and “How would you know?” and “How can you possibly know that?” He was saying clearly enough that any nonfiction writer ought always to hold those questions in the forefront of the mind.
Page 78

The writing impulse seeks its own level and isn’t always given a chance to find it.
Page 78

Young writers find out what kinds of writers they are by experiment. If they choose from the outset to practice exclusively a form of writing because it is praised in the classroom or otherwise carries appealing prestige, they are vastly increasing the risk inherent in taking up writing in the first place. It is so easy to misjudge yourself and get stuck in the wrong genre. You avoid that, early on, by writing in every genre. If you are telling yourself you’re a poet, write poems. Write a lot of poems. If fewer than one work out, throw them all away; you’re not a poet. Maybe you’re a novelist. You won’t know until you have written several novels.
Page 79

I have long thought that Ben Jonson summarized the process when he said, “Though a man be more prone and able for one kind of writing than another, yet he must exercise all.” Gender aside, I take that to be a message to young writers.
Page 79

As Confucius might say, You are what you can’t become, but you can see to it, for a time, that no one becomes what you are.
Page 81

No one will ever write in just the way that you do, or in just the way that anyone else does. Because of this fact, there is no real competition between writers. What appears to be competition is actually nothing more than jealousy and gossip.
Page 82

My advice is, never stop battling for the survival of your own unique stamp. An editor can contribute a lot to your thoughts but the piece is yours—and ought to be yours—if it is under your name.
Page 82

Editors have come along who use terms like “nut graph” — as in “What this piece needs is a good nut graph” — meaning a paragraph close to the beginning that encapsulates the subject and why you are writing about it. That sort of structural formalism is a part of the rote methodology that governs the thought of people who don’t have better ideas.
Page 82

Something something five paragraph essay something...

Writers come in two principal categories — those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure — and they can all use help. The help is spoken and informal, and includes insight, encouragement, and reassurance with regard to a current project. If you have an editor like that, you are, among other things, lucky; and, through time, the longer the two of you are talking, the more helpful the conversation will be.
Page 83

If doing nothing can produce a useful reaction, so can the appearance of being dumb. You can develop a distinct advantage by waxing slow of wit. Evidently, you need help. Who is there to help you but the person who is answering your questions? The result is the opposite of the total shutdown that might have occurred if you had come on glib and omniscient.
Page 92

We should just be hoping that our pieces aren’t obsolete before the editor sees them.
Page 119

Frames of reference are like the constellation of lights, some of them blinking, on an airliner descending toward an airport at night. You see the lights. They imply a structure you can’t see. Inside that frame of reference—those descending lights—is a big airplane with its flaps down expecting a runway.
Page 120

Frank wrote that he was wondering if all of us are losing what he felicitously called our “collective vocabulary.” He asked, “Are common points of reference dwindling? Has the personal niche supplanted the public square?” My answer would be that the collective vocabulary and common points of reference are not only dwindling now but have been for centuries. The dwindling may have become speedier, but it is an old and continuous condition.
Page 123

It was a story told to me by John A. Wheeler, who, during the Second World War, had been the leading physicist in residence at the Hanford Engineer Works, on the Columbia River in south-central Washington, where he attended the startup and plutonium production of the first large-scale nuclear reactor in the world.
Page 129

Wheeler keeps coming up in this books I read.

The Japanese called the balloons fūsen bakudan. Thirty-three feet in diameter, they were made of paper and were equipped with incendiary devices or high explosives. In less than a year, nine thousand were launched from a beach on Honshu. They killed six people in Oregon, five of them children, and they started forest fires, and they landed from Alaska to Mexico and as far east as Farmington, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit.
Page 130

The worst checking error is calling people dead who are not dead. In the words of Joshua Hersh, “It really annoys them.”
Page 135

An almost foolproof backup screen to the magazine-to-book progression is the magazine’s vigilant readership. After an error gets into The New Yorker, heat-seeking missiles rise off the earth and home in on the author, the fact-checker, the editor, and even the shade of the founder.
Page 137

Block. It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life. A not always brief or minor form of it mutes all writers from the outset of every day.
Page 157

That four-to-one ratio in writing time—first draft versus the other drafts combined—has for me been consistent in projects of any length, even if the first draft takes only a few days or weeks.
Page 159

The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me.
Page 159

The difference between a common writer and an improviser on a stage (or any performing artist) is that writing can be revised. Actually, the essence of the process is revision. The adulating portrait of the perfect writer who never blots a line comes Express Mail from fairyland.
Page 160

This makes me ponder if this is why podcasts are so difficult for me.

"...Who was I to take on that subject? It was terrifying. One falls into such projects like slipping into caves, and then wonders how to get out. To feel such doubt is a part of the picture—important and inescapable. When I hear some young writer express that sort of doubt, it serves as a checkpoint; if they don’t say something like it they are quite possibly, well, kidding themselves.”
Page 161

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.
Page 161

"... A relaxed, unself-conscious style is not something that one person is born with and another not. Writers do not spring full-blown from the ear of Zeus.”
Page 161

It is toward the end of the second draft, if I’m lucky, when the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show to other people, something that seems to be working and is not going to go away.
Page 162

You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.
Page 162

I like this idea.

The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus.
Page 162


The value of a thesaurus is not to make a writer seem to have a vast vocabulary of recondite words. The value of a thesaurus is in the assistance it can give you in finding the best possible word for the mission that the word is supposed to fulfill.
Page 163

There can be situations, though, wherein words or phrases lie between the specific object and the clause that proves its specificity, and would call for the irregular restrictive “which.”
Page 166

Today I became aware of the irregular restrictive "which," which I now love!

House style is a mechanical application of things like spelling and italics. In The New Yorker, “travelling” is spelled with two “l” s.
Page 170

Oh heck yes.

Reading a sentence like “She didn’t know what happened to the other five people travelling with her,” they will see that what the writer could mean is that the traveller was one of eleven people on the trip.

This is high-alloy nitpicking, but why not?

There is elegance in the less ambiguous way. She didn’t know what happened to the five other people who were travelling with her.
Page 171

Love this.

To linger in the same thin air, what is the difference between “further” and “farther”? In the dictionary, look up “further.” It says “farther.” Look up “farther.” It says “further.” So you’re safe and can roll over and sleep. But the distinction has a difference and O.K.’ ers know what’s O.K. “Farther” refers to measurable distance. “Further” is a matter of degree. Will you stop pelting me with derision? That’s enough out of you. You’ll go no further.
Page 171


Five years later, when I happened to be writing about lacrosse in Manchester, England, I worked in the word “Mancunian” three times in one short paragraph. It was the second-best demonym I’d ever heard, almost matching Vallisoletano (a citizen of Valladolid).
Page 173

Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going.
Page 180

At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got.
Page 180

Never market-research your writing. Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.
Page 180

Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material—that much and no more.
Page 180

Writing is selection. From the first word of the first sentence in an actual composition, the writer is choosing, selecting, and deciding (most importantly) what to leave out.
Page 182

In other words: There are known knowns — there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. Yes, the influence of Ernest Hemingway evidently extended to the Pentagon.
Page 184

This is from Rumsfield in 2002.

And this quote keeps coming up in the various books I'm reading, too.

The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space.
Page 184

When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author.
Page 184

Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.
Page 185

And I give them the whole of the Gettysburg Address (twenty-five lines, Green 3). Memorization and familiarity have made that difficult, yes, but scarcely impossible. For example, if you green the latter part of sentence 9 and the first part of sentence 10, you can attach the head of 9 to the long tail of 10 and pick up twenty-four words, nine per cent of Abraham Lincoln’s famously compact composition:

9. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here

10. to the great task remaining before us …
Page 187

Yes. Those two lines would flow better that way. But, Lincoln, so we keep it the same as it ever was.

Add new comment