There’s an awfully good essay by John McPhee in this week’s New Yorker (subscription probably required, but worth getting one just for this) on his writing method that ought to be required reading for any non-fiction writer–academic or otherwise.
Thanks to my father, I’ve been reading McPhee since high school, and his writing has never failed to hook me. His subject matter is always initially baffling (barge traffic on the Illinois River? Seriously? Seriously.), but his ear for a good story and his uncanny ability to explain complicated stuff makes him a must-read. If there’s one writer I’d most like to be when I sit down to write about skyscrapers–or even when I stand up in front of a tech class–he’s it.
This article is about how he structures his essays, and I have to say I had never really noticed how big a role this plays in their clarity. He’s an obsessive note taker, and I was happy to see that he and I share a spatial method–he lays his out on a plywood table, I pin mine up on a big cork board. And he struggles (or claims to) with chronology vs. thematics. Anyone who dabbles in history has this problem: do you tell the story from day one to day x in a straight line? Or do you try to organize a piece around a set of themes or arguments? He describes one essay (on the Metropolitan Museum’s Thomas Hoving) as being in an art gallery and looking at one painting or episode after another, which allowed him to bounce around chronologically.
McPhee doesn’t mention editing at all, which I suspect plays an equally huge role in how readable his work can be. But he does talk directly about his method, which involves taking a small packet of notes out at a time once the organizational structure has been decided, and working only from those during a given day or week. That, I’ve found, is the only way to do it–to take small bites and focus on a thousand words at a time (or about two dozen note cards). He describes this in a priceless quote that deserves to go over every academic’s keyboard:
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.