John McPhee on writing for your reader

John McPhee writes in this week’s New Yorker about two essential skills for every nonfiction writer: knowing what to take out, and letting readers experience the story for themselves. For McPhee, the two are inextricably linked.

Because McPhee expresses his ideas far better than I could, I’ll use his words and then provide commentary.

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

Photo of John McPhee

John McPhee (Source: Office of Communications, Princeton University)

Some of McPhee’s books and articles have grown much larger than he envisioned them initially, because as he dug deeper he found more and more that was interesting. Still, he says, before a story goes into final production there’s always something that would best be taken out.

He describes the bygone process of greening, in which a writer has to strike (using a green pencil) a certain number of lines from a finished magazine article so that it fits the space. He still teaches greening to his writing students. Sounds like a good idea for us technical writers as well.

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. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in — if not, it stays out.

I like the idea that writing is a progression — from the starting point to the next thing, then to the next. Even though you’re writing nonfiction you’re still writing a story, and as the writer you get to decide how the story will go.

Since my background is in technical writing, I find myself wanting to argue that the “one criterion” shouldn’t be what interests me but should be what interests my reader. Yet I think I understand what McPhee is saying: As the one who’s doing the informing, I’m responsible for choosing what my reader will need or want. My reader can’t know, and I’m shirking my duty if I force them to choose the story.

I think this is true even in an “every page is page one” environment where my reader chooses what content to read, and in what order. Within each chunk of content — each topic — I still have to provide the narrative that will lead my reader to what they need.

To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape…a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images — such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early frost. 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. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost.

Get lost. In the end it’s about the reader. The writer should become invisible. I’m in complete accord with this: In fact I consider it to be the prime directive of technical writing.

What do you think? Leave a comment. Tell me if you enjoyed McPhee’s piece, and what you think of his ideas on brevity and on connecting with the reader.

11 thoughts on “John McPhee on writing for your reader

  1. Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Larry, Regarding the statement that I’ve cited in the previous comment, I like your commentary: “As the one who’s doing the informing, I’m responsible for choosing what my reader will need or want.” Yes! The point isn’t what interests us as writers; we might find something fascinating that the reader would find old-hat or irrelevant. We have to define “interesting” vicariously.

    Side note: We owe it to the reader to avoid writing about things we find uninteresting. What if those things DO interest the reader? We might invert McPhee’s statement: “If something DOESN’T interest you, keep it out—until you figure out why it’s of interest to the reader. Then make it your business to develop an interest.”

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Well said, Marcia. And the better we get to know our audience, the more likely it’ll be that whatever interests them, will naturally interest us as well..

  2. Vinish Garg (@vingar)

    When Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize for ‘The God of Small Things’ in 1997, one of the reviews read as ‘The book will be incomplete if we remove even a single word from anywhere in it, and the spirit and style of book will be diluted if we add a single word anywhere in the book.”

    To be exact and yet accurate is a craft. However, easier done in novels than in technical manuals! 🙂

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