Author John McPhee on the delete key

September 24, 2015

John McPheeJohn McPhee’s books got my attention in the early 1970s and I’ve been a reader of his since then. Of course, he’s often in the The New Yorker magazine, that bastion of great writing and especially great creative nonfiction. So when I saw his latest essay about writing in the Sept. 14, 2015 issue, I knew I had to at least mention the piece, and call it to the attention of writers I know.

The piece is called Writing by Omission and its basic premise is that less is more when it comes to great writing.

I have to agree.  Of course, I’m in good company–Mark Twain also believed we writers needed to “kill all our little darlings” –all those details and turns of a phrase we are so attached to but that serve better in their omission than in the piece.

Novice writers have a hard time with this.  “Oh, but I NEED that stuff to tell the story!”  How many times have I heard this from writing students, workshop participants or writer friends?

And how many times have I, myself, said it?

Oh yes, me, too. I’ve been guilty.

McPhee began to learn this lesson many decades ago, when his New Yorker editor deleted 85 percent of a piece about oranges he submitted.

That’s harsh, isn’t it? Why, it’s nearly the entire piece! You can see why he would be distressed. What writer wouldn’t be upset?

In his New Yorker piece, McPhee goes on to explain how it all unfolded –in excruciating detail, I might add–but in this case, the detail serves. (In the interests of full disclosure I have to say that sometimes writers in that magazine drone on and on with so much detail that fails to serve. Fails to serve me, in any case. So the irony that this piece on deletion appeared in this particular magazine does not escape me.)

Early in the essay, McPhee points this out: 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.

Yes, exactly. We may do it unconsciously or consciously.  I do it consciously when I edit my work and see how much better it is with other choices.

McPhee’s comparison to a sculptor’s work fits beautifully:  Sculptors address the deletion of material in their own analogous way. Michelangelo: “The more the marble wastes, the more the statue grows.” Michelangelo: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

Yes, the story is there, writers. It’s up to us to find it.

And he quotes Ernest Hemingway: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

I could say more about this, but why? Three world-class writers and a world-class sculptor have already made the point so well.  I’m just sharing it.

Oh, and by the way: McPhee’s advice applies to life, too. When we cram our lives full of…you name it…stuff, activities, whatever….are we making the most of it? An edited life might well be a more functional one.

If you don’t subscribe to the New Yorker, the piece can be found here.  And really, if you’re a writer, you should subscribe. Just saying.

30 comments on “Author John McPhee on the delete key
  1. I love The New Yorker but I’ve unsubscribed to all magazines to de-clutter my life!! This piece sounds interesting. I think sometimes the writer has to trust the reader a bit more, leaving out extraneous material to allow them to piece things together. If the great Masters say so who am I to argue?

    BTW, I didn’t know you taught writing!

  2. Roz Warren says:

    “An edited life might well be a more functional one.” Agreed!

    Just finished reading McPhee’s essay myself. I liked it, although I confess that I did a little skimming. (So maybe he could have taken a bit more stuff out of his essay about taking out stuff?)

  3. It’s funny that growing up, the one thing that English teachers would remark about my writing was that it was too brief. My attempts to quote Shakespeare’s ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’ was completely lost on them.

  4. Loved this — and all the great reminders from some of the masters. It’s often so hard to edit our own writing, between attachment to our own “darlings” and the inability to detach enough to be objective. But I must say, it gets easier to edit my life as I get older — less time for all the extraneous “stuff” and a commitment to making room for what’s more important.

  5. pia says:

    I learned to read from New Yorker cartoons, and it’s been a part of my life ever since.

    I called John McPhee one of my Johns—(thought that wicked funny when young). The others being John Updike, and John Cheever. I used to play a game—the New Yorker published the author’s name at the end then. I would take away a point for each paragraph it took to me to realize who wrote the article. By the end of the game I was up to the first 3 or 4 sentences.

    The New Yorker–and John McPhee’s articles on nature taught me how important it is to be concise. Especially when in a long article. That stymied me in high school. And it’s not the kind of thing they teach in high school classes

    It’s only this past year I feel I have reached the stage of conciseness (not in comments!) that make me feel like a writer. It’s an incredible feeling. And I have my John’s, Truman and a host of other great New Yorker names to thank for helping me get there.

  6. Thanks for pulling this advice together. A must-share for the Fuze Publishing page.

  7. Writing came late, to me and I am constantly learning and editing down. Editing my life has been much easier and very satisfying.

  8. Susie Ellis says:

    Gosh, yet again, we don’t know what we don’t know. “Writing is selection” is the gem I have garnered. Thank you for enlightening me.

  9. Karen Austin says:

    Lovely! Thank you for bringing McPhee’s idea to my attention–and for adding your own spin to the topic. I could stand to edit myself–in writing, in conversation, in behavior. Thank you!

  10. So true: “Writing is selection.” We must select what to keep, what to cut, where to start, where to end. It’s a tough decision much of the time. I need to further read the pieces you’ve quoted as they surely will help me with the decision in the future. Thank you.

  11. Elena Peters says:

    I have to say that I was in total agreement with your post all the way. Then I seen the part about applying it to your life and you blew my mind! Yes! I think sometimes we just go along, stuffing more and more into our lives without a second thought. We have to be our own editors. We have to choose what is necessary for the most impact. Thank you for the reminder.

  12. Laura says:

    true story: 25 years ago my ex-husband and I had a joke about the New Yorker. I was always the first one to correct the issue and preview it for him. His standing question to me was: “anything good this week?”if it was a less than stellar issue my retort was always, “not really just the first part of A three-parter about wheat.” “Oh McPhee. No thanks.” Obviously, we weren’t big fans of McPhee. But I do like this piece you linked to in the New Yorker and I especially love your thoughts on his work and his ideas about writing. Another writer I’m not particularly fond of – – his personal life more than his work – – is Updike. Didn’t update say something about editing to the effect of: “do not spare your little darlings.”? You would think I could remember who actually said that. LOL it is after all my favorite line about editing.

  13. Mary says:

    Thanks for the good advice!

  14. Katy says:

    As a reader I hate when a novel is bogged down by the mire of too many details. As a writer, I work hard not to do this but my delete key winds up working over time in other area’s. Let’s not do a count of how many times I can say the, and, then, than in 55,000 words.

  15. Lottie says:

    Thanks for this – I tend to waffle when I write, so have put a lot of work into keeping things brief. I’ve never read anything by John McPhee – I’ll have to keep an eye out for him

  16. Robyn says:

    I’m a talker and it shows in my writing! I can get very wordy. Perhaps it’s time to see what I can cut out. Ooooo I love a good challenge

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