In our bite-sized content driven culture, there is a tendency to read without considering the craft of a well-written piece of work. We focus on devouring the content, without paying much attention to the words, the rhythm, the fun, the mystery. An article by Joel Achenbach on Princeton Alumni Weekly harks back to this in a delightful tribute to his former professor, John McPhee.
McPhee was known for his passion and dedication to his craft. It was contagious. His sharp wit was also a trait that his students appreciated.
McPhee’s teachings on writing were rich and numerous. I’ll share a few here.
- On structure: “Readers are not supposed to see structure. It should be as invisible as living bones. It shouldn’t be imposed; structure arises within the story.”
- On words: He taught his students to revere language, to care about every word, to use a dictionary, to pay attention to rhythm and to refrain from treating synonyms interchangeably.
- On simplicity: Sometimes writing a simple description can take days (“if you do it right, it will slide by unnoticed. If you blow it, it’s obvious”).
- On restraint: “Novice writers believe they will improve a piece of writing by adding things to it; mature writers know they will improve it by taking things out.”
That’s all folks.