Advice from the Masters: John McPhee

Jun 1, 2016 | Better Writing

John McPhee is one of those writers I truly enjoy. It’s not because he’s received awards and acclaim. It’s not because he is, as Wikipedia describes him, “one of the pioneers of creative nonfiction.

I truly enjoy his work because he writes the way I want to write someday. Here’s an example of a passage I love taken from my favorite McPhee book, Irons in the Fire. The book is a collection of essays. This is from the title essay about the time he spent with Nevada Brand Inspector.

“The brand inspector’s white vehicle is known to him and his family as the state pickup. One antenna is for mountaintop repeaters, another for the highway patrol, the third for district car-to-car radio. The glove compartment is packed with ammunition— for the 38 special, for the Smith & Wesson 357 magnum revolver, for the High Standard sawed-off shotgun. In a box beside the driver are pads of brand-inspection certificates, piles of miscellaneous documents, and the state government’s gold-stamped, clothbound, handsomely designed ‘Nevada Livestock Brand Book,’ which describes and sketches thirty-seven hundred and forty-three brands. He doesn’t seem to need it.”

Now here’s how John McPhee describes part of the process of producing writing like that.

“I always read the second draft aloud, as a way of moving forward. I read primarily to my wife, Yolanda, and I also have a friend whom I read to. I read aloud so I can hear if it’s fitting together or not. It’s just as much a part of the composition as going out and buying a ream of paper.”

Want more? Check out the complete list of Advice from the Masters posts

If you want even more writing advice from writers, check out Jon Winokur’s blog, “AdvicetoWriters.”

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