McPhee & Me: Tips for Writing from a Master

what not to do as a newbie writer

For some reason, I had never heard of John McPhee until a few weeks ago. He has written more than 30 books about a variety of subjects, everything from Bill Bradley to transporters to oranges. His gift is taking what seems like a small subject and drawing out the story hidden inside, and he is very good at it. Anyone who can write a popular book about oranges must be . . .
So far, I have read two of his books in the past couple of weeks, [amazon_link id=\”0374526893\” target=\”_blank\” ]A Sense of Where You Are[/amazon_link] and [amazon_link id=\”0374515263\” target=\”_blank\” ]Levels of the Game[/amazon_link]. The first is an biographical account of Bill Bradley, written while he was still at Princeton. The second is a book detailing a single tennis game between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. McPhee does such a great job telling the story of this tennis match that you will \”see\” more of the match by reading this then you will by watching the actual match.

Here are some of the lessons that I have learned from reading McPhee so far:

1. Research everything. One of the striking things about McPhee’s writing is how much research he has to do to complete his books. For anyone writing, research should be at the top of your list if you want to write compellingly on a subject. Follow the 95% rule, and shoot for learning more about your subject then at least 95% of your intended readership. Any lower and you aren’t really an expert, and any higher will have diminishing returns for your time invested.

2. Dialogue works. Letting your subjects speak for themselves, whether fiction or non-fiction, is very important. Sometimes the best thing a writer can do is get out of the way. Dialogue also has the advantage of being exact and moving the story along at a quick pace. Be selective with what you include, but include a lot. It’s easier than ever to interview and record these days, just use your smartphone to record or try using Google Hangouts for video recording.

3. People are fascinating. It’s easy to get caught up in the WHAT of your book, rather than the WHO. Dive into who your book is about – their background, their influences, their hobbies, their future, their friends, etc. You will find that building around a real individual and fleshing out their life on paper will tell your story better than focusing on just the facts. One other advantage that this method has is that it circumvents a reader’s defenses – they can’t object to a list of facts that they don’t think will work because they are just learning more about someone’s life and how they did it.

4. Perspective is everything. Don’t settle for the right answer on the angle to tell your book. Instead, always ask yourself  this question, \”What are the best ways to tell my story?\” Explore multiple answers before settling on one. I would never pick up a book on a tennis match and expect to enjoy it – I’ve never even watched a match on television. But a match reveals years of strategy and relationship between two individuals, highlighted by racial tension and the vastly different backgrounds of the two men playing.

5. Tell it quickly. One of the McPhee characteristics that I really like is how quickly his stories move despite his microscopic focus. His books rarely have chapters and they read like one long essay on a single subject. One way to accomplish this for yourself is to follow the advice of Stephen King and Anne LaMott – write your first draft only for you and write it as fast as you can. Your second draft is for the reader.

Reading is one of the best things you can do as a writer, and reading McPhee’s work will help you write better and appreciate the art of the craft even more. Below are the two books that I mentioned with links to reviews I wrote on them as well.















Review for A Sense of Where You Are



















Review of Levels of the Game

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