John McPhee on structure in the New Yorker

by Dame Eleanor Hull

In the issue for Jan. 14, 2013, John McPhee has a piece on “Structure” that has hit me like the stone tablets must have hit Moses.  I’m going to be thinking about this essay for awhile, and posting quotes and my responses.  The take-aways sound so simple: structure is important in writing, and working at it is both worthwhile and a struggle.  McPhee gives examples, and gives credit to people who helped him.

If you’ve been reading for awhile, you know that structure is what I struggle with most in writing.  I don’t really grasp the idea of just writing a paragraph at a time and then you put them all together and that’s an article, or a book.  Maybe this is because I’m not in a field with a standard structure for writing, such as some of the social sciences have.  In the MLA disciplines, there’s definitely an artistic component to good writing.  You have to discover the right structure; it’s not dictated.  I suppose you could just not bother, but I’m not up for throwing paragraphs together and letting someone else sort them out.  I am always in search of that structure, and I feel a reassuring sense of validation in McPhee’s points that it matters and is hard, and a sense of hope that I may learn something more about my craft by studying his advice and examples.

Just to start, though, here’s my first favorite quote: “To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me.  It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well.  Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.  Square 1 does not become Square 2, just Square 1 squared and cubed” (46).

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