“Each of those . . . structures was worked out after copying with a typewriter all notes from notebooks and transcribing the contents of microcassettes. . . . The note-typing could take many weeks, but it collected everything in one legible place, and it ran all the raw material in some concentration through the mind.

“The notes from one to the next frequently had little in common.  They jumped from topic to topic, and only in places were sequentially narrative.  So I always rolled the platen and left blank spaces after each item to accommodate the scissors that were fundamental to my advanced methodology.  After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and then coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size.  If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders.  One after another, in the course of writing, I would spill out the sets of slivers, arrange them ladderlike on a card table, and refer to them . . . . If this sounds mechanical, the effect was absolutely the reverse.  If the contents of the seventh folder were before me, the contents of twenty-nine other folders were out of sight. . . . The procedure eliminated nearly all distraction and concentrated only the material I had to deal with in a given day or week.” (50)

The emphases are mine.  The concentrating of data is crucial for me, and I have had trouble allowing myself to do this.  “Just write.”  No.  McPhee admits that the typing of notes could take weeks—“many” of them—and he doesn’t say how long “reading and rereading,” “developing the structure” and “coding the notes accordingly” takes.  The point is that these are a necessary part of the process.  And when he is done, then he is done.  Then he “just writes” whatever section is the job of the day or week.

9 thoughts on “McPhee, seven: process

  1. I love this McPhee series! This is how I have always worked best and it is great to see someone affirm it.

    Also: on an earlier post, writing as a social act, there was a good article in College English a few years ago on this, that I found because I was looking for revisionist type work on the idea of procrastination. The argument (although more complex, it s a good article) was essentially that writing is social and the idea of going into a closet to do it cuts you off from resources.

    I like to go to nice places to write, cut myself off from certain kinds of distractions, but then not isolate in said nice place.

  2. Also, on just writing … I did write a seminar paper once, in a day, by “just writing.” I wrote it in longhand on a legal pad and typed it the next day (on a manual typewriter, of course — what I had), and it was over 20 pages and well documented.

    But I had already done precisely all the things McPhee says first, and that is why this was possible.

  3. It seems to me that the “just write” advice assumes the structure is known – I.e. the classic social science article structure. McPhee’s structure is part of the work. Which is why it is fun to read him.

    1. Oh, that makes so much sense. Indeed, most of the books on getting academic writing done seem to be written by social scientists. The real comp people write differently, about different techniques, but they rarely write about professional writing, more about how to get writing-averse freshpeeps to get started, so again, utility is limited. But yes, when structure is part of the discovery process, that changes a great deal. Why have I never seen that? You are so smart.

      1. This is why I have to re-find that article from College English. It’s about process/struggles writing professionally while being an English professor, and furthermore an already successful, already well published English professor.

        One of the reasons I find myself allergic to Scrivener, the program I was investigating, is that it keeps trying to outline your piece in this rigid social science structure. It also tries to keep outlining your novels as formula fiction.

  4. Another good read that I’m currently working my way through, and that engages some of the same questions (e.g. how to combine chronological and thematic organization) is Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato’s Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction — and Get it Published!. They’re writing primarily for scholars who’d like to write a trade book (or a scholarly-press book with some of the sales potential of a trade book — which, of course, scholarly presses love), but much of the advice still applies if one is simply trying to structure a scholarly humanities book well. I can’t remember where I saw it recommended (if it was here, I’m going to feel pretty silly, but I don’t think so; I think it might have been one of those cases when Amazon’s “you might also like” algorithm worked well for me), but I’m enjoying it.

    I learned to teach comp (at the height of the process trend, which has much to recommend it, but also some problems) and began my dissertation at the same time. That didn’t work out well; I struggled for years trying to find some sort of sensible shape for each chapter (the division into chapters and ordering of said chapters was easier, since I treated one or two works by an author in each chapter, and arranged the chapters chronologically; thank goodness I was writing about novels, or I might still be wrestling with the #@%$! thing). I, too, find that some combination of getting ideas on paper, then finding a structure, then rearranging/revising within that structure, works best. Crosby’s article looks interesting; I will retrieve and read.

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