Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of omission

with 2 comments

Structure of an essay by John McPhee

Over the last couple of years, it has slowly become clear that the series of articles on the writing life that John McPhee is unhurriedly publishing in The New Yorker is one of the modest but indisputable creative events of our time. McPhee has long been regarded as the dean of American nonfiction, and in one essay after another, he has lovingly, amusingly, and unsentimentally unpacked the tricks and secrets of six full decades as a writer and curious character. The fact that these pieces are written from the perspective of a journalist—albeit a preternaturally inventive and sensitive one—makes them even more useful for authors of fiction. Because the point of view has been shifted by ninety degrees, we’re more aware of the common elements shared by all forms of writing: choice of subject, structure, revision, selection, omission. There isn’t a point that McPhee makes here that couldn’t be applied with profit to any form of creative writing, or any kind of artistic effort in general. McPhee isn’t dogmatic, and he frames his advice less as a rulebook than as a string of gentle, sensible suggestions. But the result, when collected at last in the inevitable book, will amount to nothing less than one of the most useful works ever composed on the art of clear writing and thinking, worthy of being placed on the same shelf as The Elements of Style. Strunk and White will always come first, but McPhee has set himself up as their obvious successor.

Take his most recent article, which focuses on the crucial art of omission. McPhee makes many of the same points—although more vividly and memorably—that others have covered before. Writing is cutting; a story should be exactly the length that can be sustained by its material and no more; a rough draft almost always benefits from being trimmed by ten percent. Underlying it all, however, is a deeper philosophical sense of why we omit what we do. McPhee writes:

To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape, for example, a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images—such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early first. The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative writer silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader. In other words, to the extent that this is all about you, leave that out.

Omission, in short, is a strategy for enforcing objectivity, and it obliges the writer to keep an eye out for the nonessential. When you’re trying to cut a story or essay by some arbitrary amount, you often find that the first parts to go are the places where you’ve imposed yourself on the subject. And if you sacrifice a telling fact or detail to preserve one of your own opinions, you’ve probably got bigger problems as a writer.

A page from my rough draft

And the word “arbitrary” in the above paragraph is surprisingly important. Yesterday, I quoted Calvin Trillin on the process of greening at Time, in which makeup editors would return an article to its author with curt instructions to cut five or ten lines. McPhee, who did a lot of greening himself over the years, adds a crucial piece of information: “Time in those days, unlike its rival Newsweek, never assigned a given length but waited for the finished story before fitting it into the magazine.” In other words, the number of lines the writer was asked to cut wasn’t dictated by the content of the story, but by an arbitrary outside factor—in this case, the length and layout of the other articles that happened to be jostling for space in that particular issue. And while we might expect this to do violence to the integrity of the story itself, in practice, it turns out to be the opposite: it’s precisely because the quota of lines to remove is essentially random that the writer is forced to think creatively about how and where to condense. I’ve imposed arbitrary length limitations on just about everything meaningful I’ve ever written, and if anything, I wish I had been even more relentless. (One of the few real advantages of the structural conventions of the modern movie script is that it obliges writers to constantly engage in a kind of greening to hit a certain page count. Sometimes, it can feel like cheating, but it’s also a productive way to sweat down a story, and there isn’t a screenwriter alive who hasn’t experienced the truth of McPhee’s observation: “If you kill a widow, you pick up a whole line.”)

Of course, none of this means that the seemingly nonessential doesn’t have its place. Few essays would be any fun to read if they didn’t include the occasional digression or footnote that covered tangentially related territory, and that applies to McPhee as much as to anyone else. (In fact, his piece on omission concludes with a huge shaggy dog story about General Eisenhower, ending on a delicious punchline that wouldn’t be nearly as effective if McPhee hadn’t built up to it with a full page of apparent trivia.) Every work of art, as McPhee notes elsewhere, arrives at its own rhythms and structure, and an essay that is all business, or a series of breathless news items, is unlikely to inspire much affection. If there’s a point to be made here, though, it’s that digression and looseness is best imposed on the level of the overall work, rather than in the individual sentence: McPhee’s finest essays often seem to wander from one subject to the next as connections occur to the author, but on the level of the individual line or image, they’re rigorously organized. Greening is such a valuable exercise because it targets the parts of a work that can always be boiled down further—transitional sections, places where the text repeats itself, redundancies, moments of indulgence. McPhee compares it to pruning, or to removing freight cars to shorten a train, so that no one, even the author, would know in the end that anything has been removed. And it’s only through greening that you discover the shape that the story wants for itself.

Written by nevalalee

September 14, 2015 at 9:39 am

2 Responses

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  1. I would also note that McPhee very artfully doesn’t erase himself entirely from his essays or books, but just pares himself back to where he’s no longer in the way. He’s there, but he’s always like a Watson to the real-life Sherlock Holmeses he writes about.


    September 14, 2015 at 10:22 pm

  2. @Nat: That’s a great way of putting it.


    September 15, 2015 at 6:18 pm

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