Can You Teach Good Writing? We Ask One of the Greats

Digital Learning

Can You Teach Good Writing? We Ask One of the Greats

By Jeffrey R. Young     Sep 18, 2018

Can You Teach Good Writing? We Ask One of the Greats

John McPhee, a master of telling nonfiction stories, became a teacher by accident 43 years ago when Princeton University needed a last-minute replacement. He has steered the course ever since, each spring when he takes breaks from writing books or pieces for The New Yorker, and it has become legendary in journalism circles.

The list of his alumni include some of today’s most well-known writers: David Remnick (now editor of The New Yorker), Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation), Tim Ferriss (author of the bestselling “4-Hour Workweek”), and so on.

McPhee lays out his course in his latest book, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, and I was eager to talk to him about his craftsmanship as a teacher. To my surprise, though, he downplayed his impact in the classroom, and even suggested that you can’t really teach the kind of writing that he, in fact, teaches.

The conversation was recorded several months ago, just before McPhee taught his spring course. Listen below, or subscribe to the EdSurge On Air podcast on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). Or read highlights from the conversation (which have been edited and condensed for clarity).

EdSurge: You’re a prolific author of books and a staff writer for The New Yorker, but you’ve continued to teach a writing course for more than 40 years. What drives you to teach?

McPhee: Why do I teach? Well, when I started, I was substituting for somebody else who quit a month before the semester began. They called me up from the university. I was working across the street where I had a little place where I wrote, and when they asked me to come over and teach this course in non-fiction writing, I said yes, immediately. And that was an instinct. And the instinct was that it would be helpful and complimentary to my own work, as well as the teaching, and that's how it's proved over 43 years or I wouldn't still be doing it.

It's a very symbiotic thing. I get a lot out of doing the teaching, and what I get is that my own writing stops. I have a period of three to four months when I'm concentrating on the writing of these young people but not on my own, and there just is a crop rotation factor there. There's no way I could measure this, but I believe that I've written more in terms of my books and articles and everything else over the years since I started teaching 43 years ago than I would have had I not been teaching.

You’ve had some pretty famous students. David Remnick, who is the editor of The New Yorker, was one of your students at some point. What do you see as the legacy of your class now that you’ve done it so long? What are you most proud of?

I'm absolutely sincere when I say this, that David Remnick would be the editor of The New Yorker right now if he had never heard of me or any course that I teach. I'm sure of that. And Jim Kelly would've been the managing editor of Time, as he was. And so, anyway, they get practice writing and they're in conversation. I mean, I hope it helps.

One analogy that I've often used is a sort of age-old sore question: Do you really think you can teach writing? And this is almost rhetorical because the person who's asking the question believes you can't. And my response to that is that I was a Red Cross Water Safety Instructor at a camp in Vermont, and I taught lifesaving, swimming and everything else. Everybody I dealt with—they were older kids—could swim. So what did I teach them? I taught them how to move through the water a little more smoothly and efficiently. I taught them this and that about swimming in a better way, and that's what I do as a writing teacher. I look at stuff and do this, but I don't create the writer at all.

Have you mentioned the fact that you are one of those students?

No, I was going to reveal that.

Well, I'm revealing it.

[Disclosure: I was one of McPhee’s students back when I was a sophomore at college about 20 years ago. I'm one of his not-so-famous students, but I have to say, he had this enormous impact on me when I sat there in his wood-panel classroom as a baby-faced, out-of-place, middle-class kid from Georgia. Since then, I've wondered many times, what's the magic? He taught me how to write, but how?]

I think writers are unique, and that would mean that each of the 16 kids in my class in a given year is different from all the others, and no one will ever be able to write just the way you do. It's like a thumbprint, and my work with them is based on that. The core of the course is private conferences about their writing, but the private conferences are not to try to teach them that it must be done this way, but to help them do it their way.

People might be curious about how the class works. What’s your quick description of the course?

Well, first of all, workshops usually involve people talking at considerable length in the class about each other's work, and we do very, very little of that. It's really not a workshop. The workshop aspect would be private conferences with me.

In the seminars there are visitors—other writers, grammarians, people like Mary Norris, and then [the rest of the] seminars I'm just carrying forth on different topics related to writing. But it isn't really a workshop where it's sort of like an open precept of people talking with each other. That would be a little off the mark to call it that.

So why did you design it the way you did, instead of making, say, a traditional workshop?

Well, I guess because when I was in college, at this college, I reacted to the workshop idea. I mean, I wasn't learning much from other students. I set up this course the way I did probably in reaction to things that had occurred in my own life earlier.

One of the things I remember the most about when we had those in-person meetings was that you had circled a word I had used, and you walked me over to a dictionary in your office. I think it was on a stand. And we read over the definition together, and you said, "Is that the meaning that's best? Or maybe something different."

After all these years, it's really stuck with me, this kind of care and crafting of every word. And from your book and from your comments now, I can see that this is something you probably did with many of your students. Is that the effect you were going for in really embodying this writer's craft?

That aspect, sure. That's one thing out of many. But those words, when you get up and go over and look at the dictionary, whatever, that's the kind of thing that occurs in Draft No. 4., and Draft No. 4 is the most fun, it is the last go you have at your piece of writing. What I do is draw boxes around words that are perfectly good words, but there might be a better one. Not a bigger one, not a more recondite one, but a better one, and you do this by haunting dictionaries after you have identified where that opportunity is. It's part of my writing process all the way, and because it's the most fun, and draft number one is no fun at all, I called this new book Draft No. 4.

It seems like you're passing down from the editors that you've had at Time Magazine and then at The New Yorker. Is that fair to say that in a way you're putting students through the processes of editing that you were put through or what you thought worked and that you'd adopted for yourself?

Right. In my class and on those private conferences and everything, and the preparation that I do before them, I am pretending that I am the student's editor and copy editor and that everything I have to say to the student is in the spirit of suggestion rather than correction, and that's the basis on which I do that. So absolutely, that's what it is.

Now, in this book, my course is there. It's in the fabric of the book from beginning to end. So tell me, as a former student, what am I going to do in the spring semester of 2018? Because I'm going to give them all the book, and the course is in the book, and now we're sitting in the seminar room and I don't know what to do next. It's going to be fun. It's going to be fun.

Is there a teacher that you had that most shapes the way you do things in the classroom?

Yes. In fact a very specific teacher. This was at Princeton High School, English teacher, and her name was Olive McKee. An English teacher has the writing component to teach and also literature, and the ratio is kind of up to the teacher. This teacher, to a phenomenal extent, put emphasis on writing. Of course we read things, but I was in her class for three years, and we were assigned most weeks three pieces of writing. Each piece of writing had to be accompanied by a structural outline of some sort. It could be Roman numeral i, ii, iii, it could be doodles, but it had to show that you were thinking about how you were going to put your piece together before you wrote it.

That's exactly what I do in my Princeton course and have done since year one in that course. Imagine writing three pieces a week. I mean, you get a lot of practice as a writer right there. I owe just a huge amount to her.

And that's part of your fascination with structure, perhaps? One of the things I remember in your class was these almost doodles you draw showing how you outlined various stories you wrote.

Yeah, all this derives from Mrs. McKee. It's amazing. And she was the drama coach in the high school as well. She was a pretty dramatic person. She had us, not all of us, but particularly if we wanted to, or anything, read what we had written to the rest of the class. There were a lot of these readings. And the other kids booed and threw spitballs and stuff at the reader. This was what it was like when I was a sophomore in Princeton High School, people booing me while I was reading in the class and so on, and I got some useful experience there, I guess.

Back when you started teaching the class, the idea of creative non-fiction might have been a new idea to some students. How much of teaching this class has also been about trying to promote or spread this writing approach that you’ve devoted your life to?

I don't look upon my class as some form of trade school. When I'm choosing out of 70 applications the 16 students in my class—which is the hardest thing I have to do every year is to turn down all those people—when I'm doing this I am looking at a sample piece of writing chosen by the student and a letter to me telling me why they want to take the class.

But my criteria in judging this is the nature of the prose I'm reading. Nothing counts like that. Ethnicity and gender and all that goes by the way when you're looking at this stuff and knowing that for three months you're going to be talking to this person, and what is the prose like?

So what is it you look for in that prose?

It's hard to say. The sound of it, the rhythm, the sense of words, the relative simplicity, the imagination, whatever comes through and just in the way people put things. It's just you have a kind of a sense. It's subjective. I don't sit there making little tick marks, and this person got a seven, and that person got an eight, or something. It's not like that at all. It's a matter of subjective impression.

Do you have any tips or advice about teaching? What does it take to be a good teacher, do you think?

I don't know. Relating well to the students, understanding what the students are interested in, and also being very giving and enthusiastic about the subject yourself and desiring to do it.

For example, I'm there not because I'm some trained English literature professor, I am there because I'm a writer of non-fiction of long time from the New Yorker Magazine. I tell them this. I'm going to look over your shoulder at your work. I'm pretending that I'm the students' editor. And you look over my shoulder at mine. They read pieces of mine and they ask me questions in the way that I'm asking them questions. That's how it works.

After going through your book and thinking back to your class, one takeaway is that you can't have the experience for the reader—that you want to tell them fewer details sometimes, but just the right details so that it evokes something in the mind of the reader. You're using very selective words to make an effect, and it sounds like kind of what you're saying about your class is that there's no five-step process you could guide someone through to get that result, but there is still something that you get from the experience.

Right. There's a terribly important concept of the “creative reader,” not just the creative writer, but the creative reader. You mention two or three things, and a reader puts a whole picture together in her mind. Stay out of that picture, if you're the writer. Let the reader go on creating this stuff. It's in the vein of less is more and Hemingway's iceberg image.

The last chapter in this book is called Omission, and that's what it's about, what you leave out, which is terribly, terribly important. One of the things it says … is leave out the author. In other words, don't jump around between your reader and your material. Let the reader create what's going on.

The way you put it in the book is “writing is selection.” Doesn't that phrase come up, essentially, again and again?

Well, that's a kind of a mantra, and it comes up over and over again. In the book, I don't know, I haven't gone in and searched it in the computer, but “writing is selection” is maybe repeated eight times in this book, or whatever, because in the class it's repeated 80 times.

When you teach you say you take a break from writing. It’s almost like a vacation from your day job.

It’s certainly a relief not to have to write. Just crossing that barrier and getting into the space—”the zone” people say nowadays—of writing it’s a psychological jump that takes some time and, in my case it generally takes nine hours more or less. I go [to my office] at nine in the morning and I don't do anything. I know what I want to do. I can see the notes that relate to it, but I fiddle around and making excuses and do this and that, and then I go out after a couple of hours. I haven't done anything, and I go play squash, or whatever, or used to. I'm a bicyclist now. I ride bicycle 15 miles every other day, and I go out and do that. But the day is going on.

And then in the afternoon I'm back there, I know exactly what I want to try to write, I can see the notes in front of me, but something in me is just blocked. I mean, I don't want to do it. It's too hard to jump through that membrane and get going. So about five o'clock, panic kicks in really, because I'm going to lose the whole day, and I start writing. I get maybe two or three paragraphs written before I go home, because I always go home at seven, and then people say to me, what a prolific writer you are. That's pretty funny to me. Anyway, that's the process.

He's been singing this song for years. The idea that writing is always hard no matter where you've published, how much money you've made, how many accolades you've gotten, the best we can do is get a few paragraphs down on paper and then maybe a few more, and then when there are enough, rework it again and again and again.

When I heard that as a college sophomore, it sounded raw and vulnerable. It was not the tone I was accustomed to hearing from professors. But if the job of a teacher is to prepare students, he succeeded. He showed me up close the often agonizing and sometimes amazing life of a writer. Maybe he couldn't show me how to write, exactly, but he dared me to try. And I'm glad I got to come back and thank him.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up