Just downloaded the latest New Yorker on my Kindle and read this treasure of an article by John McPhee.* Over his long lifetime of professional writing, he has developed a great strategy for producing essays that hold together, give loads of information, even of a technical nature, and keep the reader's interest from beginning to end.
This piece explains and illustrates his way of working through the example it sets. In it he covers many topics--composition classes, older computer and PC technologies, interesting places and colorful characters-- but so well structured that every word, phrase and sentence seems to fall into its proper place.
Mostly, except for several intense years in college, I have been able to write without much regard to deadlines or publication. Once a few years ago I did have to write against a deadline, having forgotten a promise to do an essay about teaching in the prison where I worked then. Panicked, I wrote down anything I could think of, printed it, got out the scissors and cut the paragraphs up and re-assembled them. This took ten tedious hours and yielded 2,000 words in reasonably coherent order which I mailed off the next day. Not very much fun, but it saved the situation. McPhee uses refined and sophisticated versions of this technique for longer pieces. He is a bear for structure, too, which paradoxically gives him all kinds of freedom, because he can experiment and explore while maintaining coherence. Not all structures are the same, but once the structure is set he adheres to it.
His approach to writing a travel piece should be of particular interest to people who want to turn such journeys into interesting prose. He notes that chronological order is the most obvious, natural way of recounting such experiences, but he suggests other modes of organization, like introducing an unusual character or incident or a theme, such as the possible boredom inherent in writing about driving across America as a passenger in a chemical tanker, as he did, and what a fascinating experience it turned out to be. I'm thinking how I might take my Peruvian adventures and devise a framework for a longer piece. Not all that easy.
Something that struck me was that he said his first writing teacher made the class write, write, write. That's the key. These days, teachers know this. My five year old granddaughter is already writing compositions and stories, and she is by no means unusual. Her sister was the same way about writing, and so are all her little friends. It's just natural to them. We were discouraged from writing, told that it had to be correct and we had better not say anything stupid or otherwise out of line and that the writing should be neat and the spelling perfect. No wonder it took us a lot of time to discover our real abilities.
You don't have to be some kind of genius to write. Just write. Then start getting into it for real!
*Available in full online only to New Yorker subscribers.