John McPhee and writing by omission

John McPhee is one of my favorite authors. He makes me feel like I am present in the place and with the people he writes about. Coming into the Country, his book about Alaska, introduced me to a wealth of fascinating characters. He makes potentially boring subjects captivating, such as geology in Basin and Range.

So when my news feed turned up his an article in The New Yorker about how to write, I read it right away.

The article is titled “Omission: Choosing what to leave out.” The question for the writer is how much to say about the subject and when to stop.

McPhee says, “Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out.”

He continues, “Ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material—that much and no more.” Now that’s the tough part. McPhee relates various arguments he’s had with editors over the year about the amount they cut from his articles. Sometimes he won the argument, sometimes he lost, and sometimes he ended up agreeing with the editor.

McPhee talks about the need to leave white spaces: the writer should provide enough details to evoke a scene but allow the reader to fill in the details. “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 frost.”

He also quotes Ernest Hemingway: “If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

I’m going to suggest that you read the entire article. It will make you think more about how you write. And you’ll also find out why General Eisenhower left the grapes out of the still life he was painting.