Reverse Engineering John McPhee

By Carl Zimmer | July 7, 2011 2:59 pm

I’ve never met John McPhee, but he’s always been lurking around my office. I’ve got a number of his books, and I always keep an eye out for his latest piece in the New Yorker. I can’t count the number of times reading a few lines of his stuff helped get me revved up again for writing.

Recently, Alexis Madrigal of the Atlantic invited me to participate in a Neiman Storyboard series called “Why’s This So Good?” Writers pick out a good piece of long-form journalism and try to figure out what makes it so. Having just revisited out McPhee’s sprawling 1987 epic on engineering the Mississippi, “Atchafalaya,” I chose it for my object of study. Here’s my take. And, if you have a free moment to quaff 28,000 words, here’s McPhee’s piece.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Teaching, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (2)

  1. Marlene Zuk

    Really lovely, thanks for sharing your piece. I particularly liked the bit about shaving away (or not) at a piece of writing one cell phone screen at a time. And I totally agree about finding McPhee’s writing inspiring. When I took a writing class way back in college, my teacher Barry Farrell was friends with McPhee and had gotten a hold of a manuscript that McPhee’s revisions were written all over in longhand, and he gave us all copies. I have searched and searched for it over the years but seem to have lost it, much to my regret. I do remember that it was absolutely full of words crossed out and added in, so it was a wonderful lesson in how even, maybe especially, the truly great authors revise and revise.

    Did you see the interview with McPhee in the Paris Review? Readers might be interested:

  2. Geack

    Thanks for the link to your excellent piece, and thanks even more to the link to “Atchafalaya”. Really fantastic stuff, maybe more so with Katrina framing our hindsight.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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