Having trouble writing? Try this famous author’s technique

“Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall,” says Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee.

“Blurt out, heave out, babble out something – anything – as a first draft,” he says  in an article called Draft No. 4 now in The New Yorker magazine where he’s been appearing regularly for 48 years. McPhee, the author of 32 books, says he first wrote these words of advice in a letter to his daughter Jenny years ago when she was starting out as a writer herself.

“The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once,” he told her. “You work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit again, top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll see something that you are sort of eager for others to see.”

The heart blood of the creative process

As a developmental editor for both established and new writers, I know that revision, pruning, reorganizing and polishing is the heart blood of the creative process. I adjust my approach to fit each author’s unique issues.

Working with Hunter Thompson on Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, for example, the only way to break through his crippling writer’s block was to lock ourselves, editor and writer, into the Seal Rock Inn in San Francisco for four days, where I turned on an old reel-to-reel Nagra and interviewed him about the very rough drafts he’d written during the campaign. We yelled at each other while he consumed large quantities of grapefruit, Kentucky bourbon and yes, other nameless, illegal substances. Rolling Stone staffers transcribed everything we said, and after taking me out of the story and polishing, cutting, and adding, the job was done. I don’t recommend anyone try this method at home, but it worked for Hunter and the book is still in print 40 years later.

On the other hand, I saw how many times Tom Robbins would rewrite a passage, while editing and publishing his wonderful book Jitterbug Perfume.

“Sometimes forty times” before it’s ready, he told me. And he said he loved doing just that.

First you suffer…then you enjoy!

McPhee believes writers must suffer through the first draft, however awful it may be, and then settle into enjoying the art and craft of revision. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s taught several generations of writers at Princeton University, including luminaries like David Remnick, Eric Schlosser, and Timothy Ferriss.

“The essence of the process is revision,” McPhee says. “The adulating portrait of the perfect writer who never blots a line comes express mail from fairyland.”

He describes his own norm as a multi-step sequence of first draft and then several revisions. It becomes an obsessive task, deliberating relentlessly to solve the problems still there in the writing.

“You finish that first awful blurting, and then you…get into your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on twenty-four hours a day – yes, while you sleep.”

If you’ve got a case of writer’s block

“Help!” It’s not at all unusual to get an SOS from a writer in distress. “I’m stuck! I’m blocked! I don’t know how to keep going or even how to get started.”

Here are a few suggestions. Brief strenuous exercise can put you in your body for a moment and when you sit down again your brain is recharged, so how about getting up out of that chair for a set of jumping jacks? Does caffeine give you a jolt? A cup of strong tea might kick start your creative juices. And sometimes free associating without worrying too much about what you’re saying can throw out some words that might work, so try talking into your smart phone’s recorder.

It’s OK: Some doubt is inescapable for any serious writer

When his daughter Jenny worried about her continuing doubt and discouragement, asking herself day after day ‘Who am I kidding?’ McPhee responded with these words, sage comfort for any writer who has experienced such distress:

“To feel such doubt is a part of the picture – important and inescapable,” he says. “When I hear some young writers express that sort of doubt, it serves as a check point. If they don’t say something like it they are quite possibly, well, kidding themselves.”

Building your confidence

Most authors experience the occasional crisis in confidence as a writer. One approach I’ve recommended is to jump into one of the toughest things you do that isn’t writing. Like sky diving, breaking in a wild rescue horse so it’s fit to stable and ride, preparing a tactful but humorous toast for an office roast, or being a good parent when your kid comes home with a bad grade.

This pokes up the bravery barometer in your head and can make sitting in your room at the keyboard feel a lot easier. It may even stimulate some wild new idea to escape your unconscious.

Reaching the final draft: Small adjustments

“The final adjustments may be small scale, but they are large to me and I love addressing them,” McPhee says.

It’s all in the details at this point, fine-tuning the words, looking for replacements. For this, McPhee dives into his dictionary. No kidding. How comfortable, easy, and familiar, bless his heart, just like grade school, but he goes there for meaning, not just spelling.

“With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of – at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus.

What else to enjoy from McPhee

I recommend reading anything John McPhee has written, from his first book A Sense of Where You Are about Bill Bradley’s rise as a basketball player and politician, to subsequent books like The Control of Nature, about attempts to stop volcanic lava flow, Mississippi flooding, or debris slides that destroy homes. There’s nothing he won’t tackle: even a book called Oranges, entirely on the subject of the fruit.

McPhee is a pioneer in creative non-fiction, incorporating techniques ordinarily used only in novels. He has a keen penchant for the revealing details, slow-cooked character development with spot-on voices in his dialogue.

“McPhee’s great virtue as a journalist covering the sciences–and any other of the countless subjects he has taken on, for that matter–is his ability to distill and explain complex matters” author Gregory McNamee wrote about McPhee’s Pulitzer winner Annals of the Former World, which is no less than a geological history of North America, focused on the 40th parallel. McPhee researched this subject for twenty years, producing four books, of which Annals is the last.

What about you?

How do you tackle problems in your writing? Have any breakthrough techniques to share with fellow writers?  I’ll watch for any questions here in comments.

You may also want to check out an earlier post called How Successful Writers Keep up Their Confidence

16 Responses to Having trouble writing? Try this famous author’s technique

  1. Lexi Revellian

    I want to break in a wild rescue horse so it’s fit to stable and ride. Can you advise where to find one in central London?

    I suppose I could make myself face my tax self-assessment as an alternative…

  2. Alan Rinzler


    Put down that tax self-assessment. I checked out your blog and suggest instead that you follow up on your idea to compete with Amazon. You’re clearly smart and brave enough already, and think of the $16.07 billion they made on media sales in just the first quarter of 2013, up 22% over last year. Surely an opportunity exists there that you can exploit!

  3. Dawne Webber

    I’ve always felt that writing is akin to drawing with pastels. You apply layers blending, shading and creating patterns until you have a vibrant, dimensional piece of life on paper. There’s nothing better than creating with layers of words and watching them all come together.

  4. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    The old adage “sleep on it” works for me. In other words, I let my subconscious mind do the “heavy lifting” whenever I write myself into the proverbial corner. It worked during the creation of my first novel, THE BARRIER, and it has ever since, no matter what project I have been involved with: fiction or self-help nonfiction. And I noticed that when I decided to put my novels, short-story volumes and my self-help titles up on Amazon’s Kindle, my subconscious must have been working surreptitiously on all my past writings, because I rewrote passages and made many other changes for each title. All my Kindle books benefited from the improvements, which goes to prove that not even my published work was just the way I wanted it; in reality my subconscious mind never stop trying for perfection. That’s why I’m a confirmed believer in letting the subconscious “sleep on it” no matter how long it takes.

  5. GTChristie

    Absolutely AMEN to all of that. Especially the “sling it” technique. It doesn’t matter what it looks like raw — nobody’s ever going to see it. Slam it out there. First draft is raw energy. After that it’s polish, polish polish. Excellent post, thank you.

  6. GTChristie

    By the way if anyone knows of a sturdy manual typewriter that does not cost a million bucks, go to my blog, make a comment, and point me in that direction. Polish, polish, polish is great on the computer. Slam it out there … nothing like a Remington or Royal

  7. Ravi Jain

    Hey Alan,

    I am working to promote Independent & debut authors in India. I’ve seen many cases of the classic “Writer’s Block”. In my own minimal ways I’ve tried to encourage them to keep writing. But your ideas in this blog very elaborate & will surely be of great use.

  8. Paula Cappa

    I’m with Tom Robbins in rewriting 40 times as I’m always rewriting a story. I find if I put the story away for a month and go back to it, I’ve got a clean perspective. Writer’s block is my cue that I need to recharge and “leave” writing for days to just relax, read, enjoy nature, music, and lots of ice cream and chocolate. Maybe dairy fat is a stimulant for creativity? :)

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  10. Matt Roberts

    Thanks for the post Alan,

    What I find somewhat weird and frustrating is that sometimes a draft flies through blissfully and other times it’s a long hard slog. In those hard times I try to remember that other writers have said the same, and going back to such manuscripts a month later they can’t tell which was the “good” one!

    So I just tell myself it doesn’t matter how well it appears to be going, I’ll likely have to rewrite anyway! That sometimes helps me get past “this draft is crap” thinking and frees me to write.

    I will often freewrite my way out of a problem if I feel it’s really blocking me, too – basically writing a conversation with myself about the problem until an answer begins to appear.

  11. Janae

    Revision is the most difficult part of writing for me. Not revising itself, but the idea of writing to revise. I am a perfectionist, so I expect to write a fine-tuned story or essay the first time through. Instead of creating a rough sketch of my story to put my ideas where I can see and manage them, I give up when I cannot think of the best way to write the next line. In addition to this, I procrastinate to the last minute, leaving no time for revision and fueling my need for immediate perfection. I am working to cure these ills, but I still have a long way to wellness.

  12. Greg Strandberg

    Sometimes you want to write, sometimes you want to revise.

    It’s great when you can find a balance between the two, perhaps by revising something completely different from what you’re writing at the moment, giving it a chance to sit and cool.

  13. excellent essay

    It’s hard to come by experienced people on this subject,
    but you sound like you know what you’re talking about!


  14. S Davies

    Although it takes time, I’m reasonably confident I can find the resources to improve my wordsmithing skills. What freaks me out is when I don’t know if the story is working, despite multiple revisions of my outline. No amount of polishing is going to fix a bum story. It is not so easy to find diagnostic tools for when a story goes off the rails.

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  16. Reggie Ridgway

    Nanowrimo is an annual month of word slinging in November, and many would be authors have their first book published in the process. I have trouble with the random string theory type writing methodology as I’m reluctant to throw anything out once written. No matter how random or irrevalent. I’m like a sentence horder. There probably is medication or a support group to join or a Twelve Step program for this but I can’t see me doing any of those things either. I am trying to follow Barry Eisler’s advise to eliminate all those pesky rabbit trails and such and cut out anything that doesn’t move a story forward. To kill the little darlings, like On Writing by Stephen King and what Faulkner suggested. But I like the revise revise revise advise given here. Sometimes I aim for 60000 word first time word count because I know I will be adding more words every time I revise. And when all said and done my word count is more like 90000. I’m usually reluctant to write The End because I’m never satisfied and always revising much like Tom Robbins.

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