by John Simmons

John McPhee has been writing beautifully in The New Yorker for more than 50 years. It’s an omission on my part that until my American friend Richard mentioned him yesterday I had never heard of him. Richard sent me the link below and it’s easy to become immediately beguiled by McPhee’s easy-going style. There’s an art in it. Here’s one paragraph.

“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. That’s a crude way to assess things, but it’s all you’ve got. Forget market research. Never market-research your writing. Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.”

I love that first sentence. ‘Writing is selection.’ Hard to improve on that. When you think about it, it’s what we do every day. Today I’ve finished writing a document to define a brand that’s in the world of philanthropy. Recently I discovered what I almost knew, that philanthropy means ‘love of mankind’ from the ancient Greek. Words we select come down to us from other languages and times, and they mean something slightly different in their new settings; those nuances are like small omissions in the word’s own story. It was almost therapeutic (also originally from the Greek ‘to cure disease’) to write about philanthropy on a morning after a hateful fanatic had murdered 84 people, including many children, in Nice.

Our minds take us off wandering, and the ramble can be productive. We discover strange and surprising things along the way. But then we get to a point where we have to stop and make something of it. Does this ramble make sense? Has it led anywhere? Probably. But only because of the process we call ‘editing’ which means we select, we take some words out, perhaps add some different words in. But it’s the taking out that counts, as Gordon Lish showed with his editing of Raymond Carver. It was all about omission, leaving spaces for the reader to fill in the gaps. And in those gaps the reader imagines more than the words that were taken out.

If you want to read the whole John McPhee piece, it’s here

Who says the Americans don’t do irony? It’s a very long piece, under its title ‘Omission’. But beautiful.