How John McPhee structures stories from his notes

John McPhee has lately been reflecting, in a series of New Yorker articles, on his long career as one of the world’s leading writers of nonfiction. In this week’s issue we learn that one of my favorite of his books, The Pine Barrens, was born on a picnic table. It was there that he lay prone for two weeks, in a panic, searching for a way to structure the vast quantity of material he’d gathered in a year of research. The solution, in this case, was Fred Brown, an elderly Pine Barrens dweller who “had some connection or other to at least three quarters of those Pine Barrens topics whose miscellaneity was giving me writer’s block.” Fred was the key to unlocking that book’s structure. But each book needed a different key.

The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intend to cook for dinner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with.

For many years, that meant writing notes on pieces of paper, coding the notes, organizing the notes into folders, retyping notes, cutting and rearranging with scissors and tape. Then came computers, a text editor called KEDIT, and a Princeton colleague named Howard Strauss who augmented KEDIT with a set of macros that supported the methods McPhee had been evolving for 25 years. In the article, McPhee describes two KEDIT extensions: Structur and Alpha.

Structur exploded my notes, It read the codes by which each note was given a destination or destinations (including the dustbin). It created and named as many new KEDIT files as there were codes, and, of course, it preserved the original set.

Alpha implodes the notes it works on. It doesn’t create anything new. It reads codes and then churns a file internally, organizing it in segments in the order in which they are meant to contribute to the writing.

Alpha is the principal, workhorse program I run with KEDIT. Used again and again on an ever-concentrating quantity of notes, it works like nesting utensils. It sorts the whole business at the outset, and then, as I go along, it sorts chapter material and subchapter material, and it not infrequently rearranges the components of a single paragraph.

KEDIT is the only writing tool John McPhee has ever used. And as he is careful to point out, it’s a text editor, not a word processor. No pagination, headers, fonts, WYSIWYG, none of that. Just words and sentences. I can relate to that. My own writing tool of choice is an EMACS clone called Epsilon. I first used it on DOS around 1986 and I’m using it in Windows today to write these words. If I were a writer of long works I might have evolved my use of Epsilon in ways similar to what John McPhee describes. But I’ve only written one book, that was a long time ago, and since then I’ve written at lengths that don’t require that kind of tool support.

Still, I would love to find out more about John McPhee’s toolchain. My interest is partly historical. Howard Strauss died in 2005, and KEDIT is nearing the end of its life. (From “…we are in the process of gradually winding down Mansfield Software Group.”) But I’m also looking forward. Not everyone needs to organize massive quantities of unstructured information. But those who do require excellent tool support, and there’s room for innovation on that front. Anyone who’d like to tackle that challenge would benefit from understanding what John McPhee’s methods are, and how his toolchain supports them.

I’m going to write to John McPhee to ask him if he’d be willing to work with me on a screencast to document his methods. (And also to thank him for countless hours of reading enjoyment.) It’ll be a cold call, because we’ve never communicated, so if any reader of this post happens to have a personal connection, I would greatly appreciate an introduction.

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11 thoughts on “How John McPhee structures stories from his notes

  1. Hi Jon,

    I hope you get to do the screencast! I was just reading the McPhee piece in The New Yorker, went looking for a copy online, and stumbled on your post. The part about Kedit and Mansfield Software Group is more than fascinating.

    Before Kedit existed I was a newspaper bureau chief in Mansfield… and I later worked for MultiMate, a word-processor software company with a much different product. (I always wanted to track down a rumor that Frank Herbert used our program. Managing a Dune-sized project with MultiMate would be more frightening than a giant sand-worm.)


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  3. I am curious, like the non-spam replies here, about your contacting McPhee. I think I got into writing because of the various editors I loved to play with, starting with the goofy word processor on my C-64, and still clinging to vi after all these years.

  4. Kedit (Mansfield version) is a, maybe, the core program to many of the older computer people I know. It is what we revert to when we want something that will absolutely Work. It is a Text Editor (a program that lets you type onto the screen) with major league embellishments, including having a scripting language embedded. It takes things down to basics, and allows for infinite improvement. It’s initially opaque, but can quickly be like discovering spreadsheets or Google. I’d love to see how John McPhee uses Kedit..

  5. It has been a year since your post above and you have not yet updated this with the info from Mr. McPhee. Is it possible he is not sharing. Can’t say as I blame him. But I sure do wish he would share

  6. “Not everyone needs to organize massive quantities of unstructured information. But those who do require excellent tool support, and there’s room for innovation on that front.”

    Curious if you came across any other tools in your experience other than Kedit?

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