INTERVIEWER

What happens next?

MCPHEE

You write a lead. You sit down and think, Where do I want this piece to begin? What makes sense? It can’t be meretricious. It’s got to deliver on what you promise. It should shine like a flashlight down through the piece. So you write a beginning. Then you go back to your notes and start looking for an overall structure. It’s three times as easy if you’ve got that lead.

Once I’ve written the lead, I read the notes and then I read them again. I read them until they’re coming out my ears. Ideas occur, but what I’m doing, basically, is looking for logical ways in which to subdivide the material. I’m looking for things that fit together, things that relate. For each of these components, I create a code—it’s like an airport code. If a topic is upstate New York, I’ll write UNY or something in the margin. When I get done, the mass of notes has some tiny code beside each note. And I write each code on an index card.

Paris Review – The Art of Nonfiction No. 3, John McPhee

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