The writing process 3

The writing process
Interviewing as part of the writing process (Pic by Marten Newhall, Unsplash)

Two weeks ago (in The Writing process 1), I quoted extensively from John McPhee’s excellent book, Draft No. 4 , about the writing process in general. This week, for those keen to join the WriteOnline Writing Reality course on 29 March, I thought it an especially good time to tap the brain of John McPhee about non-fiction writing.

McPhee is a writer of fact. He has written extensively for The New Yorker and other US magazines and teaches non-fiction narrative at Princeton University. His book has specific tips and advice about the writing process when it comes to non-fiction, and is a collection of essays that first appeared in The New Yorker.

Two kinds of writers

For McPhee there are two kinds of writers: the “covertly insecure” and the “overtly insecure”. I particularly like that. It is perversely comforting to know that writers break into what McPhee, at one point, calls “a catatonic swivet” when the words don’t come.

I must confess that I’d not encountered the word swivet before, although I did find out that I’ve often experienced it.

This word was not in my Concise Oxford or my Longmans, but I did find it in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang and in the online Merriam-Webster: both describe it as an extreme form of agitation. Welcome home.


For me dictionaries are essential and McPhee makes a telling point about them. He starts by recounting an anecdote that has the French novelist Gustav Flaubert wandering around the garden for days on end searching in his head for le mot juste – the right word.

Unlike Flaubert, for McPhee that search won’t begin in the garden but it might begin with a thesaurus and end with a dictionary.

“In the search for words, thesauruses are useful things, but they don’t talk about the words they list. They are also dangerous. They can lead you to choose a polysyllabic and fuzzy word when a simple and clear one is better. The value of a thesaurus is not to make a writer seem to have a vast vocabulary of recondite words. The value of a thesaurus is in the assistance it can give you in finding the best possible word for the mission that the word is supposed to fulfil. Writing teachers and journalism courses have been known to compare them to crutches and to imply that no writer of any character or competence would use them. At best, thesauruses are mere rest stops in search for the mot juste. Your destination is the dictionary.”

The value of the dictionary is that it doesn’t only give you a list of words, it tells you the differences between the words, their shades of meaning. What McPhee calls “the differences in their hues”.

To be absolutely clear, as a writer and a teacher of the writing process, I don’t see either the dictionary or the thesaurus as crutches, I see them as essential writing tools.

The power of memory – or not

Another vital part of the non-fiction writer’s toolbox is memory: the ability to recall the process of gathering information. You were there at the scene. You talked to the witnesses. You got their accounts. Truman Capote said he could remember everything from an interview word perfectly, and maybe he could, but it is best to have backup arrangements – such as a voice recorder and a notebook. The word from McPhee is don’t rely on your memory.

“Don’t even imagine that you will be able to remember verbatim in the evening what people said during the day.”

Point taken. As his first choice, McPhee prefers writing notes, a voice recorder is his fall-back option. I would go the other way round: voice recorder as essential (provided the interviewee will allow it) but also make notes of special phrases and the interviewee’s physical actions and expressions.

Tricks of the trade

McPhee points out that the notebook can also be a useful prop. For instance, you can use it to alter the pace of an interview.

“As you scribble away, the interviewee is, of course, watching you. Now, unaccountably, you slow down, and even stop writing while the interviewee goes on talking. The interviewee becomes nervous, tries harder, and spills out the secrets of a secret life, or maybe just a clearer and more quotable version of what was said before. Conversely, if the interviewee is saying nothing of interest, you can pretend to be writing, just to keep the enterprise moving forward.”

I agree. Doing interviews for both my history of the 1950’s Drum magazine – A Good-Looking Corpse – and my memoir of the first democratic election in 1994 – The Waiting Country – I used a notebook extensively, even while my voice recorder was running. Interviewees like to know you’re listening to every word they utter.

Creative bumbling

When it comes to interviews, one of the best techniques is to appear as if you are not that quick on the uptake. And here, again, I couldn’t agree more.

McPhee explains: “If doing nothing can produce a useful reaction, so can the appearance of being dumb. You can develop a distinct advantage by waxing slow of wit. Evidently, you need help. Who is there to help you but the person who is answering your questions? The result is the opposite of the total shutdown that might have occurred if you had come on glib and omniscient. If you don’t seem to get something, the subject will probably help you get it. If you are listening to speech and at the same time envisioning it in print, you can ask your question again, and again, until the repeated reply will be clear in print. Who is going to care if you seem dumber than a cardboard box? Reporters call that creative bumbling.”

My takeaway

Whatever you want to call it, coming across as slightly behind the curve is one way to relax your subject and get more out of them. Also don’t fill the silences. When the interviewee stops talking don’t rush in to fill the gap. Wait them out. Waiting silently will often prompt them to say something because the silence becomes embarrassing. And what they say then can be highly revealing.

When interviewing use both a voice recorder and a notebook. Keep in mind that if you use a voice recorder surreptitiously you won’t be able to quote verbatim. And when you’re writing don’t forget that a dictionary and a thesaurus are essential reference books. Or you could end up in “a catatonic swivet”.

Get more out of your writing.

Click here to join the WriteOnline short course on writing a memoir,

Writing Reality.

The next course starts on 29 March.