Saturday, April 13, 2013

McPhee's Workflow

John McPhee, the prolific non-fiction author for The New Yorker described in a recent an article how he wrote most of his books. As far as I could discern, his "workflow"—I don't particularly like the word—involved the following steps:

  1. Taking notes in smallish notebooks
  2. Typing up every note on separate sheets of typing paper
  3. Write the lead
  4. Thinking about where to start by going through these notes several times, deciding to what context they belong: "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."
  5. Photocopying the typed sheets and cutting them up into smaller parts, corresponding to the tiny codes and placing the resulting slips into different manila envelopes for each code. ("After reading and rereading the typed notes and then developing the structure and then coding the notes accordingly in the margins and then photocopying the whole of it, I would go at the copied set with the scissors, cutting each sheet into slivers of varying size. If the structure had, say, thirty parts, the slivers would end up in thirty piles that would be put into thirty manila folders."
  6. Shuffling the cards until the proper order of the story emerges. Remember, each card represents an envelope.
  7. Writing up the book, one envelope at a time. This involves first ordering the slips in the envelope, and then following that order. "One after another, in the course of writing, I would spill out the sets of slivers, arrange them ladderlike on a card table, and refer to them as I manipulated the Underwood."

If this sounds like something that could be reproduced easily in a program like Scrivener or ConnectedText, this seems no accident to me.

However, McPhee who discovered computers in the early 1980s used another program, namely an editor called Kedit. This was, he tells us the result of interacting with a friend:

He listened to the whole process from pocket notebooks to coded slices of paper, then mentioned a text editor called Kedit, citing its exceptional capabilities in sorting. Kedit (pronounced "kay-edit"), a product of the Mansfield Software Group, is the only text editor I have ever used. I have never used a word processor. Kedit did not paginate, italicize, approve of spelling, or screw around with headers, WYSIWYGs, thesauruses, dictionaries, footnotes, or Sanskrit fonts. Instead, Howard wrote programs to run with Kedit in imitation of the way I had gone about things for two and a half decades.

He wrote Structur. He wrote Alpha. He wrote mini-macros galore. Structur lacked an "e" because, in those days, in the Kedit directory eight letters was the maximum he could use in naming a file. … The programs he wrote for me were molded like clay to my requirements--an appealing approach to anything called an editor.

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 intact the original set ...

I wrote my way sequentially from Kedit file to Kedit file from the beginning to the end of the piece. Some of those files created by Structur could be quite long. So each one in turn needed sorting on its own, and sometimes fell into largish parts that needed even more sorting. In such phases, Structur would have been counterproductive. It would have multiplied the number of named files, choked the directory, and sent the writer back to the picnic table, and perhaps under it. So Howard wrote Alpha. 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 arranges the components of a single paragraph. It has completely served many pieces on its own. ...

Kedit's All command shows me all the times I use any word or phrase in a given piece, and tells me how many lines separate each use from the next. It's sort of like a leaf blower. Mercilessly, it will go after fad words like "icon," "iconic," "issues," "awesome," "arguably"; and it suggests how much of "but" is too much "but." But its principal targets are the legions of perfectly acceptable words that should not appear more than once in a piece of writing--"legions," in the numerical sense, among them, and words like "expunges," "circumvallate," "horripilation," "disjunct," "defunct," "amalgamate," "ameliorate," "defecate," and a few thousand others. Of those which show up more than once, All expunges all.

I am not sure how precisely this worked because I have never even seen a Kedit file. Nor do I really understand how this reproduces the old work flow precisely. But perhaps others can make more sense of it.1

  1. I wrote this entry in Ulysses III, saved it to HTML, opened it in Textwrangler, deleted the HTML header, and copied and pasted it into Blogger. It looks good to me (or are there any problems with paragraphs?) The notes came, of course from ConnectedText.


pohanginapete said...

Formatting looks fine on my system (Windows 7; Firefox 20; Chrome 26).

I'd have preferred double quotation marks to distinguish McPhee's words from yours (your final paragraph is not differentiated from the long preceding quotation).

I see kedit is still available, although Mansfield Software Group says it's in the process of winding down the company.

I agree with your comment about Scrivener (which I discovered through your blog and now use every day).

MK said...

Thank you very much for the feedback. The block quotes did not transfer correctly from Ulysses III.

I have sen the kedit site, but the price is forbidding—especially since I don't think I would really use it.

I am glad you like Scrivener (if that is what using it every day implies).

pohanginapete said...

Yes, I do like Scrivener a great deal, although I've learned to be exceptionally careful about using it with Dropbox. Restoring a backup can be a nightmare, too, because it's very easy to restore the wrong version, which then backs itself up, and, ... well, you can see the problem. I've had to do this a couple of times now, and it's scary. The penultimate backup is usually the one to restore. Scrivener could make restoring a backup much simpler and more foolproof.

Indenting the quotation is a good option — clearer than block quotes. Thanks.