At last

A dozen years ago, when I was doing graduate work in mass communications, one of my professors arranged a phone interview with the New Yorker writer John McPhee. Those of us in the class could ask him whatever we wished. I asked about his choice of word processor.

Well, McPhee said, in the past, in the typewriter days, he had always transferred his notes to index cards–hundreds of them per story–to organize his work. He could find no word processor that operated on a metaphor like that. But a Princeton-based programmer-friend of McPhee’s wrote a custom application that did. That’s what McPhee was using in 1995 when the interview took place.

I was impressed. Since I often work that way, my hope was that the app, or something like it, would become more widely available. Nothing happened. Apparently McPhee’s friend never tried writing a commercial version.

That’s why the arrival of Scrivener is so refreshing and so energizing. I’m looking forward to getting to know it well.

Robert, Jacksonville, Fla.

Thanks. :slight_smile: I hope it lives up to your expectations…
All the best,

A college writing prof of mine gave us an article from the Princeton alumni magazine (IIRC) in which McPhee described his method in detail. It involved cards, scissors, corkboard, darts (to pin the cards on the board), and all the other nonvirtual filing and sorting methods they used back in the day. It definitely had an effect on the way I structure my reporting and writing. If anyone’s interested, I can try to dig out the original – it was from the 70s, I think , so not sure if it’s online.

Yes, please!

Thanks, and please add my name to the list. I’m a McPhee fan. He writes incredibly well.

McPhee does work on a word processor now, with a Windows program called KEdit, available from Mansfield Software Group. The programmer at Princeton who modified KEdit (with macros, etc.) was Howard Strauss, who died last fall.

The piece in the Princeton Alumni Weekly was the Introduction to the John McPhee Reader (1976), still available from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. A revised and updated version appears as the lead essay, “Introducing John McPhee,” in Coming into McPhee Country (2003) from the University of Utah Press.

The version in PAW was revised for its alumni audience and is not available in digital form.

Thanks for saving me a trip to the storage room, howarth. I’d forgotten that essay was reprinted in the Reader. It’d be interesting to know whether and how his story-structuring methods changed after adopting new technology.

Not that much, no. Strauss modified KEdit so that it emulates McPhee’s methods, from typing out notes, creating topic cards, to batching the notes under those cards. Then the fancy work of arranging the topics-notes into imaginative structures, followed by creating a draft. So he was able to preserve his method but take advantage of word processing.

What’s the source of that Online Article? It’s a paraphrase of the Intro to the JM Reader.

It was a lesson page for a writing class. I Googled “McPhee writing process.”