John McPhee is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who helped reinvent narrative non-fiction. He is also one of my writing heroes and mentors (even if he doesn’t know it.)
McPhee has often spoken about one of the most important writing lessons he learned, back in high school, when he was in Mrs. McKee’s class.
“We had a lot of fun in that class,” he recalls. “We could write anything, fiction, non-fiction, poetry. Whatever it was, the structure had to be defended. You had to turn in, with each piece, a structural presentation, an outline, or a doodle of some sort that showed that you were thinking about the anatomy of the piece when you were writing it.”
McPhee found the practice so valuable, he required it of every student he taught. I find it to be one of the most useful strategies I use.
When I start a draft, or when I got lost in the middle of writing one, I make time to build a map tracing the path I need to follow to get from where I am to where I want to go. Sometimes this map takes the form of a traditional outline, sometimes it looks more like the directions you would give a lost tourist.
I think the form I put this thinking into matters less than the thinking itself. Imagining “the anatomy of the piece” helps me understand how ideas and information fit together, what should come first, second, and so on, and where the trouble spots might be.
Such understanding serves to orient me, and eventually, I hope, any readers who might follow.
Antioch University Virtual Writing Center