McPhee on writing about science

2 minute read

The Paris Review has a long interview with writer John McPhee (“The Art of Nonfiction No. 3, John McPhee”). I like the writer interviews they have, and it is especially useful to see nonfiction writers in this forum. McPhee has been a staff writer at the New Yorker where he has written on many topics, he has additionally written more than 30 books.

The interview goes into his work on environmental topics, including the book, Encounters with the Archdruid. He gives some very good advice about how to compose the structure of a nonfiction work. But I was most motivated to point to the interview because of this passage, where he discusses writing geology in the New Yorker:

When I proposed writing about geology to [New Yorker editor William] Shawn, he was very sober about it. Well, he said, go ahead. Go ahead. Readers will rebel. But you go ahead; youll figure out a waybut readers will rebel.
He was right. Ive never had an experience like that. Readers strongly support it and strongly rebel, and seem to be split in camps.
Why do you think that is?
Two cultures. There are some people whose cast of mind admits that sort of stuff, and there are others who are just paralyzed by it at the outset, no matter how crafty the writing might be. A really nice thing that happens is when people say, I never thought Id be interested in that subject until I read your piece. These letters come about geology too, but there are some people who just arent going to read it at all. Some lawyer in Boston sent me a letterthis man, this adult, had gone to the trouble to write in great big letters: stop writing about geology. And its on the letterhead of a law firm in Boston. I did not write back and say, One thing this country could very much use is one less lawyer. Why dont you stop doing law?

That is, of course, why writing for the internet is wonderful. People didn’t pay to read it, they don’t have to seek it out, so if they find it they’re likely to want it. People who subscribe to the New Yorker are not the same as those who subscribe to Scientific American. Still, I have discussed the same problem with many editors of mainstream science magazines, who get similar responses from readers. There are a lot of cranks out there, who just don’t want to engage with certain topics. It’s not only the “two cultures” problem – even within the “science” culture, people are epicures about what they want to know.

McPhee’s point struck me – “no matter how crafty the writing might be.” I think that’s right. You can’t trick people into science. No putting honey in the medicine. And if you give up the idea that you have to dumb it down, talk “friendly-like”, well, then you can do some real writing.