Daily Archives: August 22, 2009

The power of chronological structure

Amidst a gripping account of his gig as a $90,000-a-year staff writer at The New Yorker, freelance writer Dan Baum discusses the magazine’s views on narrative nonfiction structure, as codified by a longtime articles editor there, John Bennett. In talking with Baum early in his relationship with the magazine about finding and writing a story from the Iraq war, Bennett advised him to make it a “process” story:

“ ‘It’s a New Yorker standard,’ he went on. ‘You simply deconstruct a process for the reader. John McPhee was the New Yorkermaster. It makes for a simple structure.’ ”

And Baum says Bennett advised him to use a specific structure for such an account:

“ ‘This is the New Yorker, so you can use any narrative structure you like,’ he said. ‘Just know that when I get it, I’m going to take it apart and make it all chronological.’ Telling a story in strict chronological order turned out to be a fabulous discipline. It made the story easy to write, and may be why New Yorker stories are so easy to read.

“Of course, the magazine does run everything through the deflavorizer,” Baum continues, “following Samuel Johnson’s immortal advice: ‘Read what you have written, and when you come across a passage you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’ ”

Baum said he took Bennett’s advice and followed a young soldier from his home in rural Wisconsin to his return from the Army without his right leg. See “The Casualty” among Baum’s archived articles on his web site. His inside look at what it’s like to work on staff for The New Yorker—and to get fired for being too familiar with its editor—is here.

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Filed under editing, journalism, narrative, NOTED, structure