Never Market Research Your Writing: John McPhee On Choosing Your Topics

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“Never market research your writing.Write on subjects in which you have enough interest on your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations, and other impediments along the way.”

John McPhee, Draft №4*

McPhee’s point is a good one but one that directly contradicts a lot of the advice given out by less experienced writers and avidly consumed by new ones. After all, we want to write things tailored to an audience, don’t we? So we read tutorials by other writers on what worked for them (or didn’t). Unfortunately, one outcome of tailoring your writing to the interest of others is a lack of vitality and voice in your own writing.

I’m quite fascinated by the Popular category on Medium, the stories that get read the most. Almost none of them are advice pieces. In fact, they are often researched articles on specific subjects that the writers approached as journalists with references, details, and verifiable facts.

If they are personal experience pieces, they tend to back up their observations with outside resources and similar experiences by others. This Popular category shows us a very different view of Medium than the autogenerated choices served up on our home feeds, which are based on reading history. If you read self-help or writing articles, that is primarily what you are going to see, unless you dig in.

This idea of doing a feasibility study of what draws readers, based on reading the advice of others, would never fly in the real world of market research, which is typically based on polling and surveys, not algorithms that sense your desires and serve you things they think you like. When you go to the Popular category, you see content based on a form of polling rather than tailored to you. It is actually a better place to do market research, if you must.

But these kinds of pieces often don’t lend themselves to the volume publishing approach espoused by many ‘experts’. They require time to do that research, find references, do interviews, and all that other journalistic stuff. It seems that readers like fact-based rather than personal experience stories. But you have to do the work.

Which leads to the second half of McPhee’s quote. He is a New Yorker writer who writes long form non-fiction (40–80 thousand word stories) that often involve extensive travel for months at a time and a ton of research. This has led to thirty books and dozens of stories in major publications. And a legendary teaching gig at Princeton.

To complete those kinds of projects, you need a subject that you find fascinating enough to get through a lot of slogging, blocks, setbacks, etc. There has to be passion on your part to stick with it. Tailoring a piece to a trend may get you short term attention but does it build a reputation?

Reputations are built on quality, consistent quality. If becoming a professional writer is your passion, beyond hoping for a big paycheck, at some point you are going to have to move up a level. Don’t just read a few words on what Hemingway said about writing. Find the source material where he said it and read the whole thing in context. That is the beginning of learning writing on the next level- not just dipping into a short piece, but by going deep.

Before writing, think about a subject you are fascinated by and think about how you would convey that fascination, backing it up with research, examples outside of your experience, and a deeper dive than you might have done before. You’ll find out a lot more about yourself as a writer.

*If you write non-fiction and you want to see a consummate pro’s processes and the thinking behind them, read McPhee’s Draft №4. It’s extremely entertaining and pretty daunting. But you’ll see a great writer at work (look at his sentences- incredibly concise and direct and readable) and a great teacher of writing. Chapters on Structure, Editors and Publishers, and Research are each great storytelling on their own, with examples from his extensive experience (which is, honestly, a mind bogglingly high standard).

Written by

Novelist, Tech Marketing Writer, Growth Consultant. I have been a professional writer for over 20 years- 8 non-fiction books and 1 novel, many articles, etc.

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