In his writing classes at Princeton University, John McPhee likes to give students an exercise called “greening,” or the editing of text for length. It’s a familiar task to editors who have strict, printed-word limits: shorten the piece without changing a thing. McPhee, however, asks his students to green pieces from otherwise very tightly edited publications—such as, for example, the front page of the New York Times. He’ll clip a story, Xerox it, and hand it out, saying: “This is 422 words. Make it 399. See you Tuesday.” Meaning must remain intact. Synonyms are not permitted, nor rewriting beyond structural manipulation and the smallest interventions. McPhee’s students puzzle and stew. Not even the advanced mathematics majors bend as low over an assigned problem, week to week, toting it everywhere, bumping into things, losing sleep.
The rewards of such attention are clear in McPhee’s work.