Draft No. 4 - John McPheeJohn McPhee has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since the 1960s. His work has been collected in dozens of books. Draft No. 4 is a collection of his essays on the craft of writing.

I’ve never read any of his other work, and although I hear good things about it, I don’t have plans to read any of his other writing. So the fact that I finished Draft No. 4 is a testament to my love of books about writing.

I read Draft No. 4 in two chunks. After the first chapter and a half, I stalled due to boredom with the in-depth examples McPhee gives from his own work on subjects that didn’t interest me. I stalled for so long that my library copy expired, so I had to wait for it to become available again. I did, to my own surprise, want to finish it. When it renewed, though, I again delayed picking it up until it was again nearly due. So I finished the remainder in a few days.

I rarely read books that way, but then I usually abandon books that bore me partway through the second chapter. The book is worth sticking with to the end, though, if you have patience or make no bones about skimming the boring bits.

John McPhee’s genre is creative nonfiction, which is to say he finds an idea that interests him, goes out into the world and spends time with people to research that idea, and then comes home with lots of notes and puts together a long article about it. This is the kind of writing he focuses on in Draft No. 4. It’s not the kind of writing I do. 

There is a lot of value in this book for writers of nonfiction, especially regarding structure and the process of creating a piece of writing out of piles and piles of notes. Selfishly, however, I’m going to share the parts that were relevant to me. 

Getting started

On first drafts: “Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? … At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in — if not, it stays out.”

From a letter to his daughter when she had difficulty getting started on a writing assignment:

“For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something — anything — out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again — top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time.”

Priming the pump

On writing by hand: “Another way to prime the pump is to write by hand. Keep a legal pad, or something like one, and when you are struck at any time — blocked to paralysis by an inability to set one word upon another — get away from the computer, lie down somewhere with pencil and pad, and think it over.”

On getting past writer’s block:

“What do you do? You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.”

The insecure writer

On lacking confidence even after selling several pieces to The New Yorker: “You would think that by then I would have developed some confidence in writing a new story, but I hadn’t, and never would. To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you.”

On insecurity: “Writers come in two principal categories — those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure — and they can all use help.”

Competing with yourself

On the writer’s development: “No one will ever write in just the way that you do, or in just the way that anyone else does. Because of this fact, there is no real competition between writers. What appears to be competition is actually nothing more than jealousy and gossip. Writing is a matter strictly of developing oneself. You compete only with yourself. You develop yourself by writing.”

On letting the reader do some of the work:

“The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader.”

The fourth draft

“After reading the second draft aloud,” McPhee writes, “and going through the piece for the third time (removing the tin horns and radio static that I heard while reading), I enclose words and phrases in pencilled boxes for Draft No. 4. If I enjoy anything in this process it is Draft No. 4. I go searching for replacements for the words in the boxes. The final adjustments may be small-scale, but they are large to me, and I love addressing them.”

Which reminds me of a practice Annie Dillard taught in her creative writing classes, as described by Alexander Chee, with the focus on verbs:

“We counted the verbs on the page, circled them, tallied the count for each page to the side and averaged them. Can you increase the average number of verbs per page, she asked. … Have you used the right verbs? Is that the precise verb for that precise thing? Remember that adverbs are a sign that you’ve used the wrong verb. Verbs control when something is happening in the mind of the reader.”

John McPhee goes beyond the verb in a process that, were I to follow it, would probably never end:

“You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don’t you try to find such a word? If none occurs, don’t linger; keep reading and drawing boxes, and later revisit them one by one.” 

Dictionary, not thesaurus

We’ll finish with his excellent advice about using a dictionary instead of a thesaurus for draft no. 4. Searching for a synonym tends to result in complicated and uncommon words, whereas a dictionary, by giving the word’s meaning, will steer you in the direction of a stronger and more precise word. Better still, use a paper dictionary.

“Thesauruses are mere rest stops in the search for the mot juste,” McPhee writes. “Your destination is the dictionary.”

Additional reading

Wishing I Were John McPhee at Lithub. John McPhee, The Art of Nonfiction No. 3 at the Paris Review. Who Can Afford to Write Like John McPhee? The Mind of John McPhee.

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  1. […] As a lover of books on the craft of writing, I’d had Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing on my to-read list for several years. It was her recent extraordinary memoir Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage that prompted me to read it finally this fall. Shapiro writes memoir and fiction, which makes Still Writing  an excellent contrast and complement to John McPhee’s Draft No. 4. […]

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  2. […] books about writing, in addition to Still Writing: The Art of Fiction, Reading Like a Writer, Draft No. 4, Six Memos for the Next Millennium. I also finally got to a few books that have been on my reading […]

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