Drawing Boxes Around Words: Draft No. 4 by John McPhee

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.

Two Novels, One Year

Although the sum total of words I’ve written over the last 20 years would fill several books, before this year I hadn’t completed a novel since NaNoWriMo in 2002. But lightning struck in 2017, and suddenly, like a blazing forest fire, I burned through two novels. One between February and May and another between May and July. Nothing significant had changed in my life. I still had a husband, a full-time job, other hobbies, a mortgage to pay. So how on earth did this happen?

Credit for my surge in writing productivity is due to three excellent teachers. I’ve never taken a course with them or visited them during office hours, but I still consider them teachers. I’ve learned so much from them, although I still have a long way to go.

Books, podcasts, personal essays about the craft and life of a writer have always sustained me. They’ve given me clarity, inspiration, and hope, but rarely a clear sense of direction. But something clicked with these three writers and set me down a new path.

Jessica Abel

The toughest part of writing stories for me has always been narrative and plot. The idea of a character going on a journey or two characters falling in love or whatever seemed like an impossible place to start writing. I prefer atmosphere, experimentation, creative turns of phrase, bizarre settings, and inscrutable characters as the means of finding my way into a story.

But even when I’d found my way into a story, sustaining it over thousands of words and dozens of chapters was a challenge. There were too many ways to make things happen, too many choices to make, too many paths to take. I didn’t know how to decide what would happen next.

Out on the Wire by Jessica AbelOne of my breakthroughs came as a result of Jessica Abel’s podcast Out on the Wire about the principles of storytelling. The main episodes walk you through the process of telling a good narrative, focusing on radio but applicable to any medium, and half-episodes use listener submissions to apply the principles. In the second episode, the challenge was to create two things for your story: a focus sentence and an XY story formula.

A focus sentence is: “[Someone] does [something] because [reasons] but [something else that gets in their way].” The key things are: character, action, motivation, conflict. You could make it more granular to show the escalation of somethings that happen, but the idea is to home in on the central conflict.

The XY story formula is more of an elevator pitch: “I’m doing a story about X… and it’s interesting because Y….” It forces you to distill the story down into a simple phrase and discover why it’s so interesting, to you and to your readers.

The idea is not that you write these and voila, suddenly you have a plot. Instead, they’re intended to prompt deeper thinking. You might need several iterations to get to what you really want to write about. Keep drilling down into what makes the story interesting and what’s truly important.

These tools seem pretty easy to use, right? Well, it was tough for me. It was nearly opposite to the way I normally approached my writing. But it was enough of a boost that I was able to take some ideas I was tooling around with and apply them to a structure. I began to see my own work much more clearly.

Robert McKee

Story by Robert McKeeI first heard about Robert McKee via Adaptation., an insightful and hilarious film about a writer struggling to adapt a book to film. I was surprised to learn from my husband that the profane and bombastic McKee was a real person and had written a book, Story. Its primary audience is screenwriters, but I think it’s an essential text for storytellers. 

I read it last year over the course of a beautiful summer and early fall. When it wasn’t too hot and sunny, I would take a break from work and stand on the patio in the sun, catching a break from the air conditioning in the office. I read it on my phone and tried not to highlight every other sentence I read. Story is full of insights into what readers expect and deserve and what it takes to be a storyteller. Some examples:

“The storyteller’s selection and arrangement of events is his master metaphor for the interconnectedness of all the levels of reality — personal, political, environmental, spiritual. Stripped of its surface of characterization and location, story structure reveals his personal cosmology, his insight into the deepest patterns and motivations for how and why things happen in this world — his map of life’s hidden order.”

“You may think you’re a warm, loving human being until you find yourself writing tales of dark, cynical consequence. Or you may think you’re a street-wise guy who’s been around the block a few times until you find yourself writing warm, compassionate endings. You think you know who you are, but often you’re amazed by what’s skulking inside in need of expression. In other words, if a plot works out exactly as you first planned, you’re not working loosely enough to give room to your imagination and instincts. Your story should surprise you again and again. Beautiful story design is a combination of the subject found, the imagination at work, and the mind loosely but wisely executing the craft.”

“Self-knowledge is the key — life plus deep reflection on our reactions to life.”

The most important thing I learned from McKee is the idea that in order to move your story forward, your scene need two elements. First, the values at stake in your story need to shift between positive and negative. Second, this shift needs to happen through conflict.

“Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask: What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment? Love? Truth? What? How is that value charged at the top of the scene? Positive? Negative? Some of both? Make a note. Next turn to the close of the scene and ask, Where is this value now? Positive? Negative? Both? Make a note and compare. If the answer you write down at the end of the scene is the same note you made at the opening, you now have another important question to ask: Why is this scene in my script?”

Is this a basic thing that every writer is supposed to know? Some writers are probably born with this idea already built in, right? Well, I wasn’t. I’m still working on actually putting this into practice, scene by painful scene. In the meantime, I’m keeping this book close to hand as I start revisions.

“Values, the positive/negative charges of life, are at the soul of our art. The writer shapes story around a perception of what’s worth living for, what’s worth dying for, what’s foolish to pursue, the meaning of justice, truth — the essential values.”

I also have McKee’s more recent book Dialogue which I have yet to crack. It sounds even more specific to filmmaking, and a bit hyper-specific, but I’m looking forward to the day I get to it.

Annie Dillard

I don’t know what it is about Annie Dillard, but she is amazing. The Writing Life might be the most important book on this list. Relatedly, I’ve also revisited Alexander Chee’s excellent essay “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life” several times. For the snippets of advice she gives the class as well as for Chee’s own beginnings as a writer.

I’d read The Writing Life years ago but picked it up for a re-read on New Year’s Day. One dark, formative morning in February before getting down to work, I read the following passage:

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard“Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”

It prompted me to focus on the part of the story that drew me into it, that fascinated me, that made it unique to me. What astonishment was I trying to give voice to? And that gave me a path inward to a place where the words seemed to come easily.

Your turn

Who are your writing teachers? What books or podcasts or essays or people have influenced your writing life?