John McPhee’s ‘Draft No. 4’ Provides Easygoing Wisdom for Readers and Writers

A meditation about the mechanics of writing is a refreshing break from the countless blogs, books, and programs designed to help people who want to write become writers.

The continuing critique of impatient readers who can’t seem to engage with novels or lengthy writing of any kind is repeatedly undone by evidence to the contrary. The oft-cited 2016 Pew Research study of book reading shows that 73 percent of Americans read at least one book in the 12 months leading up to the survey. Among the active reading public there remains a deep love for longform nonfiction and an appreciation for its dedicated practitioners. John McPhee is a lifelong proponent of longform nonfiction and one of the genre’s most prolific authors. A contributor to The New Yorker since 1965, McPhee’s essays for the magazine have been gathered into more than 30 collected volumes during his career.

In his most recent book, Draft No. 4, McPhee offers both instruction and example. McPhee’s career takes him not only into the field for research but also into the classroom. He still teaches writing at Princeton University. Much of McPhee’s advice here to the aspiring writer comes in the form of lengthy anecdotes about his research, writing, and relationships, making Draft No. 4 akin to memoir. This in no way diminishes the pleasures of the book.

McPhee moves from a first chapter on Progression — how to create an orderly narrative from a complex and often messy reality — through to Omission, reminding the reader that sometimes less is more. Following Progression, McPhee looks closely at Structure, a chapter drawn from a 2013 New Yorker essay. The upshot is to write your lead first, although McPhee goes to pains to describe that’s not necessarily the easiest task. He begins by recalling the picnic table that he laid down on for nearly two weeks, looking up at the tree branches and the sky, trying to find the beginning for the piece he was writing. It was 1966. Yet the power of McPhee’s description — more instruction by example — resonates powerfully as if this experience were five days, rather than five decades, in the past. No matter what, though, the task of structure is to be fundamentally invisible: “Readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones. And I hope this structure illustrates what I take to be a basic criterion for all structures: they should not be imposed upon the material” (34).

In “Editors & Publisher”, McPhee recounts his long and fruitful relationship with New Yorker editor William Shawn. The editor’s dedication to working closely with his contributors to ensure that every article published in magazine is carefully crafted is worth of McPhee’s praise. He asks Shawn how he can devote so much time to this close reading and discussion, when the whole operation of the magazine rests on his shoulders. McPhee simply states: “He said, ‘It takes as long as it takes.'” McPhee then adds, “As a writing teacher, I have repeated that statement to two generations of students. If they are writers, they will never forget it” (81-82). These small bits of wisdom, while useful, are best read in context. The writer who is best known for his New Yorker articles with word counts of 30,000 or more is not going to condense his thoughts on craft into a listicle. Draft No. 4 is a short book, but it is not spare.

McPhee’s chapter on elicitation is particularly instructive. That a writer can quote a source verbatim and misrepresent the speaker’s intention is a truth worth contemplating in what is occasionally termed a post-truth era in shortform and longform writing alike.The chapter begins with McPhee pointing out that he would “much rather watch people do what they do than talk to them across a desk” (91). Later: “I have no technique for asking questions. I just stay here and fade away as I watch people do what they do” (99). Here is one of those memoir-like moments, coming along with descriptions of this very process throughout his reminiscences.

The stickiness of elicitation is, in practice, far more intimidating than McPhee’s wisdom on frames of reference. A simple summary of this chapter does not replace his clear and delightful examples. Saying that the subject of your study resembles Tom Cruise or Bea Arthur not only creates the danger of dating your work or, worse yet, being irrelevant to begin with, it also shortchanges the reason for making the comparison at all.

That the synopsis is insufficient rings true for the final chapter as well. There’s not much to gain from letting you in on McPhee’s secret that a dictionary is far more useful than a thesaurus. His argument in favor of the dictionary as the source for the right word is a lengthy diatribe that somehow resembles the the delightful rabbit holes into which the curious often fall in their online explorations.

Some aspiring writers are likely to become impatient with McPhee’s discussion of “which” versus “that”, and risk tossing the book aside in frustration for not being offered the magic keys for becoming a True Writer. Perhaps the most important advice comes toward the end: “Writing is selection […] Write on subjects in which you have enough interest in your own to see you through all the stops, starts, hesitations and other impediments along the way” (180). Draft No. 4 is testament to this decree: throughout the book, McPhee takes the reader along on his adventures in Alaska, canoeing, fishing, researching Florida oranges, and it’s not hard to see that his curiosity turns into passion that turns into writing, regardless of how hard-won he claims it has been.