Book review Draft No. 4 by John McPhee

This book is a collection/compilation of many essays McPhee wrote over his career as a prominent writer for the New Yorker. Here is one of those essays, which forms the basis for one of the chapters in the book and gives the book its title.

The book is about the craft of writing, with its many aspects. But the book is stamped with McPhee's unmistakable take on writing, which puts a big emphasis on the structure/composition of the piece:
You can build a strong, sound, and artful structure. You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction. 

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book. To tell the truth, I was prejudiced going into this. I imagined McPhee would be a boring high-brow NewYorker writer, who would use fancy words I don't understand. Quite the contrary, he is a very colorful figure, a great observer, and insightful and sincere communicator. He is very interesting to read. He has a playful humorous style. However, his respect for his craft, and his professionalism and dedication to his work comes across throughout the book. I strongly recommend the book for any one interested in writing.

Below I give some of the parts I highlighted from the book without much context.


I lay down on [the picnic table in the garden] for nearly two weeks, staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea where or how to begin a piece of writing for The New Yorker.

As hour followed hour toward an absolute writing deadline ... , I was able to produce only one sentence: "The citizen has certain misgivings."

Despite the approaching deadline I spent half the night slowly sorting, making little stacks of thematically or chronologically associated notes.

When I was through studying, separating, defining, and coding the whole body of notes, I had thirty six three-by-five cards, each with two or three code words representing a component of the story. All I had to do was put them in order.

In the juxtaposition of those two cards lay what made this phase of the writing process the most interesting to me.

After putting the two cards together, and then constructing around them the rest of the book, all I had to do was write it, and that took more than a year.

Nothing in that arrangement changed across the many months of writing.

Developing a structure is seldom that simple. Almost always there is considerable tension between chronology and theme, and chronology traditionally wins.

The narrative wants to move from point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across someone's life cry out to be collected.

As a nonfiction writer, you could not change the facts of the chronology, but with verb tenses and other forms of clear guidance to the reader you were free to do a flashback if you thought one made sense in presenting the story.

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. They should arise from within it. That perfect circle [structure] was a help to me, but it could be a liability for anyone trying to impose such a thing on just any set of facts.

A piece of writing has to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there. You do that by building what you hope is an unarguable structure. Beginning, middle, end. Aristotle, Page 1.

The bear encounter in the Alaska trip

And it also occurs just where and when it happened on the trip. You're a nonfiction writer. You can't move that bear around like a king's pawn or a queen's bishop. But you can, to an important and effective extent, arrange a structure that is completely faithful to fact.

That particular encounter occurred close to the start of the nine day river trip. That bear would be, to say the least, a difficult act to follow. One dividend of this structure is that the grizzly encounter occurs about three fifths of the way along, a natural place for a high moment in any dramatic structure.

The lead

Often, after you have reviewed your notes many times and thought through your material, it is difficult to frame much of a structure until you write a lead. You wade around in your notes, getting nowhere. You don't see a pattern. You don't know what to do. So stop everything. Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead. If the whole piece is not to be a long one, you may plunge right on and out the other side and have a finished draft before you know it; but if the piece is to have some combination of substance, complexity, and structural juxtaposition that pays dividends, you might begin with that acceptable and workable lead and then be able to sit back with the lead in hand and think about where you are going and how you plan to get there.

Writing a successful lead, in other words, can illuminate the structure problem for you and cause you to see the piece whole — to see it conceptually, in various parts, to which you then assign your materials. You find your lead, you build your structure, you are now free to write.

I would go so far as to suggest that you should always write your lead (redoing it and polishing it until you are satisfied that it will serve) before you go at the big pile of raw material and sort it into a structure.

The lead is the hardest part of a story to write.

I have often heard writers say that if you have written your lead you have in a sense written half of your story. Finding a good lead can require that much time, anyway — through trial and error.

All leads —of every variety— should be sound. They should never promise what does not follow. You read an exciting action lead about a car chase up a narrow street. Then the article turns out to be a financial analysis of debt structures in private universities. You've been had. The lead —like the title— should be a flashlight that shines down into the story. A lead is a promise. It promises that the piece of writing is going to be like this. If it is not going to be so, don't use the lead.

Some leads are much longer than others. I am not talking just about first sentences. I am talking about an integral beginning that sets a scene and implies the dimensions of the story. That might be a few words, a few hundred words. And it might be two thousand words, setting the scene for a story fifty times as long.

A lead is good not because it dances, fires cannons, or whistles like a train but because it is absolute to what follows.

Writer's Block

It puts some writers down for months. It puts some writers down for life.

" Dear Joel ..." This Joel will win huge awards and write countless books and a nationally syndicated column, but at the time of this letter he has just been finding out that to cross the electric fence from the actual world to the writing world requires at least as much invention as the writing itself. "Dear Joel: You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. For six, seven, ten hours no words have been forthcoming. You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that's where you've been getting. 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."

You are working on a first draft and small wonder you're unhappy. If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you "just love to write," you may be delusional. How could anyone ever know that something is good before it exists? And unless you can identify what is not succeeding — unless you can see those dark clunky spots that are giving you such a low opinion of your prose as it develops — how are you going to be able to tone it up and make it work?

The process of writing

You begin with a subject, gather material, and work your way to structure from there. You pile up volumes of notes and then figure out what you are going to do with them, not the other way around.

To some extent, the structure of a composition dictates itself, and to some extent it does not. Where you have a free hand, you can make interesting choices.

Writing is selection, and the selection starts right there at Square 1. When I am making notes, I throw in a whole lot of things indiscriminately, much more than I'll ever use, but even so I am selecting. Later, in the writing itself, things get down to the narrowed choices. It's an utterly subjective situation. I include what interests me and exclude what doesn't interest me. That may be a crude tool but it's the only one I have.

Another way to prime the pump is to write by hand. Keep a legal pad, or something like one, and when you are stuck dead 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. This can do wonders at any point in a piece and is especially helpful when you have written nothing at all. Sooner or later something comes to you. Without getting up, you roll over and scribble on the pad. Go on scribbling as long as the words develop. Then get up and copy what you have written into your computer file.


First drafts are slow and develop clumsily because every sentence affects not only those before it but also those that follow.

That four-to-one ratio in writing time --first draft versus the other drafts combined-- has for me been consistent in projects of any length, even if the first draft takes only a few days or weeks.

The first is the phase of the pit and the pendulum. After that, it seems as if a different person is taking over. Dread largely disappears. Problems become less threatening, more interesting. Experience is more helpful, as if an amateur is being replaced by a professional. Days go by quickly.

The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. 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. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version --if it did not exist-- you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day --yes, while you sleep-- but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun. 

Writing can be revised. Actually, the essence of the process is revision.  The adulating portrait of the perfect writer who never blots a line comes Express Mail from fairyland.

It is toward the end of the second draft, if I'm lucky, when the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show to other people, something that seems to be working and is not going to go away. The feeling is more than welcome, but it is hardly euphoria. It's just a new lease on life, a sense that I'm going to survive until the middle of next month. After reading the second draft aloud, 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. You could call this the copy-editing phase if real copy editors were not out there in the future prepared to examine the piece.

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