DRAFT NO. 4
On the Writing Process
By John McPhee
192 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.
Followers of John McPhee, perhaps the most revered nonfiction narrative journalist of our time, will luxuriate in the shipshape prose of “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process,” a collection of eight essays that first appeared in The New Yorker, his home for more than 50 years. Writers looking for the secrets of his stripped-bark style and painstaking structure will have to be patient with what is a discursive, though often delightful, short book. McPhee’s publisher is presenting it as a “master class,” but it’s really a memoir of writing during a time of editorial cosseting that now seems as remote as the court of the Romanovs. Readerly patience will be rewarded by plentiful examples of the author’s sinewy prose and, toward the end, by advice and tips that will help writers looking to become better practitioners of the craft and to stay afloat in what has become a self-service economy.
Virtually no part of McPhee’s long career, full of months-long or years-long research trips and hours or days staring at a blank computer screen, resembles the churn-it-out grind of today’s professional web writer. Except the earliest part, which he returns to often: the English class at Princeton High School whose teacher, Mrs. McKee, made him write three pieces a week (“Not every single week. Some weeks had Thanksgiving in them”) for three solid years and encouraged her students to critique one another, to the point of hissing and spitballs. Her constant deadlines led him to devise a crucial tactic: Force yourself to break from “wallowing in all those notes” and determine an ending, then go back to worrying about the beginning. Which leads to the first formal rule he provides, and then only a quarter of the way through the book: When you’re getting nowhere and “you don’t know what to do. Stop everything. Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead.”
That leaves the knotty middle. And structure is where, quixotically, McPhee decides to begin this collection. Maybe he holds off on dispensing advice in adherence to The New Yorker’s unspoken rule, notorious at rival publications though not one of the magazine’s many quirks he lovingly details: Place the nut graf (vital establishing information) no higher than a third of the way into a story. His drawings of circles and spirals and arrows and parabolas that look like track lighting or a set of bottom teeth clearly make sense to him, and give him the navigational tools to row a long way upstream. And they do come interspersed with observations every writer should remember, like “Blind leads … range from slightly cheap to very cheap” and, on abandoning puns when he ascends from Time magazine to The New Yorker, “Words are too easy to play on.” But the diagrams are likely to baffle many readers. They could have been condensed to one observation: “What counts is a finished piece, and how you get there is idiosyncratic.”
No matter. Everywhere you have McPhee’s attentive company. And when he gets to the chapter titled “Editors & Publisher,” exactly one-third of the way through the book, he warms up and loosens up, and makes you hope he won’t stop. Or perhaps I savored every word because my career as an editor at The Atlantic has been spent learning the same rules The New Yorker’s phalanx of editors insist on observing: the exceptional “which”; “a” on first reference and “the” on second; the distinction between “farther” and “further”; sentence-by-sentence vigilance about what the reader will and will not follow. These are the rules I first learned from William K. Zinsser in the college classes on which he would base “On Writing Well,” and then from my titanically influential boss at The Atlantic, William Whitworth. The precise rules, in fact: Whitworth was at one time the informally designated heir to William Shawn, the decades-long “intimidating sovereign” (and “iron mouse”) of The New Yorker, as were the two editors McPhee principally worked and argued with, Robert Bingham and Pat Crow. McPhee’s reliance on and reverence for these benignly ruthless guides will ring true to anyone fortunate enough to have worked with meticulous, devoted editors like them, as will the desire to pass along to the next generations, medieval-guild fashion, the tradecraft he learned from their incisive comments — as Zinsser did with us undergraduates; as I do with Atlantic authors, trying to be at once relentless inquisitor and relentless champion, and with my own writing students; as McPhee has done, comma by comma, for more than four decades, with the “half a thousand Princeton students” who are among the book’s dedicatees.
As he becomes more personal and freer with his stories, McPhee also becomes freer with advice: For a far richer and more specific list of alternative words, use a dictionary, not the “scattershot wad” in a thesaurus; every piece of writing can be improved by cutting, or “greening” as it is known at Time, for which McPhee produced many kinds of articles including marvelous show-biz profiles likely to be unfamiliar to even his most ardent fans (a passage on trying to interview Jackie Gleason is particularly wonderful). He makes his students “green” their own articles and even the Gettysburg Address: still a necessary discipline in any kind of writing, even when in online writing the whims of art directors seldom result in the same irritating but useful space constraints as they do in print.
In “Checkpoints,” McPhee’s chapter on fact-checking, he demonstrates the bedrock respect for solid information that has guided his career and those of his colleagues. Along the way, he also tells of the three-month ordeal, while preparing a manuscript for his book publisher, involved in trying his hand at the sort of no-stone-unturned verification he relied on at The New Yorker — an essential skill for today’s writers of non-fake news, however sweat-inducing.
It’s the last three chapters, “Checkpoints,” “Draft No. 4” and “Omission,” that will be assigned and reassigned by grateful writing teachers. Perhaps the most generous passages in this generous book are in these final chapters: letters to the student of a fellow writing teacher, Anne Fadiman (whose yearly seminar at Yale was endowed by a former student in honor of Zinsser), and to Martha and Jenny, two of his four daughters, now both professional writers: “Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft…. As you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the eye and ear. Edit it again — top to bottom.” As they progress through their own early careers, he gives them the pep talks he needs himself: “Just stay at it; perseverance will change things”; “To feel such doubt is a part of the picture — important and inescapable.”
This might be the greatest gift any writer can give another: the infinitely empathetic sense that it really will get easier the longer you stick with it. Or at least a little easier.