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?
What counts is a finished piece, and how you get there is idiosyncratic.
Over the past year I have developed an interest in books on writing, academic and otherwise. This is part pretension, part aspiration, and part curiosity as to how books, objects that I have spent my entire life around, come into being. It was around the time this started in 2017 that John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 came out, to general praise. McPhee is a longtime New Yorker staff writer and creative non-fiction teacher at Princeton, experiences which he distills into under two hundred pages of institutional and professional memoir and commentary on the writing process.
Draft No. 4 was born from eight previously published essays on the writing process, though one of its lessons is that there is a difference between articles that appear abridged in pages of a magazine and chapters that appear in a book. Piece by piece, McPhee works through the stages of writing from developing a topic to relationships with editors and publishers, and from the victories of publication to the weeks and months of painful gestation before the first draft is completed. The eponymous “Draft No. 4,” which McPhee describes as the fun part, is final pass where he plays with the choice of words and phrases. Along the way, he offers reflection on the characters at the New Yorker and Time magazine. Writing might be a solo endeavor, but publishing is not.
Each chapter is well-crafted, with a subtle humor and ample examples pulled from McPhee’s career, but the advice was not particularly novel. Writing is hard, copy-editors are your friend, it is better to use a common, concrete word rather than using a thesaurus to sound smart. This last is the sort of advice one would get from Orwell or Hemingway on writing, for instance, but McPhee makes his points not only as a long-time writer, but as someone who teaches writing. The result is masterful, a clever combination of direct explanation, artful example, and epideictic display piece.
My personal favorite chapter was the final chapter “Omission.” The primary lesson here is that while writing is fundamentally a generative process, it is more appropriately one of omission. Writing involves choice: of words most basically, but also subject, point of view, structure. Writing is not a universal medium designed to capture everything, and any attempt to do so will result in fetid muck.
Draft No. 4 is not for everyone, but anyone interested in writing or in some small insight into how the New Yorker works could do worse with this book.
I read Draft No. 4 as a break from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, which I am about 60% of the way through. I’m hoping to finish it soon because I’m excited about a lot of the other books currently sitting on my shelf.