Draft No. 4 (Amazon affiliate link) by John McPhee is one of the clearest and best books on writing I have ever read, if not the best book on writing I have ever read. It really helped me break through some of the blocks I’ve had as a writer and move on with my writing in a way that I hadn’t been able to before.
When I started reading, I didn’t know who McPhee was. Over the course of reading, I discovered more about him, but the goal of Draft No. 4 isn’t to provide a biography, it’s to provide guidance.
The best way that I can describe this is as follows: McPhee shows how he earned his place in the writing world by giving an overview of what a writer has to do to get there.
This doesn’t mean the book is perfect; it doesn’t cover a lot of adiaphora and is generally focused on non-fiction writing (including creative non-fiction, a field I don’t have much experience in), and also on the general practice of writing.
Now, maybe I’m just a nerd, but I found McPhee’s constant insights to the writing world to be actually quite fun. Like, even in lieu of the whole “oh hey, I can learn something here” aspect of such a book, you get to have the pleasure of hearing about people and places and how those people and places got turned into a story.
The best example of this comes at the end of the book, where McPhee recounts an encounter with Eisenhower (yes, that Eisenhower). Eisenhower was painting a still-life and had left out some grapes, and McPhee recounted that:
“Ike said, ‘Because they’re too God-damned hard to paint.’”
This is just one example of how McPhee recounts lessons (the lesson here is that sometimes a writer just can’t capture something in words) by combining practical, but theoretically presented, advice with personal anecdotes that go beyond just serving as evidence and instead are used to add some vibrancy to the text.
Draft No. 4 is a book that I often found myself saying “Just one more chapter” to, even though each chapter is rather substantial. The organization of the book is such that each chapter focuses on a particular domain of the writer.
The great thing about the book is that McPhee has actually written some very impressive books and he recounts a lot of his process within Draft No. 4. Not only is it full of personal anecdotes, it also features fairly detailed accounts of the making of a couple of his personal favorite works.
The first couple chapters in particular do this quite a bit. At first when I started reading, I felt overwhelmed. McPhee starts with technical writing advice, explaining his work using diagrams and terminology that even I, an English major, struggled with at first.
Then he gave an example of how he wrote in process, and it all made sense. It was a showcase of how to tell a story and how to lay out a text, but also how to figure out the methods you want to use for each, and how to move from writing simple things as a novice to more complicated things as a master.
Couple that with more domain-specific overviews of the writing process and you’ve got a great book that can help both someone with relatively little professional writing experience (like myself) and someone like a veteran writer looking for tips and inspiration.
It’s worth noting that while McPhee showcases his own experience, he never does it out of self-indulgence. It’s always part of an object lesson, and sometimes he points out embarrassing or foolish mistakes on his own part to make sure that a lesson learned painfully can be passed on to people who hopefully listen and learn from his mistakes. That’s the mark of a great teacher.
Draft No. 4 is a tremendous book, and I highly recommend it. There is some harsh language, in academic or mimetic context, and a couple more adult moments described in the context of journalism, so it’s not something that I would feel comfortable using in anything lower than a college classroom, but it’s something that I would find invaluable for any student with the maturity to see McPhee’s talent and advice for what it is.