Book Review: Draft No. 4 (On the Writing Process)

Author/teacher John McPhee uses words I’ve never even known existed. His vocabulary boggles the mind. I wish I had kept a list of all the words in his book on writing — Draft No. 4 — that I didn’t know but now wondered about, and yet, I kept on reading instead of stopping to dig out my dictionary to look the words up.

It didn’t matter. I navigated through, like sitting in the classroom of a professor whose intelligence and insights are washing over you, and you, not getting it all, know that much of it will stick with you. If not now, then later.

I know McPhee’s writing through his work on long non-fiction in The New Yorker magazine. And I mean, long. He writes huge articles, sometimes spanning two editions on dense subjects. He spends months, if not years, on a single piece of non-fiction writing. Alaska. Cargo boats. Oranges. Long-distance trucking. His topics are all over the place.

In this particular book on writing, McPhee finds interesting elements to explore about his chosen art form — from different and creative means to structure a long piece of writing (look at his diagrams when you get a chance and you’ll be amazed at his logic flow and systematic approach), to how fact-checking and editing still rule the day at magazines (or those of substance), to the frustrations of any writer trying to find a starting point that is elusive and slippery and then moving into the various draft stages (thus, the title).

I’m going to tuck this book away with my other books on writing, and come back to it again, I am sure. McPhee (a professor at Princeton) has made me think, ponder and wonder about elements of the writing life. I’m still puzzling over some of his sentences and ideas, and that’s not a bad thing for a book on writing to leave you standing with.

Peace (in the pages),

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