I added this book to my TBR list a couple months back when Deb @ Readerbuzz was reading it. I’ve been looking for books on writing nonfiction, but most of what I’ve found have been about writing memoirs, which isn’t quite what I’m after. I didn’t realize at the time that I’m slightly familiar with John McPhee. I’d read his A Sense of Where You Are years ago.
I looked up Draft No. 4 at the local online libraries and found that the Phoenix library had it — except they didn’t have it. I put in a hold, but then realized I was on a wait list for 0 copies. I suspect this happens when an online library had the license for a book, but it expired and the book wasn’t an automatic rebuy (if such a thing exists) due to lack of interest. I’ve also had it happen with a little known book about a 1910s serial killer. So I went to Amazon. The ebook was $10; the paperback was $12.75. I tossed the paperback into my cart and waited until we needed to round out an order. I still have a hangup about buying ebooks for a near premium price. In the meantime I checked out McPhee’s Levels of the Game.
A word about the paperback. It’s white. And it has this texture to it. Arizona is quite dusty. My white book has gotten dusty and resists cleaning because of the texture. I do no recommend reading it while eating Doritos.
Draft No. 4 is a fairly slim book. It’s earned a spot on my desk with my other writing books to be sure, though (like most of my favorite writing books) the practical advice is buried amid career anecdotes.
The first two chapters cover, roughly, the things that were of most interest to me: what’s a worthwhile idea to write long-form nonfiction about and what do you do with it once you have it. Turns out in McPhee’s experience, a good idea for a piece of nonfiction is a thing that the writer can commit time and effort to. What form will it take? Where will it end up? These are variable things. McPhee’s advice seems to be: keep an open mind and go with the flow. To me, that’s fairly comforting.
Of course, there is McPhee’s progression of drafts which is the second thing of particular non-entertainment-only interest to me. The first draft is simply getting things down, the philosophy of you can’t fix what doesn’t exist. In McPhee’s second draft, he tinkers with shape. The third draft is smoothing out the rough spots after giving it a verbal read-through. And the fourth draft? In the fourth draft, he calls into question weak wording and cuts about 10%. This cutting comes from writing for a magazine like Time where space is a premium. Ideas need to be cut, trimmed, distilled in order for there to be the proper number of lines for the piece when published in a print magazine. Even when not under those constraints, McPhee has found that this practice tightens up writing. (I have found this to be the case myself in the past.)
John McPhee is an entertaining writer and an entertaining teacher too. Draft No. 4 has a lot of stories from McPhee’s long career and some writing advice as well. Suitable even for those who aren’t crazy enough to write a book on a topic no one cares about. Yet.