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Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  2,828 ratings  ·  468 reviews
The long-awaited guide to writing long-form nonfiction by the legendary author and teacher

Draft No. 4 is an elucidation of the writer's craft by a master practitioner. In a series of playful but expertly wrought essays, John McPhee shares insights he's gathered over his career and refined during his long-running course at Princeton University, where he has launched some of
Hardcover, 208 pages
Published April 29th 2013 by The New Yorker
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Average rating 4.11  · 
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 ·  2,828 ratings  ·  468 reviews

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Adam Dalva
Jan 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Fun, insightful collection of linked essays (all of which appeared in The New Yorker) that detail various aspects of McPhee's approach to "creative non-fiction" - a phrase that both he and I find inscrutable. That notwithstanding, I'm teaching an intermediate "creative non-fiction" class this Spring, and I found several of these pieces quite helpful.

I was particularly drawn to the section on non-chronological structure, though McPhee's drawings of his essay schematics are completely incomprehen
Sep 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017
"It is possible in managing a quote--not to say manipulating a quote--to present something that is both verbatim and false."
- John McPhee, Draft No. 4


John McPhee is a God. Not a minor deity either. A big "G" god. He isn't just good at the craft of writing nonfiction, he is the craft. Or at least that is how he seems. This perception, this read, of John McPhee only grows the more of his books, articles, etc., the reader consumes. You don't have to be passionate about geology. It is OK. McPhee is.
Roy Lotz
Jan 03, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I include what interests me and exclude what doesn’t interest me. That may be a crude tool but it’s the only one I have.

I came to this book from an odd angle. Neither a reader of The New Yorker (where McPhee has published the lion’s share of his work), nor a reader of John McPhee’s books, nor even aware of his existence until a few months ago, I was nonetheless gifted this book for Christmas. It was an intelligent choice. McPhee is a kindred spirit, a nonfiction writer who loves nature, scie
Oct 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book comprises essays McPhee wrote in his many years at The New Yorker. While you will find advice on writing (McPhee also taught writing courses at Princeton), you'll mostly find memoir-like reminisces about New Yorker editors (William Shawn, Robert Gottlieb, mostly) and writers (Calvin Trillin, chiefly).

My least favorite essay was "Structure," which went on and on about design and planning (gee, what does that say about ME?). My favorites were "Editors & Publisher" (lots of anecdotes abou
Sep 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The second I finished the book, I started it again and re-read it. I love New Yorker Non-fiction essays and McPhee is the master of the genre. This book is a gem for writers and readers. A good writer like McPhee doesn't come too often and it's such a gift to readers when a writer assumes intelligence and edits appropriately. You know as a reader when you are being pandered to or given too much or not being respected. McPhee understands how to give readers enough, but not too much. He takes the ...more
Nov 10, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
You might imagine that, as someone who writes all day, and therefore thinks about writing most of the day, I might not want to spend my off hours thinking about writing more. But you'd be wrong. I really like reading books on craft, especially if they're crafty themselves, and this absolutely qualifies. I love John McPhee's writing, no matter how arcane his subjects are—he manages to be both playful and precise, with the one dependent on the other. It makes me happy as both a reader and a writer ...more
Jan 08, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Supposedly connected essays, in that he talks about his own career with the New Yorker and other projects (book subjects from California geology to the Arctic). But only now and then do his examples translate into meaningful advice. I found his memoir style writing tedious as he constantly strayed off topic. Example. Right in the middle of talking about word choice revisions he delves into his own personal introduction to the irregular restrictive use of “which” and then bores us with modern exa ...more
Jan 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
No book on writing made me think more about STRUCTURE. He approaches organizational patterns like a mad scientist. How should the piece unfold? Could it be structured in a more effective way? A more interesting way? A more dramatic way? Should the hook be this or that? Start with the END and then go back to the beginning? Separate into sections? With or without headings? The questions go on and on and on... And I guess that's the point. ...more
May 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
"Dear Jenny: The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something--anything--out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something--anything--as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it aga ...more
Stephen Durrant
Dec 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
McPhee is one of our best writers of non-fiction, and in this short book he does two things: first, report his own long experience as a writer at the New Yorker and elsewhere; and second, provide an array of good advice for aspiring writers. Particularly useful, I thought, were his comments on structure and upon what he calls "omissions"--that most difficult task of deciding what things are best left out. Most captivating, however, are his anecdotes, some very funny about interactions with edito ...more
Oct 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
Not a book on how to write but a book about John McPhee's writing and teaching career, I loved his chapter on revision. He writes four drafts for everything he writes, the first takes the longest the fourth goes much quicker that's how the book got it's title. Another interesting essay in the book is about copy checking, if that was done consistently today across the internet maybe we wouldn't have fake news. I loved the fact checking part about the Japanese bomb balloons that shut down the reac ...more
Kristin Boldon
Dec 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own, writing, new, 2017
Like listening to a cool grandfather telling good stories, with writing advice and a beautiful dry humor to boot. Lovely and useful.
Mar 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
Treasure hunt!

McPhee drops his gems on writing process into a jewel box of colourful stories and examples. You have to wait, or hunt, for them. Being more of a nuts-and-bolts reader when it comes to learning about writers’ craft, I don’t always relate to this approach—but I did this time. Mostly.

Many gems were so uncommon and instructive, and several anecdotes, writing samples and bolts of humour so revealing and fun, they smothered my impatience.

Among the lessons I most appreciated:
Reveal st
John Madera
Jan 12, 2018 rated it liked it
John McPhee's Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process is a disappointing read that relies heavily on gossipy anecdote, useless diagrams, and gem-like paragraphs drawn from the author's work, only to say about the last, essentially, "Go and do likewise," all to basically hammer in largely well-worn ideas about writing.

John of Canada
Mar 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Nice conversational tone,and typical John McPhee excellence.
Ben Goldfarb
Feb 20, 2021 rated it it was amazing
So much to love in this book, but I especially appreciated JM's advice on dealing with editors: "There are people who superimpose their own patterns on the work of writers and seem to think it is their role to force things in the direction they would have gone in if they had been doing the writing. Such people are called editors, and are not editors but rewriters... My advice is, never stop battling for your own unique stamp. An editor can contribute a lot to your thoughts but the piece is yours ...more
Augustin Erba
I wanted to love this book. As a regular reader - and an admirer - of The New Yorker, I expected a great read. Instead I struggled. There was nothing wrong with the prose. There was nothing wrong with the subject; as a writer who read too many books on writing, I expect that every publisher's response to a book-on-writing-pitch should be to ask if the advance should be four or five figures. There was nothing wrong with the constant name-dropping or the humblebrags; if you're a writer of McPhee's ...more
Jan 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Brilliant! I use that word not in the breathlessly overdone North American synonym-for-quite-good way, but to convey what is offered up in every section of this book: John McPhee's brilliance. Yes, this is in its way about his writing processes but you're doing both the book and yourself a disservice if you conceive of it as only that. In fact, part of me doesn't want to persuade you to read it because I'm jealous and want to hoard all the little bits of life and knowledge shared herein. ...more
Richard Levine
Jun 28, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2018
(3.5 stars)

In my reading experience, John McPhee is incapable of writing a bad paragraph -- although I admit I didn't read him during that decade or so when he wrote about nothing but geology -- so this collection of pieces about his own writing process was, as I expected, interesting and elegant, full of comical anecdotes about his experiences with interview subjects and with New Yorker editors and fact checkers. [Two examples of the latter: (1) One of his earliest New Yorker pieces, later turn
Prima Seadiva
Apr 05, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Audiobook read by the author.
I enjoyed this book more than I expected.
I have long been a fan of McPhee's writing ever since I stumbled on Giving Good Weight during the time I worked in the local Public Market. My favorite essay is still the same entitled in that collection, relating his experiences in the New York City Farmers Market.
Since then I have read many more. McPhee can take a subject you think you would have no interest in and reveal it like a gem. This book does the same for writing.

Benjamin Kass
Feb 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
This would be the perfect library book--something I wasn't sure that I would get into, but was interested in--except for all the times that I wished I could underline! Even though I'm a fiction writer generally, there was still a lot in this book for me to learn from, and I enjoyed his stories. The section on "Structure" is incredible for how subtly the narrative interweaves the concepts he's talking about.
It took me a bit to get into the style of this book, but once I did I enjoyed getting to
Erik Rostad
Sep 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2020-books
A two-for-one. A book about writing where on one hand, you learn about the writing process and on the other hand, you experience a master at work. I find that books about the writing process help me become a better reader.
Feb 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book gave me a different perspective on growing as a writer. I appreciate the examples he pulls from his own work. It is a fun and interesting mix of McPhee’s perspective, experiences and advice. Highly recommend to writers (fiction and nonfiction alike).
Feb 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
(take a shot every time I say 'excerpt')
took me a bit to get into the way this is written. Each chapter has a few personal anecdotes interspersed with excerpts from the piece of writing the anecdote is centred on and rarely is there an explicit lesson about the topic/writing skill, rather you are meant to learn from McPhee's experience what you read into it. At first this wasn't really working for me, especially as the writing excerpts weren't usually on topics that interested me, but about h
Anita Yoder
Jan 24, 2021 rated it really liked it
This is a first cousin to Zinser's On Writing Well. McPhee is honest, instructive, and helpful for aspiring writers. ...more
Sep 12, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not a writing guide, as such, but pieces of a memoir of a writing life; a chance to revisit some great writing and see how they were constructed, what the problems were and how they were addressed, and why McPhee made the choices that he did. There is a lot of good advice here, but there are a lot more good stories.
Chris Eirschele
Jan 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Draft No. 4 by John McPhee is about the writing process. The book of 192 pages is a series of essays written by McPhee during his time at Princeton University.

My favorite is the chapter essay by the same name, Draft No. 4. It starts out with a one-word sentence. Block. The author leads you into "your lack of confidence" and over to how draft one is so different from two, three, and four.

Though he wrote these essays and the book is targeted to nonfiction writers, there is plenty for fiction wri
Dec 30, 2017 rated it liked it
I’ve said elsewhere McPhee is ideal for readers who’ve seen through Tom Wolfe and outgrown Hunter Thompson. His approach is the opposite of theirs, in that the subject always comes first. There is no condescension, typographical tics, or tweaking of the facts. He becomes what he observes.

All the articles collected here are crisply written, modest, unflashy, and they pass on some hard-won experience clearly. They need to. Many passages deal with the neurotic tangle of structuring a piece of writi
Shane Parrish
Oct 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
John McPhee is a living legend in the creative nonfiction genre; this is his handbook on writing. He is the author of 33 books. McPhee won the Pulitzer Prize after four nominations, has written for The New Yorker for 53 years, and is in his 45th year teaching creative writing at Princeton University. In a series of short essays, he shares advice, techniques, and weaves in tales from a life spent capturing real stories on paper. The storytelling is equally as powerful as his technical advice on w ...more
Peter Tillman
Sep 12, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: bios-memoirs
These 8 short essays all previously appeared in the New Yorker, but so what? You pretty much need to read a McPhee article or essay twice to really get it, and another reread a few years down the line wouldn't hurt. Plus, the man is almost incapable of writing a dull sentence -- although his odd little graphs from his Princeton writing class can be opaque, and a little dull, unless you were there, I suppose.

The book's the last line: McPhee at age 19, is taken by a family friend to meet Gen. Eis
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John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The P ...more

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