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Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process

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Recipient of the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement AwardDraft No. 4 is a master class on the writer's craft. John McPhee shares insights he has gathered over his long career, and has refined while teaching at Princeton University, where he has nurtured some of the most highly regarded writers of our time. He discusses structure, diction and tone, observing that 'readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone's bones.' This book is a vivid depiction of the writing process, from reporting to drafting to revising - and revising and revising.

208 pages, Hardcover

Published April 29, 2013

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About the author

John McPhee

132 books1,500 followers
Princeton University and Cambridge University educated John Angus McPhee. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association since 1965 with the New Yorker as a staff writer. In 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 Pine Barrens (1968), A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles (collection, 1968), Levels of the Game (1968), The Crofter and the Laird (1970), Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (1973), The Curve of Binding Energy (1974), Pieces of the Frame (collection, 1975), and The Survival of the Bark Canoe (1975). Both Encounters with the Archdruid and The Curve of Binding Energy were nominated for National Book Awards. Selections from these books make up The John McPhee Reader (1976).

Since 1977, the year in which McPhee received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the bestselling Coming into the Country appeared in print, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has published Giving Good Weight (collection, 1979), Basin and Range (1981), In Suspect Terrain (1983), La Place de la Concorde Suisse (1984), Table of Contents (collection, 1985), Rising from the Plains (1986), Heirs of General Practice (in a paperback edition, 1986), The Control of Nature (1989), Looking for a Ship (1990), Assembling California (1993), The Ransom of Russian Art (1994), The Second John McPhee Reader (1996), Irons in the Fire (collection, 1997), Annals of the Former World (1998). Annals of the Former World, McPhee’s tetralogy on geology, was published in a single volume in 1998 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. The Founding Fish was published in 2002.


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Displaying 1 - 30 of 567 reviews
Profile Image for Adam Dalva.
Author 8 books1,551 followers
January 2, 2018
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 incomprehensible to anyone but him. (At one point he proudly presents a spiral with several dots on it, but no X or Y Axis.). There is also value in his lessons about 4th drafts (use a dictionary to check any word that doesn't sing), interviews (playing dumb can be more useful than anything else), and description ("A thousand details add up to one impression").

What kept me blasting through this was not, however, the advice that I will pull out and present to my students, but McPhee's personal touch. The anecdotes about Richard Burton, William Shawn, Bob Gottlieb, and especially the terminal one about Dwight Eisenhower are wonderful, and his rendition of various technical aspects of his writing career - his use of a computer in the 1980s; The New Yorker's legendary fact checking department; fights with editors; "greening" lines at Time in the 60's - were most fascinating at all.

DRAFT NO. 4 has an appealing lightness, and though much of it won't lodge in memory, it is structured beautifully and works on several levels, as advertised. For fans of McPhee, or the genre.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,686 followers
September 19, 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. You don't have to care about oranges. McPhee does. What happens is his writing, his interests, his ability to construct a story from the perfect characters and the right place transforms not just the object of McPhee's interest, but the reader. Am I sounding too passionate about this man? Well, of course I'm passionate. I love to read and John McPhee contains multitudes.

Not only is he the Master at the New Yorker, but he has for years (probably since I was near tit) taught writing at Princeton (where he went to school). Can you imagine? Seriously, if I could chose between a $1 million and the ability to audit his course on Creative Nonfiction (JRN 240/CWR 240), I might just say F-it to the money. He has nurtured readers and writers for years. Some of the direct fruit of the McPhee tree include:

- David Remnick (now his editor at the New Yorker)
- Richard Stengel (managing editor of Time magazine)
- Jim Kelly (former managing editor of Time)
- Robert Wright (former senior editor at The New Republic)
- Jennifer Weiner

And many, many more including at least two of his daughters (Jenny and Martha). He really is the godfather (or at least one of the godfathers) of New New Journalism. In an age when good writing seems to be as rare as good readers (dammit, I should probably scratch that pun, too easy), it is nice to read about the craftsmanship of writing from one of the masters.

'Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process' collects eight essays on writing that McPhee has published in the New Yorker (McPhee's home since before I was born). They are:

Progression - 11/14/2014
Structure - 01/14/2013
Editors & Publisher - 07/02/2012
Elicitation - 04/07/2014
Frame of Reference - 03/09/2015
Checkpoints - 02/09/2009
Draft No. 4 - 04/29/2013
Omission - 09/14/2014
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,176 followers
January 4, 2018
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, science, and the written word; whose rapacious curiosity for apparently prosaic subjects—oranges, rocks, the merchant marine—is only matched by his rapacious attention to the craft of writing.

Among a certain crowd of readers and writers McPhee is worshipped this side of idolatry. In this way he strongly resembles another writer for The New Yorker, E.B. White, whose style has become synonymous with good taste. The two men, very unlike in many ways, share something more: an odd mixture of down-home folksiness and slick sophistication. Their tone is frank and unpretentious, their subjects far removed from the shibboleths of high culture, and yet their writing is polished, refined, and consummate.

This book is presented as the written version of McPhee’s famous class on creative nonfiction at Princeton, which he has been teaching for over 40 years. This class is a part of the McPhee legend, since so many of its students went on to become highly regarded writers themselves. (There does seem to be a problem of cause-and-effect in attributing this success to the class, however, since to join the class you need to submit a writing sample, and only the best 16 are admitted.) As such, I opened this book expecting to find something like a style manual or a writing guide.

But Draft No. 4 is only peripherally concerned with giving advice. It is primarily a series of essays on his experience writing, researching, editing, fact-checking, and publishing. I admit that I was disappointed with this at first, since I was hoping for a focused series of tips and exercises, something along the lines of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well; but McPhee writes so charmingly that these misgivings were soon forgotten. Indeed, I had trouble putting the book down, and in short order finished it.

The most memorable chapter of the book is “Structure,” in which he illustrates some of the organizational schemes he has employed. McPhee, you see, is deeply concerned with the structure of his writing, in ways that I didn’t even imagine possible. In writing I tend to think of structure linearly, as an unbroken arc of meaning; but McPhee has the mind of a modern architect, and his arrangements are far more intricate. He illustrates these arrangements with idiosyncratic diagrams—incomprehensible to all but him. The diagram for Encounters with the Archdruid, for example, consists of the letters A, B, and C over a line, with D underneath. What does this mean?

In the rest of the book we are given several snapshots of his career. We see him interviewing Woody Allen (“a latent heterosexual”), learning to use Kedit (an arcane software program that he uses to organize his material), inventing bad puns as a young writer for Time, working with (and sometimes against) The New Yorker’s famously assiduous fact-checking department, negotiating the perils of editors, house-styles, and publishing deals, and other adventures in the life of a nonfiction writer.

The writing advice interspersed between these anecdotes, collected together, would likely not amount to a page and a half. And I must say the advice did not grab me. After long enough, all council on the craft of writing begins to sound the same: omit, condense, search for the right word, start with a strong lead, etc., etc. John McPhee’s emotional guidance is also in line with a noble tradition: writing is herculean, writers are masochists, writer’s block is the seventh layer of hell, and so on. Parenthetically, I think writers ought to stop complaining about writing or wallowing in its struggles. To me it always comes across as shamelessly melodramatic.

All carping aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. McPhee has clearly earned his reputation as a master of the craft. Each line of every essay exhibits intelligence, taste, and care. He is full of stories and knows how to tell them; and, true to form, he knows how to weave these stories into a satisfying whole. I look forward to reading more of McPhee, particularly Annals of the Former World, and in the meantime will hope that some of his obsessive care for the art of writing has rubbed off.
Profile Image for Ken.
Author 3 books925 followers
August 13, 2022
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 about the grand days in New York), "Frame of Reference" (quirky, but funny instances of the short shelf-life of allusions), "Draft No. 4" (this has the most writing advice), and finally "Omission" (what you leave out is as important as what you put in).

I could go on, but I'll take the lessons of "Omission" and stop there. For those interested in a half dozen quotes from the book, you can follow up here:

Profile Image for Lee.
344 reviews8 followers
April 2, 2021
When “Looking for a Ship” went to press, Bob Gottlieb was three years into the job. Here and there in the piece were various shits and fucks, but they did not preoccupy him. The vocabulary of the sailor John Shephard still did preoccupy him:

“Motherfucker, get another ship.”

On the day that the piece was to close, Bob called to ask if I would come see him in his office. I loved going to his office. Not just for the toaster. He kept part of his purse collection there. He asked if I might think it advisable to reconsider the sailor’s word.

Shephard didn’t reconsider it, I responded.

How could I?

Bob said it was possible.

I said I preferred things as they were.

Bob leaned over a bright-yellow four-inch Post-it pad and in big black letters wrote “motherfucker” on it with a Magic Marker. He was wearing an open-collared long-sleeved shirt. He stuck the Post-it on the shirt pocket. He said he would call me again later in the day.

I went back to my cell. Oddly, there was another brief passage in “Looking for a Ship” that might have concerned him, but he made no comment, ever, and—who knows?—may not have thought it over. It dealt with tedium, and the yearning of people who go to sea to get off the sea:

Here by free will, and (in most cases) with histories behind them of decades on the sea, these people act like prisoners making “X”s on a wall. I was to hear Jim Gossett say to William Kennedy one morning, “Peewee, we’re under fifty days now. Forty-nine to go.” This brought to mind graffiti I had seen on the State of Maine, the training ship of the Maine Maritime Academy. As part of the curriculum, students spend two summers on the State of Maine. The graffiti said, “Only 13 more MFD’s, only 12 more MFD’s, only 11 more MFD’s,” and so on down a toilet stall. The “D” stood for “day.” To me it seemed a strange thing for someone to write who was going to college to go to sea. But no professional mariner would fail to understand it.

Off and on that day, Gottlieb walked the halls of the magazine wearing his “motherfucker” Post-it as if it were a nametag at a convention. He looked in at office after office and loitered in various departments. He drew a blush here, a laugh there, startled looks, coughs, frowns. He gave writers moments of diversion from their writing. He gave editors moments to think of something other than writers. He visited just about everybody whose viewpoint he might absorb without necessarily asking for an opinion. In the end, he called on me. He said The New Yorker was not for “motherfucker.”
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,657 followers
December 15, 2017
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 time to shape a piece so it comes alive. I think I will read this book every year from now on, but I will always know that I will never write like he does. Thats ok though. Just happy there are others who respect the craft like he does.
Profile Image for Lisa.
598 reviews42 followers
November 13, 2017
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, and I love how he talks about it here, addressing both of those aspects and a few other things besides. I actually picked up a few tips along the way, too, which is always a welcome side effect of reading writers on writing.

Full disclosure: McPhee came and talked to my sixth-grade class about essay writing, which I'm pretty sure I hadn't known was an actual thing until he said so, but I fell in love with the idea, as he presented it, right away. And here I am 53 years later still in love with it, so I guess I can blame him for all this thinking about writing in the first place.

ETA: *43* years later! Jeez, I don’t need to add any in that aren’t there already.
Profile Image for Matthew Errico.
19 reviews
January 29, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Kevin.
1,500 reviews34 followers
October 9, 2017
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 reactor used to create the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
Profile Image for Stephen Durrant.
668 reviews146 followers
December 1, 2017
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 editors.
Profile Image for John Madera.
191 reviews40 followers
January 13, 2018
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.

Profile Image for Kristin Boldon.
1,125 reviews27 followers
December 14, 2017
Like listening to a cool grandfather telling good stories, with writing advice and a beautiful dry humor to boot. Lovely and useful.
Profile Image for Heidi.
150 reviews7 followers
March 12, 2020
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 structure in diagram.
Preconceive leads and endings.
Defend the writer’s unique stamp.
Know when and when not to “dust quotes.”
Allow “Dear Mother” to help with writer’s block.
Make creative room for readers.
Spend time “greening.”

I had a “universe talking to me” moment when I turned to the chapter called “Frame of Reference,” literally just as I was grappling with whether or not to insert long, lean and lanky Gary Cooper in a short story about my first kiss. That’s cheating, McPhee says. He calls it “borrowed vividness,” and admonishes writers to do their own work. With regret, I’ve sent Cooper on his slow-walking, loose-jointed, narrow-hipped way down the street and off my page. My readers wouldn’t have known who he was, anyway.

The chapter called “Draft No. 4” on copyediting bears a second reading. But the one called “Checkpoints” nearly did me in: names, titles, war lore, too much. It redeemed itself with the anecdote about the golden-haired woman—“the sort of body you go to see in marble”—who unclasps her black-and-gold bathing suit top while in a game of chicken with another boat. I kind of forget now what that story was illustrating. Who cares.

Underlining, exclamation marks, laughing faces: tons of pencil marks in my copy of this wonderfully worthwhile book.
Profile Image for Ben Goldfarb.
Author 4 books133 followers
February 21, 2021
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 — and ought to be yours — if it is under your name."
Profile Image for Augustin Erba.
Author 12 books45 followers
September 18, 2017
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 caliber and in your 80s you get away with pretty much anything in that department.
The last chapter was a lesson in the value of shortening your pieces and it spoke about the things left out and what they mean. I think what is missing in this book (or rather, this collection of essays previously published in The New Yorker), is a sense of urgency. Why is it important to get your facts right? Why does a story have to be told? Maybe McPhee thought that this goes without saying, and it does, but only if the writing conveys that urgency.
Profile Image for Marne - Reader By the Water.
479 reviews26 followers
April 12, 2021
Lordy. I bit off more than I could chew with this one. I'm barely smart enough to "get" 80% of the CARTOONS in the New Yorker. This book had me on the struggle bus. And yet, I kept reading. There were gems in there that even I could pick up.

"Writers come in two principal categories - those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure - and they can all use help." (re: Editors)

"You are writing, say, about a grizzly bear. No words are forthcoming. ...You are blocked, frustrated, in despair...What do you do? You write, 'Dear Mother.' And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair...you whine, you whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest...And you go on like that for as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the 'Dear Mother' and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear." (re: Writers Block)

His technique for drafts was illuminating. In the first draft, he just throws mud at the wall and then lets it come together in his subconscious. The second draft he reads aloud. After reading a third time, he "enclose(s) words and phrases in penciled boxes for Draft No. 4" Then he looks for replacements for the words in the boxes.

Speaking of words, there were so many I had to look up. Apocrypha. Horripilation. Diaeresis. Phalanxed. And those were just the ones I flagged because I couldn't figure them out in context.

Bottom line? It felt like a PhD class in Non-Fiction and I was only prepared for a Bachelors' class. Lol. But even I picked up some good stuff.
Profile Image for Linda.
525 reviews28 followers
January 4, 2018
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.
188 reviews
January 2, 2021
A tedious memoir of a white man in an old boy's club with very little actual advice about writing. Read "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott instead, which was both entertaining and informative. This book, in contrast, just smacked of white male privilege every which way. Glad it is over.
Profile Image for Mary Paul.
186 reviews21 followers
May 26, 2019
Maybe it’s just the lack of context but my god I found this dry as dirt and half as appetizing.
129 reviews12 followers
July 1, 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 turned into a book (the first of his I ever read), was entirely about oranges, and he called it "Oranges." Duh. Legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, however, had a general rule that the title of a piece should not be the name of the subject, so he changed the title to "Golden Lamps in a Green Night." After McPhee threw a fit, it was changed back to "Oranges." McPhee uses this example to illustrate his dictum that the title of a piece "ought not to be written by anyone other than the writer of what follows the title. Editors' habit of replacing the author's title of one of their own is a like a photo of a tourist's head on the cardboard body of Mao Zedong." (2) At the end of a six-page shaggy dog story about the fact checking for a piece he wrote about the Swiss Army, detailing the difficult task faced by his fact checker (Richard Sacks), who spent weeks telephoning obscure Swiss authorities and questioning them in English, French, and/or German as necessary, detouring into an anecdote about how it was Orson Welles, not Graham Greene, who thought up his character Harry Lime's famous Ferris wheel speech in the movie The Third Man (". . . and what did [they] produce? The cuckoo clock."), McPhee concludes by noting that after the piece was published, first in the magazine and later in a book collection of some of his pieces, it was more widely read in Switzerland than he had anticipated, and he braced himself for a swarm of letters from Swiss readers pointing out errors he had made. But, he says, he never heard of a single error in the English edition of the piece. Consequently, when McPhee recently spoke to Mr. Sacks, who is now retired from fact checking, he told him how impressed he was that in over 30 years no Swiss had ever sent a corrective letter about that story. Punch line: "This fact did not check out with Richard. 'Oh, but there was one letter,' he said. 'Something about a German word, but the reader was wrong.'"]

If you like McPhee (and aren't looking for a geology fix) this is well worth reading, although some of the writing advice he offers here is less than universal. (The chapter about "Structure," for example, contains a number of his own hand-drawn diagrams outlining the structure of some of his pieces; they are weird and elegant and intriguing, particularly if you remember the piece he's describing, but also somewhat inscrutable and maybe not that useful as guidance for most writers, I'd suspect. The chapter also contains a longish -- and to me, rather tedious -- section about the editing software he's used for decades but is now heading towards obsolescence.) But that's a quibble; there's a lot of great advice in here too. Ultimately, though, I think the reason I only liked this book and didn't love it as much as some of McPhee's other work is that writing just isn't an obscure or unknown topic to me; McPhee's advice and anecdotes are interesting, but I've read others that are equally so. Whereas in his other work, what McPhee can do brilliantly is take some obscure or arcane subject -- a place, a craft, a profession, even ORANGES! -- and somehow, magically, make it seem like the most fascinating topic imaginable.
Profile Image for Prima Seadiva.
427 reviews5 followers
April 5, 2019
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.

This book describes his writing process over his lifetime as a writer and teacher. From handwritten to computer he describes the steps he uses to get to draft 4 the final version. On the way to the final draft,he refers to many people he has worked with and to some of his most well known pieces, using some aspect to demonstrate his point. It gave me more appreciation of those works as well, may have to revisit some.

I'm not much of a writer but it gave me some insights. I think if one is a serious writer it might be even more useful.
138 reviews31 followers
February 10, 2019
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 know the author. I'll probably buy a copy for myself after I return this copy to the library and get my next paycheck.
Profile Image for Joe Lovinger.
46 reviews4 followers
June 8, 2022
Writing every day, I lost the sense of joy in forming sentences that initially got me into it. It’s happened before, and reading craft books like this usually helps me get out of that. This book, from all time nonfiction writer John McPhee, did just that.

It’s a pleasure to watch a complete master talk about his highs and lows writing, as a reminder of how great writing can feel and that even the best have their doubts.
Profile Image for Erik Rostad.
323 reviews116 followers
September 22, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Anna.
17 reviews4 followers
February 12, 2019
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).
Profile Image for Sophie.
70 reviews1 follower
February 20, 2019
(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 half way through I got into it. I would say the turning point was an excerpt vividly describing horse breeding that scarred me a bit and after that I started paying more attention and appreciating the book more. I wouldn't say this was an invaluable read but I definitely had a few take-aways.
Profile Image for Anita Yoder.
Author 6 books52 followers
January 24, 2021
This is a first cousin to Zinser's On Writing Well. McPhee is honest, instructive, and helpful for aspiring writers.
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510 reviews19 followers
July 17, 2022
Read it for the insights into the craft of writing and all the practical tips. Love it for the stories. Oh to have a long walk or dinner with John McPhee and just listen…
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317 reviews
November 22, 2022
I've been reading this, off and on, through the summer and fall. Lots of underlining of good advice for writers, especially those in the non-fiction realms. While McPhee's anecdotes of writing for the major magazines probably aren't that explanatory for today's market, his advice for writing is evergreen.
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