Review of Draft № 4, by John McPhee

A wonderful collection of articles by John McPhee, a New Yorker writer and Princeton professor of “creative non-fiction.” It’s so far the only book I’ve read with my eyes rather than my ears this year. In it, McPhee recounts a series of lessons — on structure, starting, and editing — on writing. He recounts various ordeals behind his stories, interspersed with tips as small as when to use “which” and “that” and as large as tips for young writers and the role of each draft (ending with the fourth before handing it off to editors) in his writing process.

It’s hard to describe his style, so it’s best to just read at least one of the essays collated in this book, including its eponymous article. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and yet it underscored why I read the New Yorker less than I should: articles are paintings, not reports. They are structured in a manner that requires ingesting it wholly, after which the reader is left with a vague knowledge of the subject matter and appreciation of the artist; it makes as much sense to summarize the Starry Night as it does such articles.

As McPhee makes clear, such painting requires extensive effort: months of interviews and trips, multiple drafts, fact-checking, grammar and style standardization, and editing; a single article could take a year of effort and involve a team of 4 or more. Especially because I read this book immediately after Franklin Foer’s World without Mind — which decries the death of professional journalism as a labor-intensive artform, replaced by metric driven crap — I am left amazed that there exists money in the world to support such loving labor, that the New Yorker hasn’t succumbed to listicle-style inane not-quite-journalism.

My only regret is that I had neither a dictionary nor access to the internet while reading the book (I was staring out at miles of sea on a boat somewhere in the middle of the Caribbean), as at least once a page lay a word I didn’t know or a reference I didn’t understand. On just one page, for example, I marked the following to look up later: “odobene,” “caissson,” and “tetragammatonic,” the first and last words somehow used to describe moustaches.

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