john mcphee’s craft of writing: a deep dive into “draft no. 4”

writing is as much an art as it is a craft.

while the art is fuelled by passion, imagination, and experiences, the craft is honed through discipline, practice, and a deep understanding of its nuances.

in “draft no. 4,” john mcphee, a distinguished contributor to the new yorker and a revered figure in the world of non-fiction, offers readers a window into his meticulous approach to writing.

through the lens of this work, we can glean mcphee’s rules and insights into the writing process.

the primacy of structure

mcphee emphasizes the integral role of structure in the writing process.

in the chapter aptly named ‘structure,’ he draws a parallel between the challenges he faces as a writer and the architecture of his physical surroundings.

just as a building’s stability depends on its blueprint, a story’s coherence relies on its structure.

mcphee’s struggle with structure, as he lies under a giant ash tree, embodies the writer’s journey – starting with uncertainty and culminating in clarity.

the iterative process of drafting

the title, ‘draft no. 4,’ highlights the essence of mcphee’s approach: writing is a process, not a one-time event.

the number four isn’t arbitrary; it indicates the stage where, in mcphee’s experience, the draft starts resembling its final form.

with each iteration, redundancies are pruned, ideas crystallize, and the narrative becomes refined.


less is more: in a chapter dedicated to ‘omission,’ mcphee underscores the power of brevity.

in an age of information overload, discerning what to exclude is as crucial as determining what to include.

this selective omission aids in maintaining reader engagement and ensuring that the core message isn’t diluted.

elicitation over interrogation

mcphee’s approach to gathering information is grounded in observation and interaction rather than mere questioning.

he elaborates on this in ‘elicitation,’ emphasising his preference for watching people in their elements rather than conducting structured interviews.

such immersion allows for a richer, more authentic narrative, capturing nuances that might be missed in a formal setting.

a writer’s frame of reference

for mcphee, anchoring narratives in familiar contexts is vital.

by offering readers a known frame of reference, even the most arcane subjects become accessible.

this technique, which mcphee touches upon in ‘frame of reference,’ ensures that readers remain engaged, bridging the gap between the known and the unknown.

respecting the role of editors

in ‘editors & publisher,’ mcphee offers a tribute to the unsung heroes of the writing process: editors.

through anecdotes, particularly those involving robert gottlieb, mcphee illustrates the symbiotic relationship between writers and editors.

rather than viewing editorial feedback as a critique, mcphee sees it as a collaborative effort to polish and perfect the narrative.

the balance of showing and telling

mcphee’s writing is replete with vivid descriptions, transporting readers to the heart of the narrative.

this immersive style, evident throughout ‘draft no. 4,’ is a testament to the ‘show, don’t just tell’ principle.

by painting a vivid picture, mcphee ensures that readers aren’t mere spectators but active participants in the story.

persistence amidst challenges

woven through the chapters of ‘draft no. 4‘ is a theme of persistence.

whether it’s the struggle to find the right structure or the challenge of eliciting genuine responses during interviews, mcphee’s journey is one of tenacity.

his dedication serves as a reminder that writing, like any craft, requires patience, resilience, and an unwavering commitment.

in conclusion, ‘draft no. 4‘ isn’t just a reflection of john mcphee’s writing journey; it’s a masterclass in the art and craft of writing.

mcphee’s insights, derived from years of experience, offer invaluable lessons for novice and seasoned writers.

In an age where content is often hastily produced and consumed, mcphee’s rules serve as a beacon, guiding writers towards creating work that is not just read but remembered.