The Writing Process

There are a few writers who help define what writing is for all of us. John McPhee is one of them. That’s why I was intrigued by a review of his newest book: “Draft NO. 4.” Here is part of what the reviewer had to offer:

Followers of John McPhee, perhaps the most revered nonfiction narrative journalist of our time, will luxuriate in the shipshape prose of “Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process,” a collection of eight essays that first appeared in The New Yorker, his home for more than 50 years. Writers looking for the secrets of his stripped-bark style and painstaking structure will have to be patient with what is a discursive, though often delightful, short book. McPhee’s publisher is presenting it as a “master class,” but it’s really a memoir of writing during a time of editorial cosseting that now seems as remote as the court of the Romanovs. Readerly patience will be rewarded by plentiful examples of the author’s sinewy prose and, toward the end, by advice and tips that will help writers looking to become better practitioners of the craft and to stay afloat in what has become a self-service economy.

Virtually no part of McPhee’s long career, full of months-long or years-long research trips and hours or days staring at a blank computer screen, resembles the churn-it-out grind of today’s professional web writer. Except the earliest part, which he returns to often: the English class at Princeton High School whose teacher, Mrs. McKee, made him write three pieces a week (“Not every single week. Some weeks had Thanksgiving in them”) for three solid years and encouraged her students to critique one another, to the point of hissing and spitballs. Her constant deadlines led him to devise a crucial tactic: Force yourself to break from “wallowing in all those notes” and determine an ending, then go back to worrying about the beginning. Which leads to the first formal rule he provides, and then only a quarter of the way through the book: When you’re getting nowhere and “you don’t know what to do. Stop everything. Stop looking at the notes. Hunt through your mind for a good beginning. Then write it. Write a lead.”

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