cover image Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process

John McPhee. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (208p) ISBN 978-0-374-14274-2

McPhee (Silk Parachute), a staff writer at the New Yorker and journalism professor at Princeton, offers here not a general how-to-do-it manual but a personal how-I-did-it of richer depth—not bouillon cubes, but rich stock. Some of McPhee’s famous profile subjects (Woody Allen, Jackie Gleason) wander through the narrative, but only tangentially to the main subject, which is always writing. McPhee reveals a life spent with publishers, copy editors, fact checkers, and even “minders,” those “watchdogs in coats and ties whose presence is a condition for an interview.” He also uncovers the special world of magazines, notably the New Yorker when the legendary William Shawn reigned. He attends to technique, wrestling with tools of the journalistic trade (e.g., voice recorder, computer) while confessing his “basic technology” to be “a pencil and a lined four-by-six notebook.” McPhee the teacher is a presence throughout, though rarely proscriptive. Questions guide—what must you put in, and leave out? How to handle your subject’s own words? Along with specific advice, there is an implied and comforting message: that for most writers, this is not easy. McPhee lays it all out with the wit of one who believes that “writing has to be fun at least once in a pale blue moon.”[em] (Sept.) [/em]