Anyone who browses a bookstore, online or bricks-and-mortar, will know that advice and guidance for writers is nearly a genre unto itself. Anyone who actually writes will probably have discovered that many such guides to improving your writing are about as helpful for the aspiring writer as a paint-by-number kit is helpful for the aspiring painter. Writing is not a skill to be learned by rote; it is a skill borne of trial-and-error aided by steady effort, assiduous study of your failures, and close reading of and reflection on the authors that inspire you.
A different and much smaller genre of great benefit to the aspiring or professional writer is collected in books, interviews, and essays in which great writers talk about books, their own writing, or about writing in general. Standouts in this field include E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel or Stephen King's On Writing. For the writer of nonfiction, the choices are fewer. What I have cherished most in this slender category is the series of interviews published in the Paris Review called "The Art of Nonfiction". There are nine such pieces, as far as I know, in which unobtrusive, intelligent, and insightful interviewers sit down or correspond with the greats in a number of sessions and quiz them about their work. The subject of "The Art of Nonfiction No. 3" is New Yorker staff writer John McPhee, who is also the author of more than 30 books. His newest book is called Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. Just as I love the interview with him in the Paris Review, I love this book.
All of the eight essays that comprise Draft No. 4 have appeared previously, seven of them in the New Yorker. It's good to have them collected all in one place: it gives every writer an opportunity to pore over and reflect on the makings and the work of one of America's most successful nonfiction authors. From the get-go, it's clear that this is not a beginner's guide to the art: it is not Nonfiction Writing for Dummies. In the very first essay, "Progression," McPhee describes how he went about tackling the challenge of turning his success at writing profiles about single individuals into writing profiles about multiple individuals who are united by a common interest or topic. From there, he's right into "Structure," the longest essay in the book, in which it becomes startlingly clear how much more there is to crafting a successful piece of nonfiction than ever meets the eye of the reader. In other essays in the book McPhee gives insight into the writer's relationship with editors, how to elicit the best information from even the most difficult subjects, how to frame your narrative in a way that will not bypass your readers' comprehension. He also touches on writer's block, the revision process, and most dear to my heart, the felicitous use of dictionaries. Along the way, he illustrates all of his important points with numerous examples from his own colorful and varied writing life and the many fascinating and unique subjects he has written about—many of which would still be in the realm of the unknown for the general reader, but for McPhee's probing and informative writing about them.
I could easily have peppered this review with quotes from the essays, and it is tempting to include one or two juicy and memorable ones, but I will not. That is an easy way out. Here I am trying to follow McPhee's advice on the ideas of omission (what do you leave out?) and selection (what do you include?). There is hardly a paragraph in the book that does not yield a quotable nugget of insight about the what works or doesn't work in writing, and I don't want to give any reader the impression that reading my cursory review is a substitute for reading McPhee's book. It is, in the words of the jacket blurb, "a master class on the writer's craft" and it is a small masterpiece. If you aspire to feel confidently adept in the art of English prose, much of what you need to know is compressed between the covers of Draft No. 4.
In reading these essays you get the impression that McPhee has trained himself to look at everything in life in relation to writing: how he might write about it, what about it can be illuminated through writing, how the impenetrable or apparently uninteresting aspects of it can be analyzed, reshaped, and brought to life for the uninitiated through writing. You only have to look to McPhee's impressive oeuvre to see how well he has succeeded in all of these pursuits. These eight essays are a perfect way into learning about how a writer who started at the lowest rung at Time magazine in the 1950s developed to become the author associated with a body of nonfiction that is unparalleled in modern American letters for its breadth and depth.