"Draft No. 4" by John McPhee


Draft No. 4” is written by John McPhee, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of thirty-two books. McPhee began contributing to The New Yorker in 1963. He has written more than a hundred pieces for the magazine. Prior to working at The New Yorker, he worked at Time.


He has taught at Princeton and is considered a prominent figure in creative nonfiction (fun fact: Tim Ferriss was one of McPhee’s students at Princeton).

McPhee’s book is a collection of expertly written essays from his time at The New Yorker and each chapter offers insights on the process of writing.

John McPhee, author of "Draft No. 4."

John McPhee, author of "Draft No. 4."



1) How To Properly Interview People

Whatever you do, don’t rely on memory. Don’t even imagine that you will be able to remember verbatim in the evening what people said during the day. And don’t squirrel note in a bathroom–that is, run off to the john and write surreptitiously what someone said back there with the cocktails.
— Page 92

When interviewing someone, McPhee advises writers to use a voice recorder instead of simply relying on memory. Sometimes after asking a question, the writer may get distracted a miss an important response from the interviewee, but with a voice recorder, they can always go back and listen the to answer.


Also, don’t try to hide the voice recorder, notebook or laptop. Display it as “if it were a fishing license” says McPhee. The subject will be watching as the writer takes down notes and will begin to get nervous when they stop. Every now and then, the interviewee becomes nervous, tries harder, and spills out a secret or important piece of information.


McPhee goes on to say that “if doing nothing can produce a useful reaction, so can the appearance of being dumb.” Some subjects require additional information or simpler explanations so it can be of benefit to ask the interviewee to review or explain the matter again.


However, McPhee says that enough preparation should be done before the interview so that the writer is at the very least, polite. For example, it wouldn’t be wise nor nice to ask someone like Elon Musk or Tom Cruise what they do for a living.


2) The First draft is the hardest

For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something–anything–out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something–anything–as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus.
— Page 159

Even after being a writer for several decades, McPhee still has trouble with writing a draft. First drafts are the most difficult because it takes time and still comes out awful. For one of McPhee’s books, the first draft took him “two gloomy years.”


Writers must simply start writing and be aware that the piece will likely be terrible but at least it will have some kind of shape. Throughout this process, there may be some doubt and many experienced writers, and even published authors, start to question their writing skill and the work itself.


The good news however is that once the first draft is completed, a lot of the dread disappears. The second draft involves altering sentences and editing, and these steps are repeated in drafts three and four. Writers have the special ability to review and revise their work, unlike an artist on stage. Use this special power and craft your work from a piece of stone into a sculpture.


john mcphee.jpg


3) Focus On The Details

If I enjoy anything in this process it is draft no. 4. I go searching for replacements for the words in the boxes. The final adjustments may be small-scale, but they are large to me, and I love addressing them.
— Page 162

When McPhee finally gets to draft number four, he marks certain words that do not seem quite right or perhaps could be even better with the right word. Although this step may seem minute, McPhee believes that it is this type of small-scale works can make transform the piece into something great.


McPhee writes that he spends a lot of time with dictionaries, but “more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of–at least ninety-nine to one.” Certain words can have multiple meanings and definitions change over time as language evolves over time, so it’s important to make sure the word carries the correct meaning the writer is trying to convey.


Another tool that McPhee uses is a thesaurus. It improves his writing by helping him find the best possible word for the sentence. Don’t rely just on memory, use tools such as dictionaries and thesauruses that will help take your work from good to great.


“Draft No. 4” is less than 200 pages long and can be read rather quickly. McPhee is a fantastic writer and knows how to keep readers engaged.

However, this book is more of a story format book rather than a book with clear-cut lessons and tips for readers.


If you write for a career and have already a lot of the mainstream books on writing, then you might enjoy this book. But if you are just starting out as a writer, I’d recommend “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser or “Ernest Hemingway on Writing" edited by Larry Phillips.

Rating: 3/5 stars


If you’re interested in reading the book, click here or on the image below!

  • Book: “Draft No. 4” by John McPhee
  • Pages: 192
  • For: People who want to improve their writing skills
  • Lesson: Learn about writing and the writing process from a staff writer at The New Yorker