Draft No. 4 | John McPhee

Summary of: Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process
By: John McPhee

Introduction

Unfold the intricate process of writing nonfiction with John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. Emphasizing the importance of thorough research, note-taking, and organization, McPhee shares invaluable insights from his extensive career. We delve into the art of structuring stories, finding the right balance between chronology and theme, and mastering the interviewing process. Moreover, you’ll learn the significance of crafting powerful leads, accurate quotations, and evocative titles. This book summary offers essential guidance to aspiring writers aiming to improve their skills.

John McPhee’s Writing Strategy

Nonfiction writer John McPhee shares his approach to structuring factual writing, emphasizing the importance of extensive research and editing. McPhee believes that creating sophisticated narrative requires individual talent and rejects the idea of easy tips or hard rules. While his advice may be more applicable to longer commissioned projects, readers can still enjoy learning from a master in the field.

Crafting a Captivating Lead

In the book summary, McPhee shares his experience of feeling overwhelmed with too much material for a story. He advises writers to stop looking at notes and find a starting point in their minds. This starting point should be the basis for a well-crafted lead that promises the essence of the story. The length of the lead should match the length of the piece, and it shapes the entire story. McPhee emphasizes that the lead shouldn’t promise anything the story doesn’t deliver.

Finding a Starting Point

When faced with a writing dilemma, McPhee turned to his notes as if laying out ingredients for a meal. Instead of searching for the perfect beginning, he wrote the ending first and let it guide him. In writing a profile on Mort Sahl, McPhee’s notes were overwhelming, but he found a starting point and a destination by writing the ending first. This approach helped him simplify his ideas and effectively communicate his message. When faced with writer’s block, turning to your notes and starting at the end can be a helpful strategy to find direction and overcome mental obstacles.

Creative storytelling

McPhee’s book proves that a thematic approach to storytelling can be more engaging than a chronological retelling. By focusing on themes and details instead of a rigid timeline, McPhee finds humor and wit in unexpected places, such as a truck driver’s calm demeanor and the man who walked downstream instead of riding a rapid. This approach allows for greater creativity and captivates readers beyond a simple recounting of events.

The Art of Note-taking

John McPhee, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, follows a simplistic approach to reporting: wait for things to happen and take copious notes. His notebook is akin to a fishing license and he fills it constantly while conversing with interviewees. McPhee advises pretending to take notes to put a subject at ease and stopping if the content is unremarkable to prompt improvement. Lastly, he stresses on continually asking questions and obtaining clarity.

Mastering the Art of Interviewing

John McPhee, a renowned non-fiction writer, believes in doing sufficient research before an interview to avoid being rude to his sources, but not going overboard. He listens and observes as his subjects perform their tasks. McPhee’s deep research happens after the interview when he hones in on the material that sparks his interest. He advises writers to refrain from misinterpreting scientific terminologies and suggests iterating until the scientist approves. Thus, his style of interviewing relies on astute listening, observation, and careful refining of the material gathered.

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