When you consider the range and complexity of topics that John McPhee has illuminated in his essays and books, it’s clear that he’s no ordinary writer. Any topic that he turns his eye to – the Alaskan wilderness, basketball legend Bill Bradley, birchbark canoes – earns the author’s scrutiny as if from the inside out. McPhee is an interpreter, of sorts, a decoder of microcosms who converts specialized language into eloquent prose. With 32 books to his name, and four decades of teaching at Princeton, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, now 86, is widely viewed as the dean of modern long-form nonfiction.

McPhee’s latest book, “Draft No. 4: On The Writing Process” is a collection of essays that originally appeared in The New Yorker. Compiled from his years in the field and the classroom, the essays are equal parts personal reflection, storytelling, and writing manual. While there’s plenty of shop talk, including analysis of his own work, McPhee dispenses an ample dose of literary gossip and lore from his 50-plus years on staff at The New Yorker. In other words, this is a book for writers, editors and readers of all stripes.

McPhee regards writing as a machine with many working parts. “The approach to structure in factual writing is like returning from a grocery store with materials you intend to cook for dinner,” he says. “You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with.” Later, he adds, “A piece of writing has to start somewhere, go somewhere, and sit down when it gets there …. Beginning, middle, end. Aristotle, Page 1.”

Such no-nonsense prose is quintessential McPhee, which leads to some of his pet peeves. Among them: Editors believe it’s their right to alter an author’s headline or title, which McPhee considers misguided. Since a title is integral to the work, he argues, only the writer should change it. Similarly, people often grab a thesaurus when searching for the right word, though a dictionary, with its fuller range of meanings, would better supply the nuances they seek.

John McPhee

Perhaps most entertaining are the sections devoted to The New Yorker, which detail McPhee’s ties to legendary editor William Shawn, and others. He describes policies at the magazine, notably a former longstanding refusal to incorporate vulgar slang in its pages – a section that’s both fascinating and funny. He also provides intricate examples of fact-checking that demonstrate how the New Yorker has come to represent the gold standard in that arena.

Significantly, the book addresses key issues that confront anyone who attempts to write – what to include or omit, how to organize a body of material, how to cut judiciously when a piece runs long – all neatly embedded within stories. One can well imagine McPhee in front of a class, his students the fortunate heirs to his narrative style of instruction. Over the years, those students have included such authors as David Remnick, Peter Hessler and Richard Preston.

Above all, McPhee is that most sympathetic author who, notwithstanding a long and distinguished career, has managed to remain humble. He contends that there are two kinds of writers – “those who are overtly insecure and those who are covertly insecure” – and all of them can profit from an editor’s guidance. Regarding his strategy for interviews, he says, “I have no technique for asking questions. I just stay there and fade away as I watch people do what they do.”

The beauty of “Draft No. 4” lies partly in our watching a master deconstruct the nearly invisible habits of his work. The result celebrates a life – probing, colorful, singular – devoted to writing.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

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