McPhee is one of the preeminent nonfiction craftsmen of the last half century. As a staff writer for The New Yorker his longform essays have culminated in 31 books, four Pulitzer nominations, and a Pulitzer Prize. He has summarized his decades of experience as writer, and writing instructor at Princeton, in Draft No. 4, a book that is richer than chocolate mousse: every word is at once carefully calculated and placed with seeming effortlessness so that it is best digested in small servings.
McPhee shares universal truths such as the observation that all writers are either insecure about their writing or, falling into a second category, find that having other people read their work makes them feel insecure. You are not a writer, says McPhee, unless you experience bloc and that bloc is best overcome by typing at the top of the page, “Dear Mom, here is what I am working on now…” Assembling a first draft is painful, but second and third drafts are easier. Fourth drafts are a necessity at a bare minimum.
It is hard to say if non-writers will get as much from this book as those who have agonized over putting together a compelling essay. For readers, rather than writers, I recommend any of his 30 other books.