Book Review: John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 is all right for some, but not for everyone

Truthfully, I had no idea who John McPhee was when I picked up this book. I knew only a few things about the book at all- that it was about writing, that it was published by Text (a fabulous Australian publisher whom I trust with my reading material), and that it had a glowing quote by Helen Garner on the front of it. I went into Draft No. 4 expecting a certain type of book on writing: one which, while tailored to the individual writer’s style, would elucidate me on matters of choosing what to write about, editing my work, dealing with editors etc. What I got was something entirely different.

Compiled in this volume are eight essays from McPhee’s career as a writer at The New Yorker Magazine. Each essay has some relation to the writing process, but they are not necessarily instructional essays. One, titled ‘Editors & Publisher’, dwells on the idiosyncrasies of two different editors McPhee worked under at the New Yorker, and of their reluctance for the magazine to become trendy or use “street” language, even when that meant that their writers had to fight to keep the authenticity of a subject’s own language in the piece. Other essays talk about structure, and how this can inform the subject of the piece itself, while still others recount the research that McPhee undertook to get his material in the first place.

Perhaps his style of writing is one which readers of The New Yorker will have been familiar, or even comfortable with, but his unconventional essay structures made it difficult for me to follow what the main points of his pieces actually were. Adding to my confusion, these pieces are scattered with five dollar words, which lend them an air of erudition, but leave me reaching for the dictionary. I will readily admit that I am not the target audience of this book: I rarely read non fiction and I have never read The New Yorker, but reading this book has done little to encourage me towards the magazine in the future.

If you’re already a reader of The New Yorker, or if you enjoy reading essays, perhaps this is for you. But if you’re looking for writing inspiration, look elsewhere– this book is more biography through samples, than memoir of the craft.

Draft No. 4 is available now through Text Publishing


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Emily Paull

Emily Paull is a former bookseller and a future librarian. Her debut book, Well-Behaved Women, was released by Margaret River Press in 2019.

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