Its combination of shop talk, war stories, slices of autobiography, and priceless insights and lessons suggests what it must be like to occupy a seat in the McPhee classroom (but at a significantly lower sticker price) ... The McPhee-ites are partial to the natural world as a topic, especially as traversed by passionate and eccentric characters (again, usually male). And they find much to emulate in their paragon’s prose: the careful selection and presentation of gem-like facts unearthed from months or even years in the reporting mines, understated humor, a laser eye for the revealing detail, precise and often unexpected choice of words and long paragraphs with a sometimes wandering but always persistent rhythm, like one of the rivers Mr. McPhee is fond of navigating by towboat, canoe or raft. Those qualities are on full display in Draft No. 4 ... I was not uniformly charmed by Draft No. 4. Mr. McPhee is entranced by structure, and my eyes glazed over at his explanation of the recondite patterns underlying his pieces. His several pages on the computer program with which he writes is as about as interesting as you would expect several pages on a computer program with which a writer writes to be ... Assent, demur or file away for future reflection, Mr. McPhee’s observations about writing are always invigorating to engage with. And Draft No. 4 belongs on the short shelf of essential books about the craft.
...a sunny tribute to the gloomy side of the writing life: the insecurity, dread, shame, envy, magical thinking, pointless rituals, financial instability, self-hatred — the whole 'masochistic self-inflicted paralysis of a writer’s normal routine.' And then the queasy desire to do it all over again ... It’s McPhee on McPhee; commentary on his greatest hits, a little backstory, a little affectionate gossip, much of it about the genius and squeamishness of the longtime editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, 'the iron mouse,' who blanched at profanity, mentions of sex and articles about any place cold. It’s an intimate book — and intimacy is rare in McPhee’s work ... He can lapse into occasional hokiness. But generally his advice is in the service of making the text as sturdy, useful and beautiful as possible ... reading McPhee makes you realize that perhaps writers wax about craft because it’s the easiest part of writing to talk about. It’s much harder to account for the flashes of inspiration, the slant of seeing, the appetite for the world — to know it down to its core — that keep you coming back to McPhee...You want to lick the pages.
If the book is any indication of the kind of instruction students at Princeton receive, they’re a lucky bunch indeed. McPhee’s knowledge of, experience with, and command over narrative nonfiction structure is masterful ... Draft No. 4 contains a carefully balanced ratio of directly instructive writing advice, behind-the-scenes views on McPhee’s greatest hits, and war stories from the golden age of post-WWII American magazine publishing. This is near the bullseye of what you’d hope for from an octogenarian doyen, and it’s a pleasure to read. Any writer or editor could learn something from McPhee, as many famous and successful ones already have.