Monday Musings, Recommended Readings
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Honing Your Craft

Draft No. 4

“Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process” by John McPhee

Vision. Skill. Time.  All are usually required to produce something of lasting value.  All are at the heart of craftsmanship.

Traditionally linked to items made by hand, craftsmanship can be applied to a wider array of undertakings that benefit from an attention to detail through the application of a skill sharpened over time and practice.

Take writing, for instance.

For several years I’ve considered how best to refine my writing skills. However, other commitments became excuses for never taking serious steps forward to actually hone that craft until a former colleague recently noted that my passion has always been best expressed in my writing. It is where I seek to tell a story or share a memory in hopes of inspiring and making a meaningful connection to colleagues and friends. One of my favorite sayings is “Let’s see how it writes.” This same colleague suggested that I may have been the best first draft writer in the organization.

I knew exactly what she meant, and it was that particular comment that led me to pick up John McPhee’s 2017 book Draft No. 4:  On the Writing Process. I wanted to consider getting from a good first draft to a great fourth draft. As a long-time staff writer at the New Yorker, McPhee has some definite thoughts on how to move in that direction.  Writing to his daughter, McPhee once explained that, “The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once.”  Three or four revisions are not always possible in a work context with tight deadlines, but I agree with his premise that the essence of the writing process—the heart of the writing craft—is reflection and revision.

Writer's Block

Writer’s Block (photo credit: Center for Documentary Studies)

In Draft No. 4, McPhee takes the reader on a delightful and well-considered journey from ways to structure a piece of writing to an ending chapter on omissions.  That last feature is just as important as the first.  A mantra McPhee continues to use with his writing students is,

“A Thousand Details Add Up to One Impression.”

He notes that this is a quote from the actor Cary Grant, with the implication that “few (if any) details are individually essential, while the details collectively are absolutely essential.”

What to keep and what gets taken out are equally important.  As the sculptor Michelangelo said, “I’m just taking away what doesn’t belong there.”

In the business context, I have been known to say, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” However, when working on your craft—be it a stone carving, your speaking skills, a handmade musical instrument, a painting, or a piece of writing—don’t let the merely good keep you from sharpening, refining, and honing the thing until you have created something worthy of the term craftsmanship.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

This entry was posted in: Monday Musings, Recommended Readings

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I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.

4 Comments

    • DJB says

      Janet, I think you would love it. A former colleague whose husband writes for the Washington Post Magazine (David Montgomery) said he took writing classes from McPhee at Princeton and still calls on the lessons learned. It is a smart, well-written (as expected), and focused book. Are you still in the US or have you headed back to France. If you are still here, I’d love to catch up over lunch and talk about writing courses. All the best. DJB

  1. Susan says

    Nice. My David took writing classes from McPhee at Princeton, it has obviously served him well. He still returns again and again to the advice and lessons he learned from John.

    Susan

    • DJB says

      Wonderful, Susan. McPhee mentions his writing classes throughout the book, which is a joy to read.

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