The Essence of Writing is Revision

James Joyce’s notebook for Ulysses

“The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over,” says John McPhee, “never once.”

Draft No. 1: Anything is Better Than Nothing

You start with anything. You fling words like mud at a wall, you blurt, you heave, you babble. You write what Anne Lamott calls, variously, “the child’s draft”. Because without writing something down, you won’t be able to write something better.

“The pit and the pendulum” remains veteran McPhee’s psychological state in Draft No. 1.

Draft No. 2: Write While You Sleep

Draft No. 1 gives your mind words to keep knitting at, especially in the time between writing.

“You may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working twenty-four hours a day – yes, while you sleep – but only if some sort of draft … exists.”

When you’re writing Draft No. 2 – or rather, revising Draft No. 1 – you’ll find yourself making more pleasing sentences than when you were babbling. “[B]y now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see,” says McPhee. And what should you do with this something? “Edit again – top to bottom.” In other words, revise.

Draft No. 3: Noise

Reading aloud Draft No. 2 lets you hear any “tin horns and radio static”. Revise the noise away and you’ll have Draft No. 3.

Draft No. 4: Dictionary Aesthetics

McPhee’s process for Draft No. 4 involves drawing boxes around words and phrases that don’t seem quite right, or that may be right but present you with an opportunity to do more. Now, you use your dictionary. Here are some examples of how a dictionary takes McPhee from Draft No. 3 to Draft No. 4.

I was writing about the Atchafalaya, the huge river swamp in southern Louisiana, and how it looked from a small plane in the air. Land is growing there as silt arrives from the north. Parts of the swamp are filling in. From the airplane, you could discern where these places were, because, sent through the trees, there would be an interruption of the reflection of sunlight on water. What word or phrase was I going to use for that reflection? I looked up “sparkle” in my old Webster’s Collegiate. It said: “See ‘flash.’” I looked up “flash.” The definitions were followed by a presentation of synonyms: “flash, gleam, glance, glint, sparkle, glitter, scintillate, coruscate, glimmer, shimmer mean to shoot forth light.” I liked that last part, so I changed the manuscript to say, “The reflection of the sun races through the trees and shoots forth light from the water.

Atchafalaya Delta, Louisiana

A canoe trip has become simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain, a sport, an act performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself.


A canoe trip has become simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain, a diversion of the field, an act performed not because it is necessary but because there is value in the act itself.


To be there was to be assimilated, in however small a measure, into his country, and if you wanted to visit it you had better knock.


To be there was to be incorporated, in however small a measure, into its substance – his country, and if you wanted to visit it you had better knock.

“I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of,” says McPhee.

Doubt Yourself

“The adulating portrait of the perfect writer who never blots a line comes express from fairyland,” says McPhee in his 2013 New Yorker essay “Draft No. 4”. He encourages us to doubt ourselves: “an important and inescapable” feeling.

Writers who don’t doubt themselves and what they’re doing are likely to be kidding themselves about their abilities.

Imitation Fades into Personal Style

On our fear of imitating the writers we’re reading, the writers we love, McPhee says: “The developing writer reacts to excellence as it is discovered – wherever and whenever – and of course does some imitating (unavoidably) in the process of drawing from the admired fabric things to make one’s own. Rapidly, the components of imitation fade. What remains is a new element in your voice, which is not in any way an imitation. Your manner as a writer takes form in this way, a fragment at a time.”

McPhee’s book, Draft No. 4, published in 2017, is a collection of eight of his New Yorker essays on writing.

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