“Draft No. 4” by John McPhee, The New Yorker, 4/29/2013
I do not consider myself a writer, despite writing 234,292 words for this blog over the years. (Uncle Tom’s Cabin has 182,647 words.) But when someone like John McPhee writes an article on writing, I take notice, sort of like a weekend duffer listening to Tiger Woods describing how he played a hole. We can all learn from the experts.
McPhee reads the second draft aloud to pick up clunkers and awkward phrasing. That could be a useful technique for anyone.
He goes through the fourth draft (hence, his title) marking any word that may be replaced with a better one. These words are not wrong, just ones that seem to present an opportunity for improvement. To find that right word, he relies on a dictionary, not a thesaurus. “I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of—at least 99 to 1,” he tells us.
Exactly my experience. By far, most of my Google searches are for dictionary definitions of familiar words. Just enter a word followed by “def,” and it will open a list of dictionary references you can pick from.
Linguistic experts tell us there are no true synonyms. Dictionaries explain the differences between such words as “vertical,” “perpendicular,” and “plumb,” that at first glance may seem synonymous. And, the definitions often contain unexpected bits of useful information. From a dictionary, McPhee learned the word “arctic,” the subject of one of his books, comes from the Greek word for “bear” and refers to the area under the constellation “The Great Bear” (The Big Dipper).
A primary peeve of one of his early New Yorker’s editors in factual writing was indirection—sliding in facts piecemeal, leaving to the reader the task of gathering it together. Open an article with a sentence like “The house on Lover’s Lane was where the lovers loved loving,” and the editor would have asked, “What house?” “What lovers?” If you say “a house,” you are introducing it. If you say “the house,” you have mentioned it earlier and the reader knows which one you mean. (Only in fiction would we begin with “The house . . .” then weave in the details afterwards. Those readers are happy to be part of the discovery process.)
New Yorker articles are reviewed by five in-house editors before they are published. Each editor functions as a copy editor, page okayer, query proofreader, and second reader, making at least twenty checks on each article. All I have is myself, so I feel much better about my occasional errors that hide so skillfully when I proofread, then appear so painfully obvious a week later.