Like most New Yorkers who subscribe to The New Yorker, I’m generally behind in my reading. So I’m a week late in calling to your attention John McPhee’s piece in the April 29 issue: “Draft No. 4,” the latest in McPhee’s occasional series on writing. If a year in journalism school hasn’t introduced you to his work — more than 30 books on subjects ranging from the New Jersey Pine Barrens to oranges and shad — start reading him now.
McPhee starts “Draft No. 4” with writer’s block, then goes on to discuss his technique for finding the right word. On the fourth page, he shifts to the topic of editing at The New Yorker, particularly its legendary copy editing. This is the part I urge every student to read, most of all those thinking of taking Steve Strasser’s editing course this fall. McPhee blends his memories of being edited with actual grammatical points that offer insights into how editors think. For example:
“. . . what’s the difference between “further” and “farther”? In the dictionary, look up “further.” It says “farther.” Look up “farther.” It says “further.” So you’re safe and can roll over and sleep. But the distinction has a difference . . . “Farther” refers to measurable distance. “Further” is a matter of degree.
The New Yorker posts each issue online for only a week, after which it disappears into the archive, accessible only to subscribers. But I tore out the article, and I’ll be happy to copy it for anyone who’s interested. Just drop me a line or stop by during office hours.
If you followed the link in my March 15 post to William Zinsser’s “Writing English as a Second Language,” you will be sad to learn why he stopped blogging for The American Scholar: glaucoma has taken his eyesight. Read about it in The New York Times: “A Writing Coach Becomes a Listener.” Thanks for everything, Mr. Zinsser.