Roy Peter Clark

Roy has taught writing at every level--to school children and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors--for more than 30 years, and has spoken about the writer's craft on The Oprah Winfrey Show, NPR and Today; at conferences from Singapore to Brazil; and at news organizations from The New York Times to the Sowetan in South Africa. He is the author of "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer," the book and the blog.


50ShadesofGreyCover-cropped

What writers can un-learn from ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

The release of a hot trailer for the movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey has stirred up renewed attention to the book trilogy that spawned it, the work of a very lucky British woman named E.L. James.  I very much like the arc of her personal story: from self-publishing the first book to sales of more than 90 million copies worldwide, with translations into more than 50 languages.  So perhaps I should make this a very short essay with this advice to writers everywhere: Sex sells.

But just as there is good food writing and bad food writing; good sports writing and bad sports writing; there is also good sex writing and bad sex writing. To illustrate this, I have chosen a scene – almost at random – from one of James’s book to analyze. … Read more

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semicolon

Restore the semicolon to journalism; before it’s too late

Maybe it’s the oppressive Florida heat and humidity, but I find myself in a mischievously contrarian mood these days. First I flew the flag of the Oxford comma. Then I raised the roof on behalf of the passive voice. So why not try for a trifecta: a proposal that we restore the undervalued semicolon to its proper place in journalism – ahead of the dash.

It could be that I’ve been shaped by the influence of one of my favorite writers, more importantly, the richest writer in the world: J.K. Rowling. If a woman now worth more than the Queen of England peppers her prose with semicolons, why should we deny their power and influence.

Writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, Rowling has given us The Cuckoo’s Calling, a detective mystery with her flawed and injured hero Cormoran Strike.… Read more

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In this April 10, 1996 file photo, the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz" are shown on display during a media tour of the "America's Smithsonian" exhibition in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

Why we love stories about ‘coming home’

In this April 10, 1996 file photo, the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” are shown on display during a media tour of the “America’s Smithsonian” exhibition in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

Journalists are suckers for homecoming stories, which is part of the reason the LeBron James story has gained such traction. The essay he wrote for Sports Illustrated with Lee Jenkins is titled “I’m Coming Home,” which is also its final sentence.

I’ve written about the power of the short sentence. It has the ring of gospel truth. Even if there are money and control and competitive issues involved for James, the dominant narrative is that the King, who once lost his way, has now returned… home.… Read more

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Walter Cronkite

Accept praise for something great in your story – even if you didn’t mean it

We writers say we want more praise for our work, but, when it comes, we are often not ready to accept it. We are better at absorbing the blows of negative criticism, perhaps because we suffer from the impostor syndrome, that fear that this is the day that we will be found out, exposed as frauds, banished to law school.

If you are one of those writers who fend off criticism, this essay is for you. As I learned years ago, praise can come at some surprising moments, and for surprising reasons. When it arrives, let it wash over you like a waterfall.

My career in journalism was launched by a short essay I wrote for the New York Times in 1974. It was called “Infectious Cronkitis,” and an editor at the Times by the name of Howard Goldberg told me later that while he liked the essay, he really liked that title.… Read more

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Man reading a newspaper

How I might have responded to Clay Shirky’s student

Is it unfair to steer journalism students to jobs in print publications?

That question rumbled in my mind like a storm cloud after reading a provocative recent essay by Professor Clay Shirky. I learn a lot from his work and was eager to learn more.

Shirky described a recent moment in which he addressed about 200 students in a college journalism class. One student asked him, “So how do we save print?”

Shirky answered: “I was speechless for a moment, then exploded, telling her that print was in terminal decline and that everyone in the class needed to understand this if they were thinking of journalism as a major or a profession….This was a room full of people who would rather lick asphalt than subscribe to a paper publication; what on earth would make them think print was anything other than a wasting asset?”

Shirky concluded that adults were “lying to them.” Those lies, according to the professor, included futile efforts to save print by various revenue generating schemes.… Read more

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active or passive

In praise of the passive voice

Of all the technical advice I offer writers, none is more controversial than encouragement to use the passive voice. Most writers prefer the active, and so do I. But that preference has been distorted to the point of making the passive a taboo, expressed in useless phrases such as “avoid the passive,” or “there is no excuse for the passive,” or, with more humor, “the passive voice should not be used.”

  1. Criticism of the passive includes these arguments:
    It makes a sentence longer, requiring the addition of a helping verb.
  2. It is too indirect, violating the one-two-three progression of subject, verb, object, as in “Putin split his pants.” (Hard to imagine a writer preferring “Putin’s pants were split by him.”
  3. It allows the writer to avoid attribution of action, creating all kinds of evasion, especially in the political sphere, the classic example being “Mistakes were made.”

In “Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch,” a book devoted to verbs, Constance Hale notes that confusion springs from the word “voice” to describe the relationship between subject and verb.… Read more

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oxford

AP Style should adopt the Oxford comma

It’s great to see that Nate Silver’s 538 is finally hitting its stride. Stepping aside from the conflicts of politics and sports, the data site has decided to weigh in on a controversy that truly ignites the passion of partisans. Forget Red States versus Blue States, campers. Forget Brazil vs. Argentina in the World Cup. Want to see the fur fly? Debate the Oxford comma.

The Oxford or serial comma (which I prefer) is the one that comes before the “and” in a series such as: “Kelly, Al, Kenny, Ellyn, Jill, Butch, and Roy teach at Poynter.” AP style, which Poynter follows, omits that final comma, leaving “Butch and Roy” attached like “Siegfried and Roy.”

I devote a chapter in my book “The Glamour of Grammar” to my preference for that final comma, and now believe that AP style should now include it.… Read more

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Editor Definition in English Dictionary.

How to report without editors

I was once asked by a top newspaper editor if I could help make his reporters more productive. Now they were responsible for three stories a week. Could I coach them to produce six stories a week? My answer was: “I could, but I won’t.”

I did not want to enable the ownership — which was cutting staff — to tell the big corporate lie: that they could do more with less. My reluctance, while principled, now seems hopelessly naïve and nostalgic. We’ve lost journalists by the thousands. Those who remain on newspapers, even as they cling to their jobs like cats on a clothesline, are being asked to perform miracles.

Their jobs, in cities like Louisville, Kentucky, are about to get harder. The Courier-Journal, once a great American newspaper, has fired some key editors.… Read more

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Upworthy

Top 8 Secrets of How to Write an Upworthy Headline

The best thing I’ve read about the story sharing network Upworthy was written by Katy Waldman for Slate and was republished in my local newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times. I had been alerted earlier by colleagues to a now famous trademark of Upworthy’s approach to information sharing: its three-line headline style.

That style…

See Why We Have An Absolutely
Ridiculous Standard of Beauty In
Just 37 Seconds

…has been praised for being irresistibly attractive and attacked for being cynically exploitative. For the moment, I don’t have a dog in that fight.

My angle is on the writing front. I spent some time on Upworthy and paid special attention to the headlines to determine not just what the writers were trying to do, but how they were trying to do it.… Read more

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bowe_cnn

What Harry Potter teaches about naming killers

My colleague Al Tompkins has written about the journalistic imperative of using names whenever we can, including the names of mass murderers. To withhold those names in the hopes of not romanticizing the killer – and not inspiring demented copycats – is an abdication of responsibility by the journalist. We need to know everything we can about the people who terrorize society – and that begins with their names.

I stand with Al on that opinion and would add another layer to his argument in the form of this sidebar: Withholding the name of the killer may have the opposite of the intended effect.

My argument comes not just from the journalism tradition of naming, but from a much larger cultural tradition in which naming is seen as a source of power.… Read more

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