Roy Peter Clark

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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.


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Why “Louie, Louie” should be an anthem for journalists

The song I have sung most often in my life is “Louie, Louie.”

I don’t know the words. Really.

There are two sets of lyrics – maybe three.

The original lyrics, written and performed by Richard Berry in 1955, describe a sweet island romance.

In 1963, The Kingsmen covered the song.  The lead singer, Jack Ely, slurred the words.  The production values sucked.  Because of those things, “Louie, Louie” became one of the greatest rock songs of all time.

Oh, by the way, we are writing this in part because Ely just died at the age of 71.

By 1964, rumors spread through my high school: The lyrics of “Louie, Louie” were filthy.

“I promise I’ll never leave her again,” a sailor’s lament, became “I promise I’ll never lay her again.”  Which made no sense.  Read more

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best-lede-250

The winner for the best Pulitzer Prize lead is….

Let’s say you walk into a bookstore with about $25 in your pocket on the prowl for a good read.  You pick up one volume, open to the beginning and read a short chapter called “Leaflets”:

“At dusk they pour from the sky.  They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses.  Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles.  Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say, Depart immediately to open country.”

That’s a fine opening, I would say.  I like the setting, defined by action.  I like the little mystery of what “they” are.  I like the text within a text, suggesting a city under siege.

It’s fair to say that other folks like that beginning too.  Read more

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The Tampa Bay Times should have alerted authorities earlier

A police device rolls toward a copter device, right, that landed on the West Front of the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)

A police device rolls toward a copter device, right, that landed on the West Front of the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)

The Tampa Bay Times was wrong.

That is my reluctant conclusion after reading the story “Ruskin flier eludes Capitol air security.”  The story, well known by now, concerns Doug Hughes, an eccentric postal worker who committed an act of civil disobedience by flying a “gyrocopter” onto the West Lawn of the nation’s Capitol.

As I studied the coverage last night and today, I imagined a different headline:  “Times coverage shows unsteady man committing dangerous act.”

Ben Montgomery, a reporter I admire, wrote the story.  I saw him on the Today Show arguing in a brief sound bite that it was not his job to blow the whistle on a stunt like this one, in which Hughes planned to deliver letters to each member of Congress complaining about the evil influence of money on American politics. Read more

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anon-100

The pseudonym as a crutch:  A big lesson from the Rolling Stone scandal

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I can think of a half-dozen times in my writing career when I used a pseudonym for a character.  Every time, I regretted it.  The regret did not come from the exposure of some journalistic malpractice.  It came, instead, from my desire to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and being stymied from doing so. And it came, even with full disclosure, from a set of problems and temptations that I confronted after I wrote, “Let’s call her Dolores,” or “I’ll call him Timmy (not his real name).”  As a result of my inhibitions as a writer, I have turned from skeptic to cynic as a reader.  When I see, especially in a magazine story or a memoir, “not his real name,” I want to add “not his real story.”

Of all the problems with the Rolling Stone story, its promiscuous use of pseudonyms stands as a kind of gateway drug to more consequential forms of malpractice. Read more

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Death and writing short – the missing SXSW session

I once heard the great Francis X. Clines of the New York Times tell a group of journalists never to apologize for writing about death.  “We tell the morbid truth,” he said.

I was scheduled to deliver a workshop on “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times” on St. Patrick’s Day at SXSW.  But on Friday the Thirteenth my mother, Shirley Clark, died at the age of 95.  I cancelled my trip to Austin and turned my writing skills to crafting her eulogy.

Here are some of the things I would have said at SXSW if I had been able to make the trip.  It riffs off my handout for the session, which you can access here.  When I picked the selections of short writing for study, I didn’t realize how many of them were about death:  dying, almost dying, fear of dying, recovering from a death, remembering a death, the legacy of death.  Read more

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Why you should know the work of Claude Sitton – reporter

Claude Sitton

Claude Sitton

I noted with sadness the death of a great American journalist, Claude Sitton, who encouraged me early in my career, and who was a good friend of the Poynter Institute. The giants of the Civil Rights movement are passing from this life. Their witness must be remembered and celebrated, a legacy that should inspire us to re-double our efforts to commit our journalism to the cause of social justice.

I was introduced to Sitton by another great Southern journalist, Eugene Patterson, who hired me in 1977 to coach the writers at the St. Petersburg Times. From 1960 to 1968 Gene served as editor of the Atlanta Constitution under the leadership of his mentor Ralph McGill. One day I was having lunch with Gene and the conversation went something like this:

“Gene, you know I’ve heard so much about the columns you wrote in Atlanta.  Read more

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How to get the most out of a writing conference

I have attended a lot of writing conferences since I arrived at Poynter in 1979.  I have organized some, delivered keynote speeches and hands-on workshops, and I have sat in the audience as a learner, at times enthralled by the speaker, at other times amazed that so many people seem so engaged by a writer whose grasp of the writing process seems so obvious.

I once heard someone say this about a favorite food:  “Pizza is like sex.  Even when it’s bad it’s good.”  I am ready to add the writing conference to the list.  Even when it’s bad it’s good.  And when it’s good, it’s great.  And when it’s great it can change your career – and your life.

One of my favorite writing conferences, the one at Boston University led by Mark Kramer, is coming up.  Read more

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The power of slow reading in fast times

I am a slow reader, and that’s a good thing.

Let me give you an example.  Go back and re-read my first sentence, more slowly this time.  What do you notice about it?  What surprises you?  How does it work?  You can’t answer any of those questions by reading it fast.  Only through slow reading can you get an X-ray view of the writer at work.

slow-reading-275When I read that sentence, I notice it is divided into two parts:  1) I am a slow reader) and 2) that’s a good thing.  Both of those parts work as independent clauses.  Connecting the two creates something called a compound sentence.  There is a kind of equality, a balance between the parts. Turning from structure to content, my slow reading reveals to me a creative tension between the parts.  Read more

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Is it time for news anchors to take a ‘Vow of Chastity?’

News' anchors Katie Couric, Brian Williams, left, and Charles Gibson,  on the NBC 'Today' show in 2008, for cancer research. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

News’ anchors Katie Couric, Brian Williams, left, and Charles Gibson, on the NBC ‘Today’ show in 2008, for cancer research. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Let’s think of the fall of NBC’s Brian Williams as the climax of a narrative that began in the 1950s when the television news business was still young.

It was in 1958 that Edward R. Murrow of CBS addressed a convention of broadcast news directors and offered, “It is not necessary to remind you that the fact that your voice is amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other does not confer upon you greater wisdom or understanding than you possessed when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other.”

It turned out to be Murrow’s most famous speech, hitting this high point near the end: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire.  Read more

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E L James

50 Shades of word play: Getting beyond first-level creativity

Every time there is a big, big story, the geniuses of Facebook and Twitter try out for the clever Olympics. One pun after another, wisecrack after wisecrack, metaphor after simile, writers strut their stuff, looking for love and trying to out-snark the competition. It’s a Snarknado!

It might be the Super Bowl, the Oscars or even the arrival of the movie version of the steamy book “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Early screenings have begun with fans looking ahead to Valentine’s Day weekend openings almost everywhere. So what is a Tweeter or headline writer to do?

Here’s my advice: Go beyond what I call “first-level creativity.” Believe me, you don’t want to be one of the thousand class clowns to come up with the same lame joke or reference. Read more

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