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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The legacy of puzzle master Merl Reagle and the gamification of news

Merl Reagle, a crossword-crafting master, died Aug.  22.  (Credit: Tampa Bay Times)

Merl Reagle, a crossword-crafting master, died Aug. 22. (Credit: Tampa Bay Times)

Merl Reagle had the soul of a copy editor and the style of a stand-up comedian. During his too-short life he was both of those and much more: musician, songwriter, author, and one of the world’s great puzzle masters. If you love crosswords – not cross words – send up a prayer of thanks to Merl.

My friend Merl died suddenly last week at the age of 65. Reports said the cause was an attack of acute pancreatitis. I am not writing this to note his passing but to celebrate a remarkable life spent swimming in the English language. “You need two things to do what I do,” he once told me. “You have to be passionate about words, and you have to be curious about trivial stuff on lots of different topics.”

Merl created his first puzzle at the age of 6. Read more

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Photo by Andreas Eldh/Flickr

The Virginia shooting and the dark side of the social media age

I saw a clip of Matt Lauer today. He said that viewing the video of the murder of two journalists “took my breath away.” Here is the man, I thought, who broadcast to me news of planes flying into the twin towers on 9/11. It must take a lot to take this veteran’s breath away.

Then I watched the one-minute video myself, and I knew what he meant. It seems unreal at first, even though I know what is going to happen. I cringe. It gives off the feel of a deranged person imitating a video game. You see this person approaching three people in the middle of a television news feature. A friendly reporter interviews another woman. A man, seen from the back, operates a camera. Read more

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The language of migration: refugee vs. migrant

A file photo of a Syrian refugee carrying a baby over the broken border fence into Turkey after breaking the border fence and crossing from Syria in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey.  (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)

A file photo of a Syrian refugee carrying a baby over the broken border fence into Turkey after breaking the border fence and crossing from Syria in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)

What is the difference between a migrant and a refugee, and which term describes a person crossing the Mediterranean Sea seeking asylum in Europe?

In a series of interviews with radio journalists in Canada, I tried to make sense of this distinction.  I noticed, for example, that news coverage by Reuters and the Guardian seemed to use migrant and refugee interchangeably, but with a preference for migrant.  I’ve come to believe that these words are not synonyms, and that their differences are significant.

Let’s begin with the definitions from the American Heritage Dictionary:

migrant:  1. Read more

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Screen shot, The New York Times

This is why we write stories

Most of the texts we call stories in journalism are more properly called reports. The imprecision of our nomenclature matters because the differences between reports and stories are important, both in how they are produced and how they are received.

The differences, I have argued, begin with the purpose of a report. In general, we write reports to collect, sort through, check out, and dish out information in the public interest. In short, we report to inform. A good report points you there. This is what you need to know. Pay attention to that.

A story is different. In the end, no one reads a story for information. No one reads “Gone with the Wind” to gain information about the Civil War. No one reads “Hamlet” to find out how to get to Elsinore castle. Read more

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Photo by Andy Wright/Flickr

12 basics of interviewing, listening and note-taking

As a writer I would NOT give myself high marks for the crafts of interviewing, listening, and note-taking. But I have sat at the knees of journalists who are experts at these elements of craft: John Sawatsky of ESPN, Jacqui Banaszynski of the University of Missouri, and Tom French of Indiana University – all of whom have taught at Poynter.

Not long ago, I taught a workshop on these topics to the young men of Poynter’s Write Field program, about 40 minority students attending middle school and high school. They found my lessons useful, so I thought I would pass them on to a larger audience.

I realize these dozen strategies constitute the basics. But when I am struggling with a craft – golf, music, writing – I find it helpful to remind myself of those basics, to climb down from the penthouse and visit the ground floor. Read more

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The Journalist and the Activist: the legacies of Julian Bond and Gene Patterson

Julian Bond of the Georgia state legislature and civil rights leader is seen in 1968. (AP Photo)

Julian Bond of the Georgia state legislature and civil rights leader is seen in 1968. (AP Photo)

A half century ago, Julian Bond fought for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Bond is now dead, but his legacy lives on.

So does that of the former newspaper editor and Poynter chairman Gene Patterson, who became Bond’s defender and critic.

A young charismatic activist, Bond was elected to the Georgia state legislature in 1965. His antiwar rhetoric and support for the Negro cause won him few admirers in state government, and the legislators refused to seat him.

As editor of the Atlanta Constitution from 1960-68, Patterson had emerged as a leader on civil rights and social justice, but he favored American intervention in Vietnam. Read more

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Why I always play music during writing workshops

Roy Peter Clark plays the accordion

The most fun I have as a teacher is when I can incorporate music into writing instruction. (Photo by Armondo Solares)

I was 46 years old, and my life and time were filled by three pursuits: teaching writing, coaching girls soccer and playing in a rock band. My imagination was born, or reborn, that year in 1994.

I saw them as discrete activities. For each I wore a separate uniform, spoke a distinctive dialect and derived a different reward. It felt like a rich and satisfying life, and it was.

I would soon learn there was something more.

I was at work on the book “Coaching Writers” with Don Fry. That word “coaching” made me wonder whether there was something I was learning from coaching my daughters’ soccer teams that I could apply to the coaching of writers. Read more

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Enough with the Hitler comparisons, already

In this file picture a man holds a poster with a picture of German Chancellor Angela Merkel wearing a swastika. The leader of a German anti-euro party called  for Germany to leave the common currency, telling an inaugural convention that the euro forces German taxpayers to rescue bankrupt southern European countries whose people denounce them as Nazis for their efforts.  (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis,File)

A man holds a poster with a picture of German Chancellor Angela Merkel wearing a swastika. Merkel opposition said that the euro forces German taxpayers to rescue bankrupt southern European countries whose people denounce them as Nazis for their efforts. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis,File)

Presidential campaigns tend to fuel the dark art of the false comparison.

I covered this tendency in 2011, citing incidents in which presidential candidates, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama were compared to Hitler.  That spectrum should be enough to reveal the emptiness of the comparison.  If politicians as different as Reagan and Obama can attract the Hitler zinger, it means that the content of the comparison is less important than the propaganda effect of comparing your antagonist to one of the world’s most notorious villains. Read more

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The Best Newspaper Narratives Volume 2 – solid choices, leaves you wanting more.

getschow_bann_cover_vol_2 George Getschow is to storytelling in newspapers what Carli Lloyd is to scoring in soccer:  dogged and indefatigable.  For more than a decade now, Getschow has served as leader of a tribe of journalists and authors devoted to the nonfiction narrative.  Members of the tribe come together each July at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Writers Conference outside of Dallas for congenial conversations about the craft, to rub elbows and bend elbows with some of the best in the business.

One product of this effort is a book (this year’s is Volume Two) published by the University of North Texas Press titled The Best Newspaper Narratives, an anthology edited by Getschow, containing the work of winners of a contest sponsored by Mayborn.  I have a special interest in this work:  1) I served as a judge of the contest for the first two years; 2) I have made a presentation at Mayborn and been greeted as a member of the tribe; and 3) I was the first editor of a Poynter publication that lasted almost 30 years titled Best Newspaper Writing, which collected the winners of ASNE’s distinguished writing competition. Read more

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When the President uses the n-word, please quote him without those dashes

This is a file photo of Barack Obama from 2006. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)

This is a file photo of Barack Obama from 2006. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)

When judging whether or not to use taboo language, editors wisely consider the identity of the speaker and the context of the speech. So I hope that the use of the n-word by the President of the United States in a podcast interview about racism will allow editors to quote him fully by spelling the word out.

The BBC got it just right, I think, in this report:

US President Barack Obama has used the “n-word” during an interview to argue that the United States has yet to overcome its issues with racism.

“Racism, we are not cured of it,” the president said. “And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public.”

Here is the rest of that paragraph, as told to WTF podcast host Marc Maron: “That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. Read more

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