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.


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How graphic writing distorted the focus of the Rolling Stone rape story

As a Poynter source, I have answered dozens of questions now about the implications of the Rolling Stone story “A Rape on Campus,” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely.  I notice now that the title of the story is not the same as the headline on the print magazine’s cover, which reads “Sexual Assault on Campus.”

sexual-assault

rape-on-campusIt may just be that the problems with the story, reported by The Washington Post and others, are embedded in the tension between those two titles.  The phrase “Sexual Assault,” however disturbing, is more general and less graphic than “Rape.” Add the indefinite article, and you have something specific and more graphic, with promises of details to come: “A Rape on Campus.”

The particularity of that phrase is expressed most dramatically in the graphic scene that opens the narrative, a scene in which a particular woman enters a particular fraternity house with a particular date who betrays her to seven rapists, one of whom uses a beer bottle on her, another who utters the horrific, dehumanizing phrase “Grab its motherfucking leg.”

I almost gasped when I read that phrase, and why not?  Read more

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writers-editors

After a few years out of print, ‘Coaching Writers’ will return

Don Fry

Don Fry

I met my first real writing coach in 1970. Don Fry was my graduate professor. I was 22. He was 33.  Last week Don and I conducted a writing workshop in D.C. with a group of writers and editors, eager to grow in their craft. I am 66. He is now 77.

I wonder how many students and teachers get to work together for 44 years? That’s a year longer than I have been married. Did Will Strunk hang out with E.B. White for 44 years after his famous student graduated from Cornell? The answer is “no”; only 25 years.

Our greatest achievement as collaborators, I would argue, was the creation of the book Coaching Writers: Editors and Reporters Working Together Across Media Platforms. We believe it is the first book to consider the human side of editing. Though now out of print, Don and I are hard at work on its revival – more about that later. Read more

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martin-luther-king

How the Southern press foiled FBI’s attempt to smear MLK

Is it possible that we have to thank the white Southern press of the 1960s – even the segregationist press – for its restraint in resisting FBI attempts to smear the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., with sexual scandal?

That question is raised, but not sufficiently developed, in a Nov. 11 New York Times piece written by Yale historian Beverly Gage. She discovered in the files of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover an uncensored draft of what has been called the “suicide letter.”  The letter was part of an elaborate effort to discredit King, who was about to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Based on wire taps and audio tapes, the one-page letter, supposedly sent by an outraged black citizen, described in the vivid language of the day examples of King’s marital infidelities and sexual adventures.  The writer, actually an FBI agent, threatened to go public in 34 days with details of King’s affairs.  Read more

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journo-rock

Journalists join rock bands for more than just fame

On Friday evening, Nov. 21, a ragtag group of amateur rock musicians will play a gig for charity at a venue in St. Petersburg, Florida, called the Palladium. The group has the strange name The Fabulous Nosecaps, and I am proud to be a founding member and keyboard player. In my mind, the Fab Caps remain the greatest newspaper band of all time, rocking for almost 13 years in the 1980s and 90s in front of large groups and small, in venues from living rooms to public parks filled with thousands.

There were seven of us at first: Dave Scheiber, Greg Huffman, Mike and Kathy Foley, Jeff Klinkenberg, Bev Childs, and yours truly. Kathy Foley is singing “My Boyfriend’s Back” in rock ‘n’ roll heaven. The remaining six – accompanied by countless fill-ins, groupies, and hangers-on – launch our reunion show next Friday with two sets of dance party favorites, ranging narrowly from “Wooly Bully” to “Hang on Sloopy.”

No doubt, writers, especially the introverts, are show-offs. Read more

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Why so many people loved Tom Magliozzi’s storytelling

FILE In this July 9, 1991 file photo, Brothers Tom, left, and Ray Magliozzi pose under a car hood in Boston.   Tom Magliozzi died today of complications from Alzheimer's disease. He was 77. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

FILE In this July 9, 1991 file photo, Brothers Tom, left, and Ray Magliozzi pose under a car hood in Boston. Tom Magliozzi died today of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 77. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

The one thing about the news that is eternal, I guess, is that you never know for sure who is going to die next.  One day in 1977 I was walking through the newsroom of the St. Petersburg Times and ran into Mike Foley, the city editor. “What’s new?” I asked him. “Elvis is dead,” he said.

Back then it was Elvis, and today, I learned, it was Tom Magliozzi, a dimmer star in the celebrity heavens than the King, but a special personality in his own right. With his brother Ray, he hosted Car Talk, a radio feast for almost 40 years, now in syndication.

If you’ve heard the show once, you know the ingredients:

  • Chatter about popular cultural and the events of the day.
Read more
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Public fear and ‘an abundance of caution’

I wonder how George Orwell would react to a phrase that has been repeated time and again by government and university officials to justify recent stringent actions — such as quarantines and dis-invitations — in response to the Ebola crisis.

These officials say they are acting “out of an abundance of caution.”

It seems to be one of the phrases of the day, expressed by leaders who are trying to limit or eliminate contact, not just with sick people or people who have cared for the sick, but with almost anyone who has worked or traveled through countries where Ebola has spread.

Orwell was a famous critic of political speech, especially of the kind that used euphemism or passive constructions to cloud misbehavior or avoid responsibility. Mistakes, after all, are made.

To my ears, “an abundance of caution” is a peculiar phrase. It sounds like a parody of collective nouns such as “a gaggle of geese” or “an exaltation of larks.” How much caution will you exercise, Governor? Read more

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Get the name of the dog – and the nickname

dog-catThe first writing tool I ever learned came from my city editor Mike Foley: “Get the name of the dog.” What he could have added, but didn’t: “…and get the dog’s nickname, too.”

When it comes to characters in stories, nicknames are as important as names – maybe more important. Behind every nickname there is a story.

Let’s begin with the Oxford English Dictionary’s etymology and definition of “nickname.” The Anglo-Saxon work “eke” means “also”; the phrase eke-name, then, means “also name” or “another name.” When you add the indefinite article, you get “an eke-name” and over time the “n” switches over, giving us “a neke-name” or finally “a nickname.”

The definition in the OED: “A name or appellation added to, or substituted for, the proper name of a person, place, etc., usually given in ridicule or pleasantry.” This is followed by historical uses of the word in literature, including this sentence from 1710 in which Joseph Addison writes in The Tatler of a peculiar physician: “He unfortunately got the Nickname of the Squeaking Doctor.” (More about this doctor later.)

We once had a grey cat named Voodoo. Read more

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From AIDS to Ebola: Journalism, disease, and the mentality of fear

I remember a day back in the 1980s when I first met a person who I thought had AIDS.  I was sitting at the front desk of the old storefront building of the Poynter Institute when a tall gaunt man entered through the glass doors and approached me with a question. I have forgotten his question, but I do remember being frightened by his appearance.

He had several lesions on his face, the kind that people got after their immune system had been compromised by the AIDS virus. I did not reach out to shake his hand, my usual gesture, but babbled some reason to direct him out of the building. I am not proud of this. I just want to establish my credentials as someone capable of panicky, irrational fear.

About a decade after that meeting, 1996 to be exact, I published a month-long series in what was then the St. Read more

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Fear not the long sentence

A year ago I wrote an essay for the New York Times titled “The Short Sentence as Gospel Truth.” It argued that authors express their most important ideas or dramatic moments in the shortest sentences. This turned out to be a popular piece, the most emailed of the day. Teachers and editors anointed the short sentence as the solution to many writing problems.

trainFrom my shot comes a rebound:  “If the short sentence is the gospel truth, then what is the long sentence?”  My best answer is metaphorical:  “It’s a journey on a westbound train.”

Editors advise, “When it comes to the long sentence, children, be afraid, be very afraid.”  In the common view, the long sentence too often spins off the tracks, a wreck on the road to comprehensibility. It is not an irrational fear. In almost every story I have written comes a moment when I must take that overly ambitious sentence and cut it in two. Read more

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HAMMERHEAD SHARK ON DISPLAY AT MANDALAY BAY RESORT IN LAS VEGAS

Shark-hunting for ‘Old Hitler’ reveals storytelling tips

When I arrived at the St. Petersburg Times in 1977, the first writer I bonded with was Jeff Klinkenberg. We were the same age. Our desks were side by side. We both had young families. Our oldest daughters became best friends. We played in a rock band together. You get the idea.

On Tuesday, Klinkenberg took a buyout from what is now the Tampa Bay Times. His announcement on his Facebook page inspired more than 500 likes and almost 400 comments. These fervent expressions of admiration and respect from readers and other writers did not surprise me.

There is pride in knowing that a great newspaper could sustain the work of such a talented feature writer for almost four decades, especially one who is so identified with a place and a culture and the odd and interesting Floridians who have created it. There is also some sadness attached to the realization that newspapers, weakened economically, find it so hard to retain and sustain such talent until they’re ready to leave. Read more

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