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.


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


What I learned about writing from Dusty Rhodes, the American Dream

Dusty Rhodes gives his Hard Times speech.

Dusty Rhodes gives his Hard Times speech.

One of the most popular professional wrestlers of all time has died at the age of 69.  His real name was Virgil Runnels, but his wrestling name was Dusty Rhodes, a Texas plumber’s son who became known as the American Dream.

He wasn’t much of a ring performer compared to, say, the acrobatic masked wrestlers of Mexican fame.  He had bleached blond hair and the body that, to borrow a phrase, looked like a burlap bag full of doorknobs. His signature move in the ring was the “million-dollar” elbow, which he pounded on the bloody foreheads of wrestlers such as Ric Flair, Terry Funk, Tully Blanchard, and countless others.

But as the television sport evolved, talking became as important as fighting.  Read more


Not to be ‘hokey,’ but writers need to put their whole selves in

My parents never made home movies so it was a delight when my cousin Steve Dumont discovered some that his dad, my uncle Paul, took during a 1958 visit to our Long Island home.  It is a precious artifact.  I am about 10 years old, and the movie captures me playing the piano.  There is no sound, but you can tell that I’ve memorized a piece and that my fingers are working the keyboard.

In another scene, all the kids are dancing in a circle with my mom as choreographer.  At first it’s not exactly clear what we are doing but then, despite the lack of sound, the signs are unmistakable.  We are doing the Hokey Pokey.  We are putting various parts of ourselves in the circle and then we turn ourselves around. Read more


Mothers, please let your babies grow up to be journalists

Mike Clark with Diane Sawyer on the set of ABC  World News. (Photo courtesy of Mike Clark)

Mike Clark with Diane Sawyer on the set of ABC
World News. (Photo courtesy of Mike Clark)

You would never know it by watching him broadcast the news in Pittsburgh, or by sitting in on one of his classes at Duquesne University, or by listening to him narrate the election of a new pope, but there was a time, in his childhood, when news anchor Mike Clark had a difficult speech impediment.

He stuttered.  It got so bad that his older brothers, his school friends, even his Dad made fun of him.  “Just spit it out!” they would tell him.

“It was significant enough that I still remember my machine gun-like stammering,” he remembers, “and the searing heat filling up my cheeks and my ears when people would mock me.”  Tough going for a six-year-old. Read more

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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


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


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


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

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


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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