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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Stuart Scott was a master codeswitcher and we’re all better for it

ESPN commentator Stuart Scott, 2013 (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

ESPN commentator Stuart Scott, 2013 (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Stuart Scott, the ESPN anchor, is gone, dead of cancer at the age of 49.  He leaves behind a splendid legacy in sports journalism, one that has shaped me as a fan, a writer, and an American.  Scott was a master of what is called “code switching,” that quality of language that that enables us to change the way we talk and write to satisfy the needs of multiple audiences.

Scott could be as rigorous as a scholar on commencement day, talking about life, sports, race, or his battle with cancer.  That power of Standard English was gained through his upbringing, his education at the University of North Carolina, and his professional aspirations to become a journalist and an anchor.  Read more

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3 big lies that public speakers tell and why journalists should care

Professional microphone

Three lies told over and over again by public speakers of all kinds – including me — are:

  1. “You can interrupt me at any time.”
  2. “I want this to be a conversation.”
  3. “There will be plenty of time at the end for questions.”

What follows typically is 30 or 60 or 90 minutes of nonstop bloviation, leavened only by predictable PowerPoint slides, usually dense with text that encourage even more talking. Why?  Because the speaker wants to “get through the material.” But don’t worry. “There will be plenty of time for questions at the end.”  Pants on fire.

This critique, I believe, is increasingly important to journalists. There is much to learn these days about our evolving enterprise. There is a greater need than ever for training, but fewer resources and less time than ever to provide it. Read more

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Writing resolutions for 2015: Read more books, master the headline and take up golf

I usually despise New Year resolutions (lose weight, exercise more, call Mom), except when it comes to my writing. At the beginning of each year, I write down some of the things I might do as a writer. It helps to write down some tentative plans, even when I don’t follow them – like the year I swore I’d take trombone lessons. It also helps to make them public. Your private unfulfilled aspirations as a writer can turn into corrosive regret. Expressed aloud or in print, they take on an independent life, gathering curious allies around your efforts.

Here then, in no order, are my writing resolutions:

1. Read more books, especially novels. There is only so much time, and, more and more often, my evening narrative time is taken up with binge-watching serial dramas on Netflix. Read more

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What defines a healthy newsroom culture?

Earlier this month, I had the honor of conducting a writing workshop in Washington, D.C., for the writers and editors of Society of Cosmetics and Beauty.  It was a kick for me to work with a publication that I had read as a boy, one that, in 1963, had published a photo of my father, a U.S. Customs officer, pasting a sticker on the wooden crate that contained the Mona Lisa as she made her way on a tour of America.

The folks at NatGeo asked some great questions, and I want to answer one of them in this essay.

“You keep talking and asking questions about the ‘culture’ of this place,” asked one young man.   “What do you mean by ‘culture’?”

As is my habit, I was going to begin my answer with a dictionary definition of culture, but even the shortest one I could find was so complicated and multi-faceted that it would not provide much direction. Read more

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Yes, Virginia, it is OK for a writer to play with the form

As a boy, my favorite story genre was the cowboy movie.  As I got a little older, I left Hopalong Cassidy behind in favor of parodies of cowboy movies, the kind of thing Mad magazine produced or Mel Brooks perfected in Blazing Saddles.

No doubt, good writers learn how to fulfill the requirements of a particular writing form, whether it’s the inverted pyramid or the three-act play. One sign of mastery is the ability to parody. In order to ridicule something well, you need to discover its actual elements. That’s a lesson I learned from poet Donald Hall and his 1973 textbook Writing Well.

He includes an example of journalist Oliver Jensen making fun of the way President Eisenhower talked.  First Jensen must learn the quirks of Ike’s awkward rhetoric. Read more

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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.”

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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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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. Read more

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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.  Read more

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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. Read more

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