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.


Statues of Socrates and Apollo in Athens, Greece

Ray Rice video sparks ethics questions

After a series of famous journalism scandals in the early 1980s, I was asked to kick-start an ethics program at the Poynter Institute. I felt fully prepared to be a writing teacher, but not an ethics one. So what would I do?

I read what I could; studied professional codes; consulted ethics scholars; became pals with the influential bio-medical scholar Arthur Caplan; and took part in countless conversations and debates about duty, truth, privacy, plagiarism, conflict of interest, and much more.

Perhaps my one contribution to the field was in the distinction between Red Light and Green Light ethics. In journalism, and in other fields, I expressed a preference for the articulation of what we should do (Green Light) over what we should avoid (Red Light).

That, as they say in the age of transparency, is where I am “coming from.”

Where, then, am I headed? At a time of seismic convulsions on the media landscape, I find myself leaning toward an approach articulated by public scholar Peter Levine in his book Living without Philosophy. Read more

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Rosary Beads and Sensible Shoes: How to Help Someone Tell Her Story

The day after 9/11, 2001, I got to interview my cousin Theresa, who escaped from the 57th floor of Tower I after it was hit by the plane. Thirteen years later now, I have read the story I wrote for the Poynter website based upon that interview. It gave me chills, not because of the way it was written or constructed, but for the sheer drama and terror of the catastrophe it describes. In my lifetime I can think of no story, no breaking news event – not even the Kennedy assassination – that affected me so deeply, that changed the way I view the world.

Screenwriter Robert McKee teaches that every good story needs an “inciting incident,” that sudden, unexpected moment that rips through the fabric of normal life and changes almost everything. On Breaking Bad, a high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, gets a diagnosis that he is dying of cancer. Read more

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The new Ray Rice video reminds us that seeing is more than believing

This afternoon I decided to take a peek at the video, released by TMZ, of football player Ray Rice knocking out his fiancé (now his wife) in an elevator during what is euphemistically called a “domestic dispute.” Video had been available — and replayed endlessly — of Rice lifting and dragging his wife from the elevator, but this was the first public airing of the punch.

At first I was reluctant to look, but felt I might be asked to comment on the video either by Poynter.org or another news organization. The video I saw was gray and grainy and the blow went by in a flash, even in slow motion. Almost more disturbing was the view from inside of the elevator of Rice preparing to prop up the unconscious woman and drag her out.

So this is what spousal abuse looks like. I was glad I had watched it, however briefly, and I was not surprised by the subsequent news that Rice’s football team, the Baltimore Ravens, where he was a star running back, had released him. Read more

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4 writing lessons from the comedy of Joan Rivers

Rivers. Credit: AP Images

Rivers.

The death of Joan Rivers has got me thinking about comedy, which would probably please her, especially about comics as writers and what we can learn from them. Jokes fly by. We can forget they are the result of a strategic approach to language, sequencing, and timing. Read more

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Avalanche

Snow-blind: The challenge of voice and vision in multi-media storytelling

winter snowy background blizzard, frost

There has been no American feature story more honored – or over-praised – than “Snow Fall” by the New York Times. I don’t want the key word in that last sentence – over-praised – to detract from the story’s historic achievement. It won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for feature writing; it set a standard for multi-media reporting at a time when we were wondering about the viability of that form of storytelling; and it attracted attention from far and wide, lending encouragement that journalism in the digital age has an exciting future.

Cheers to the writer, John Branch, to graphics director Steve Duenes, and to the team that created it.

Much of the original praise for the work was worshipful and, I believe, superficial. The dazzling visual effects were there for all to see and left potential critics, dare I use the term, snow-blind.

“Snow Fall” is many good things, but great storytelling is not one of them. Read more

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Calendar Pages and Clock

Want to avoid procrastination? Impose an early deadline on yourself

When I wrote “The Glamour of Grammar,” I turned in the manuscript about three months late. Not a good feeling.

Friday morning, I turned in a finished draft of my next book, “The Art of X-ray Reading,” three months early. A very good feeling.

The key part of the word deadline, remember, is not the “line” part, but the “dead” part.

Now solve this riddle: When does a deadline become a lifeline?

The answer: When it is self-imposed.

I describe the process in my book Help! For Writers:

Many writers procrastinate until the deadline roars toward them like a train, the writer standing on the tracks. Pressing a deadline is a devil-may-care form of exhibitionism, a Houdini escape from a straitjacket, just in the nick of time, fueled by adrenaline. The literary daredevil may self-medicate with caffeine or nicotine to stimulate the writing, but adrenaline remains the writer’s little helper – and the drug of choice.

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Lauren Bacall and the value of reading your old stories

Lauren Bacall signing copies of her successful autobiography " By Myself."   (AP Photo/Press Association)

Lauren Bacall signing copies of her successful autobiography " By Myself." (AP Photo/Press Association)

A couple of days after Lauren Bacall died, I ran into an old friend who remembered that I had once interviewed her for the St. Petersburg Times. To my shock, he even quoted a line from the story: “You wrote that she could scratch your back with her voice.” There was a lesson here about the power of the written word, that a reader could remember a story that the writer had mostly forgotten, and that the language of that story could stick with the reader for 35 years.

With the help of the good folks at what is now the Tampa Bay Times, I unearthed my profile of Miss Bacall. The exact date of publication was March 16, 1979. I had been writing and coaching writers at the newspaper for two years, and was in the middle of a stint as a substitute film and theater critic. Read more

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The Kardashian Family Celebrates the Grand Opening of DASH Miami Beach

Dashes — the Kardashians of punctuation

The dash is the Kim Kardashian of punctuation marks: misplaced, over-exposed, shamelessly self-promoting, always eager to elbow out her jealous sisters the comma, colon, and semicolon.

My friend and mentor Don Fry has for years waged a holy war against the dash. Not the hundred-yard dash or a dash of paprika, but that most horizontal mode of punctuation, also known as an em dash — so named because it’s about as wide as a capital “M” in some typefaces.

Don, known as an enthusiastic exaggerator, has drummed up his opposition to the dash to ramming speed, and, truth be told, I can’t remember seeing a single instance of that mini-flatline in his own writing. He argues that writers use the dash profligately as a substitute for another more precise mark, and that the failure to learn, say, the colon or semicolon has created a dependence on the dash as the fallback punctuation tool. Read more

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Brazil WCup Top Five Highlights

Killing the game story would be a shame

My love for almost everything began with a love for sport writing, and it remains my favorite kind of journalism.

In the early days it was the game story that most excited me. There was so little television coverage of sports back then – no replays or ESPN and the like – that if you wanted a good accounting, you read a rundown of the game in the New York Daily News. A sharp game story accompanied by some data visualization – uh, I mean the box score – and you were good to go.

You would think that the game story would be obsolete, that sports networks and the internet would have provided countless replays accompanied by endless commentary by both players and a clone army of talking heads. Or that by now the game story would be the job of a robot journalist.

But guess what, the game story lives. Read more

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Sochi Olympics Pussy Riot

Could the c-word soon be finding its way into news headlines?

If orange is the new black, then the c-word may be becoming the new f-word? It certainly seems that way. With the f-word drifting to more common usage, we need another word for its shock value.

When I write c-word, I do not mean “cable.” But it is on cable television where the c-word is creeping out of the shadows. Tony Soprano and his cronies used it. I hear it on episodes of the popular fantasy drama Game of Thrones, sometimes used to describe a body part, more often as a corrosive epithet against women and men.

Surprisingly, the c-word has taken on a political connotation. In his comedy routines and on his HBO show, Bill Maher has described Sarah Palin as a c—. He defends the use on First Amendment grounds: that Palin is a public figure and that nasty name calling is as old as the Republic.

In a recent episode of HBO’s True Blood, a Palin-type character is referred to as a “Republic–t” by one of the heroic vampires. Read more

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