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.


Donald Trump and the art of the insult

Among Donald Trump’s favorite rhetorical moves, there is the boast and the insult. He is likely to use both tonight in the CNN debate. It’s gonna be huge!

It’s easy to see how the boast and the insult go hand in hand. Boasting builds me up, and the insult knocks you down.

It turns out that these moves are ancient, and they work. They worked for epic poets, Shakespeare, and countless other authors. They also work for modern smack talkers in all forms of competition:

For Muhammad Ali against Joe Frazier:

For Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and most other professional wrestlers (of whom Mr. Trump thinks he is one):

For Eminem in the great rap competition that ends the movie “Eight Mile”:

The insult works because it is highly entertaining.  Read more

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Hey, what’s the big idea – about journalism?

Ever since I was a little kid, I heard people say: “Hey, what’s the big idea?” In most cases, this phrase was a synonym for “What do you think you’re doing?” These were not real questions. They were challenges to perceived misbehavior: a kid sneaking around; someone going through your stuff.

What if we asked that question and expected an answer. And what if we added a context: “Hey, what’s the big idea – about journalism?”

Every creative act I can think of is attached to some big idea that is rarely expressed. But if you KNOW that big idea, it can help you learn the values and the elements of a particular craft.

  • The big idea about music is that something abstract — a sound — can evoke an emotion in the listener.
Read more

12 tips for writing fast – or at least faster

To be a good writer, you have to learn to write slow. Some sentences or passages just take a long time. But slow writing need not be the norm. In journalism, the goal should be fast writing – or at least faster writing.

I’m a pretty fast writer, but not the fastest. That distinction might go to Bill Blundell, formerly of The Wall Street Journal and author of The Art and Craft of Feature Writing. I once attended a workshop with Bill in which the class was assigned a news feature story. We all had access to the same information. In the allotted time, I managed to squeeze out a couple of clumsy paragraphs. Blundell, who nervously chewed paper (literally), knocked off three pages in no time, good enough to be published the next morning. Read more


15 tips for handling quotes

In the almost 40-year history of the Poynter Institute, there have been few topics that generate as much debate among journalists as how to handle quotes.

I love it when a dogmatic reporter argues, “I only use the exact words that a person says, nothing more or less.” Then comes my cross-examination: “Do you include every time the source says ‘like’ or ‘you know’?” “If the mayor says ‘gonna’ do you ever change it to ‘going to’?” The reporter grumbles. It’s my Perry Mason moment.

One of the benefits of moving my office from one end of Poynter to the other has been the purging of my files and the occasional discovery of something worth saving and sharing. In one dusty file I found a list of “eight tips on handling quotes.”

Here it is with some elaboration, plus seven more. Read more

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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

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


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

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

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


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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