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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Timing and other writing lessons from Harper Lee

Gregory Peck is shown as attorney Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape, in a scene from the 1962 movie "To Kill a Mockingbird." (AP Photo)

Gregory Peck is shown as attorney Atticus Finch, a small-town Southern lawyer who defends a black man accused of rape, in a scene from the 1962 movie “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (AP Photo)

Today is a day in a writer’s life when the stars seem in alignment. On a day when I am working on a revision of a book chapter on To Kill a Mockingbird and the writing strategies of Harper Lee, news has broken that her publisher will produce a sequel this summer: Go Set a Watchman.

Reports say that the manuscript was written before her most famous book but serves as a kind of sequel with the narrator Scout now grown, living in New York, and still learning from her righteous father Atticus Finch. Read more

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Seven questions every editor should ask the writer

I have done a lot of coaching and editing in my career, but I have never, since the college literary magazine, been THE editor. But I often imagine that I am. So let’s say that I am assigned to become a coaching editor at a make-believe enterprise called the Calusa News. We are covering a community on the west coast of Florida, and I will direct the work of, say, ten writers and reporters.

The first thing I would do – before I read or edited a single story – is interview each writer. This turns out to be a surprisingly rare event. I remember chatting with one veteran reporter at a newspaper who told me, “I’ve been here for more than 30 years, and you are the first person who asked me about how I work.”

Recently, I read a magazine article about “36 Questions that Lead to Love.” The questions — such as “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?” — are designed to create intimacy, even among strangers. Read more

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Al Jazeera memo illustrates the importance of word choice

I’ve spent a lot of time and space over the last decade thinking and writing about political language, propaganda, censorship, and banned and taboo words. Every time the language wars begin heating up (illegal alien vs. undocumented worker), I find myself reverting to a set of first principles:

  1. What is the literal meaning of the questionable word or phrase?
  2. Does that word or phrase have any connotations, that is, associations that are positive or negative?
  3. How does the word correspond to what is actually happening on the ground?
  4. What group (sometimes called a “discourse community”) favors one locution over another, and why?
  5. Is the word or phrase “loaded”?  How far does it steer us from neutral?
  6. Does the word or phrase help me see, or does it prevent me from seeing?
Read more
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Four weather writing lessons from someone who died more than 300 years ago

I have dear friends and family members from Maryland to Maine so I am paying special attention to their fate over the next few days.  The weather event has an interesting name:  a bombogenesis, more sinister, it sounds, than a polar vortex. Forecasters are describing a storm of “historic proportions,” one that might produce as much as three feet of snow in parts of New England.

To family and friends in Rhode Island, I say, only half in jest:  move to Florida. But not this week.

 Sir John Evelyn

Sir John Evelyn

I am a reading and writing teacher so it’s my habit to look for lessons in the journalism and literature of the past. In the case of weather, I have stumbled upon the work of a British author named John Evelyn (1620-1706). Read more

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Official game balls for the NFL football Super Bowl XLIX sit in a bin before being laced and inflated at the Wilson Sporting Goods Co. in Ada, Ohio, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. The New England Patriots will play the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl on Feb. 1 in Glendale, Arizona. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)

Gategate: It’s a scandal that we revert so easily to the –gate suffix

Now we have Deflategate, the scandal involving the New England Patriots and the doctoring of footballs. That same team gave us Spygate, in which the team secretly videotaped the practices of rivals. Not long ago we had Bridgegate, in which the governor of New Jersey was investigated for causing a traffic jam in the town of a political foe.

The use of –gate as the scandal suffix of choice goes back, we know, to the 1972 break-ins at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., a crime and political dirty trick that cost President Richard Nixon his job. There is actually a Wikipedia page that lists the progeny of Watergate, dozens upon dozens of examples from the worlds of politics, sports and entertainment. Such is the power of –gate that it has made its way into the scandal language of other countries and even other tongues. Read more

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How one young Canadian reporter in Haiti helped turn Twitter into a storytelling tool

Twitter launched in 2006 and in less than a decade has almost 300 million users. Conceived as a social network to share information, it was gradually embraced by journalists and is now an essential tool for reporting and communication. In spite of its 140-character limit, it has also become a powerful platform for storytelling, used as a live blog or as a kind of inverted serial narrative, with each tweet a micro-scene or mini-chapter.

One of the pioneers of this use, I have argued, is a young reporter from the Toronto Star named Joanna Smith. A beat writer of Canadian government and politics, Smith was sent to Haiti to cover the effects of a devastating earthquake and early efforts to recover. This week marks the fifth anniversary of that disaster. Read more

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Satire’s conflicting kinship with journalism

jesuischarlie300So 12 are dead in Paris, with more injured. Their crime is an association with the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which ridicules popes, politicians, prophets and Islamic extremists. It comes down to this. The magazine was eager to publish words and images that fanatics hated. Symbols were met with bullets.

The pen is mightier than the sword, we say, but is it mightier than the automatic rifle, the rocket launcher, the Molotov cocktail, the dirty bomb in a terrorist’s briefcase? Should journalists and satirists work in bunkers?

Journalism is a dangerous business, requiring physical and moral courage. Just look at what has happened to our war correspondents this past year. The events in Paris have demonstrated that satire is as powerful as journalism – and just as dangerous. Read more

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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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