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.

active or passive

In praise of the passive voice

Of all the technical advice I offer writers, none is more controversial than encouragement to use the passive voice. Most writers prefer the active, and so do I. But that preference has been distorted to the point of making the passive a taboo, expressed in useless phrases such as “avoid the passive,” or “there is no excuse for the passive,” or, with more humor, “the passive voice should not be used.”

  1. Criticism of the passive includes these arguments:
    It makes a sentence longer, requiring the addition of a helping verb.
  2. It is too indirect, violating the one-two-three progression of subject, verb, object, as in “Putin split his pants.” (Hard to imagine a writer preferring “Putin’s pants were split by him.”
  3. It allows the writer to avoid attribution of action, creating all kinds of evasion, especially in the political sphere, the classic example being “Mistakes were made.”

In “Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch,” a book devoted to verbs, Constance Hale notes that confusion springs from the word “voice” to describe the relationship between subject and verb. More confusion comes from mischaracterizations. In a popular and otherwise helpful book, “On Writing,” the prolific Stephen King refers to the “passive tense,” a mistake since active and passive can be expressed in any sequence of time. (Passive and tense could be used to describe any number of King protagonists waiting for some horror to beset them.)

I argue that the passive has its uses and that writers should learn them, a position shared by Connie Hale in this New York Times essay.

But before I describe those uses, it will help first to overturn the conviction of the passive as “dull,” using DNA evidence of a textual nature. The standard critic argues that passive verbs are “weak,” “flabby,” or “soft.” The favored active verbs are then said to be “strong,” “vivid,” or “muscular.” It makes sense that, by definition, the active should usurp the passive, in the sense that we prefer the active student, soccer player, or lover to the passive.

Let me offer, as exhibit A, a phrase written by the Alabama author Daphne Simpkins in her essay “Two Clocks.” The piece describes the not-always-happy burden of escorting an elderly neighbor to doctor appointments, including a 40-mile trek to the foot doctor, where the woman’s “bunions are peeled and the toenails sawed off….” Many years ago, Daphne was a student of mine and probably heard my preference for the active. Now she is teaching me a lesson: that the passive can be vivid – to the boundary of yuck, as in “peeled” and “sawed off.”

That’s when it hit me like a pool cue to the solar plexus. The passive can be vivid, and the active dull, as in the sentence “Travis went downstairs,” as opposed to “fell” or “tripped” or “tumbled.”

This led me to an insight that may be ancient, but that is new to me: verbs are not active or passive at all. The activity or passivity rests in the subject, not the verb. When Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey complained that “I was blindsided” by the bridge scandal, it portrayed him as the passive receiver of the malpractice of others. That is exactly when the passive is most useful.

I often teach a passage from the journalist Thomas French, who wrote the story of an aging chimp named Herman, a charismatic creature who died violently at a Tampa zoo. We learn that as an infant, Herman “was taken from his mother…then sold in an orange crate for $25 and a thumbprint. He was carried across an ocean, installed inside a cage, taught to depend on the imperfect love of strangers.” These verbs (my italics) are vivid enough: taken, sold, carried, installed, taught. They describe Herman as an orphan, a captive, a victim. He is passive, not the verbs.

When Herman grows to become an alpha chimp, the virtual king of his zoo, his status changes, and so do the author’s verbs: “He charmed Jane Goodall, threw dirt at the mayor of Tampa, learned to blow kisses and smoke cigarettes, whatever it took to entertain the masses.” Herman is no longer the pauper, but a prince. He is the agent, the doer, the active one.

In those adjoining examples we see a lesson for all writers. Prefer the active, if you will, but when you want to focus on the receiver, the victim – be it bunion or chimp – the passive rules. There, I said it. In the active voice. Read more


AP Style should adopt the Oxford comma

It’s great to see that Nate Silver’s 538 is finally hitting its stride. Stepping aside from the conflicts of politics and sports, the data site has decided to weigh in on a controversy that truly ignites the passion of partisans. Forget Red States versus Blue States, campers. Forget Brazil vs. Argentina in the World Cup. Want to see the fur fly? Debate the Oxford comma.

The Oxford or serial comma (which I prefer) is the one that comes before the “and” in a series such as: “Kelly, Al, Kenny, Ellyn, Jill, Butch, and Roy teach at Poynter.” AP style, which Poynter follows, omits that final comma, leaving “Butch and Roy” attached like “Siegfried and Roy.”

I devote a chapter in my book “The Glamour of Grammar” to my preference for that final comma, and now believe that AP style should now include it. Here is a condensed version of what I had to say. Since I’m quoting from a book, the serial comma will be preserved throughout.


Advocate use of the serial comma

I have spent my career navigating between literature and journalism, trying to learn from both worlds. From my training and experience as an English professor, I carried into the newsroom the power of close reading, a respect for narrative, and a theoretical understanding of the writing process. From years of working with reporters and editors, I’ve gained a sense of craft, a respect for readers, and a compass that points me toward mission and purpose.

Though I embody these two language traditions in equal amounts, I have preferences, and some of them are passionate, even about the little things. So I say with the certainty of inevitable contradiction that when it comes to the serial comma, sometimes called the Oxford comma, the literary folks have it right, and the journalists have it wrong. The reader needs that final comma before “and” in a series. I need it.

Despite their common heritage in language, analysis, and storytelling, journalists and the literati belong to two different “discourse communities.” I learned that phrase from scholar Carolyn Matelene, and have found it one of the most useful concepts for understanding language. A simpler way to think of a discourse community is as a “language club,” a place where members share the same lingo.

Philosophers form a language club; so do baseball players; so do jazz musicians; so do trial lawyers, tax lawyers, and estate attorneys; so do medical doctors and witch doctors; so do scientists and Scientologists; so do drug dealers and gang bangers; so do straights and gays; so do Buddhist monks; so do kindergarten kids; so do runway models.

Believe it or not, we are back to the serial comma. For three decades, I have included that final comma in a series only to watch helplessly as my journalism editors pluck it out with tweezers. The absurdity of this situation will become apparent:

  • I will write an essay like this one, inserting serial commas wherever necessary.
  • Mallary Tenore, my former editor at the Poynter Institute, which follows AP style, will take them out for our website.
  • Tracy Behar, my editor at Little, Brown, which favors serial commas, will put them all back in for the book version.

When Mallary writes for her blog, she includes them. “I like them,” she says. “They make things clearer.” So the editor who took out my serial commas fights to keep her own. It’s like being a Yankee fan married to a Red Sox fan. You can’t win.

To own a preference is one thing, to peddle it another, so let’s test the value of the serial comma in a paragraph that contains two of them, from author Michael Paterniti:

But the Mississippi isn’t open for baptisms today. A momentary upriver thaw has set it loose with high water, and by the time it’s made St. Louis, by the time it’s been birthed from its first trickles out of Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, picked up speed and caught the blue pulse of the St. Croix River south of St. Paul; after it’s already borrowed the Rock River in Illinois, usurped Iowa’s Des Moines, held up the Illinois, and sucked in the Missouri, it’s one pissed and frothy mother rushing with alluvium, sturgeon, and pebbles from pre- history. (from Driving Mr. Albert)

I count 97 words in that passage. The first sentence contains only eight words. That means the author is asking the reader to manage an 89-word sentence, a clever, flowing description, the length of which mimics the actions it describes. Just as a river needs banks, a sentence like this needs just the right punctuation to keep the meaning from flooding our ability to comprehend. That semicolon in the middle provides visual relief and lets the reader take a quick breath. The commas help the author organize two great lists: “borrowed the Rock River in Illinois, usurped Iowa’s Des Moines, held up the Illinois, and sucked in the Missouri” and “rushing with alluvium, sturgeon, and pebbles from pre-history.” Deleting the serial comma leaves holes in the trousers of the story. When I see that final comma followed by “and,” it alerts me that I’m coming to the end of the list and prepares me for the next one.

Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post thinks there’s more at stake here than just a few missing squiggles on the page: “If all this involved only grammar, I might let it lie. But the comma’s sad fate is, I think, a metaphor for something larger: how we deal with the frantic, can’t-wait-a-minute nature of modern life. The comma is, after all, a small sign that flashes PAUSE. It tells the reader to slow down, think a bit, and then move on. We don’t have time for that. No pauses allowed. In this sense, the comma’s fading popularity is also social

An alternative view comes from the punk band Vampire Weekend when they ask the musical question “Who gives a f— about an Oxford comma?” The answer, boys, is “I do.”

Apparently, so do the readers of 538. A majority voted to include it. There is hope for this democracy yet.

Read more

Editor Definition in English Dictionary.

How to report without editors

I was once asked by a top newspaper editor if I could help make his reporters more productive. Now they were responsible for three stories a week. Could I coach them to produce six stories a week? My answer was: “I could, but I won’t.”

I did not want to enable the ownership — which was cutting staff — to tell the big corporate lie: that they could do more with less. My reluctance, while principled, now seems hopelessly naïve and nostalgic. We’ve lost journalists by the thousands. Those who remain on newspapers, even as they cling to their jobs like cats on a clothesline, are being asked to perform miracles.

Their jobs, in cities like Louisville, Kentucky, are about to get harder. The Courier-Journal, once a great American newspaper, has fired some key editors. The paper’s editor, Neil Budde, says he is using these losses to re-imagine the structure of the organization, not an unusual managerial move in the digital age.

Several editors will be replaced by a “content editor” who, Budde told WFPL’s James Miller, will serve as something of a “coach”:

There is a role in this organization labeled as content editor. In some ways I might think of it more as content coach. Somebody who will be working with the reporters, helping them shape their stories and their ideas along the way — probably, less hands-on editing. Although, obviously, some part of it will be editing. But I think in the past we have had editors who were fairly aggressive in reworking stories for reporters. There is a little more expectation that the reporters are more independent and produce stories that are in better shape and with some work, a lot of that is also in the coaching process.

To unpack this statement, it appears as if:

  • A content editor will assume some of the roles of the traditional assigning editors.
  • That this content editor will do more front-end work with reporters.
  • That this coaching of reporters will help them produce stories that require less repair on deadline.
  • That reporters will be asked to act more independently, assuming responsibilities and making choices that were once directed by editors.

I certainly know some reporters who might be tempted to raise the roof in exultation at such developments. Reporting without editors? Halleluiah! Who needs a ball and chain?!

Such a reflex, we know, is misguided. (That’s what happens when you have no guides.) In fact, reporters will now have fewer mentors in crafting the truth in the public interest. Gone with their editing titles and bigger salaries and fixed costs are news leaders who best know the community. Who will remind the reporter to get the name of the dog? Who will remember that the name of Nat ‘King’ Cole once appeared on the marquee of the Lyric Theater in Louisville?

But let’s look at this in a productive way. How can a coaching editor – with whatever title – best contribute to an industry experiencing such unsettling change? When I was hired in 1977 by Gene Patterson, editor of the St. Petersburg Times, I became one of the first writing coaches in American journalism. With Don Fry, I would write the book “Coaching Writers,” which is now out of print. The purpose of the book was not to replace editors with new-age coaches, but to persuade editors to coach their reporters not just direct them in an old-fashioned command-and-control, assembly-line process.

Editing should be consultative. Coaching reporters in the long run was better than fixing copy. Coaching was the human side of editing. “I didn’t know editing had a human side,” said one editor. He should know.

“Coaching Writers” makes this distinction between coaching and fixing:

  • The editor coaches the writer. The editor fixes the story.
  • The editor coaches through the process. The editor fixes on deadline.
  • Coaching develops the writer. Fixing gets the story in the paper.
  • Coaching builds confidence. Fixing undercuts the writer.
  • Coaching builds on strengths. Fixing identifies weaknesses.
  • Coaching unites writer and editor. Fixing divides them.
  • Coaching fosters independence. Fixing creates resentment.
  • The coaching editor inspires risk taking. The fixer leans on convention.
  • The coaching editor questions and listens. The fixer directs.
  • The coaching editor shares control. The fixer takes control.

I’m guessing there are plenty of reporters out there thinking: That would be nice, but I don’t have any kind of an editor. No coach. No fixer. The way I write it is the way it goes in the paper. There is no chapter in the book titled: “How to coach yourself.” Maybe in some future electronic edition there should be. If a re-imagination of the newsroom in difficult financial times results in a place with far fewer editors, then reporters will have to create new ways of growing in their craft. Until that new chapter is written, here are some preliminary thoughts:

  • Good front end coaching will result in copy that requires less fixing.
  • The most important points of consultation are two: before the reporting takes place and just after, before the lead is written.
  • If reporters want more coaching, they should seek it out. If you sit at your desk waiting for it, you’ll be waiting for a long time.
  • If there are any copy editors left at your newspaper, cultivate them, feed them, adore them. They are your lifeline on deadline.
  • In the absence of editors, create a system among reporters in which you edit each other’s work and offer feedback.
  • With less backup, strengthen your system of fact-checking. (Remember: if more mistakes get in the paper as a result of fewer resources, IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT, even if you are blamed for it.)
  • Find coaches and editors outside of your news organization who might be willing to look at your stuff and suggest ways you can get better. These helpers can focus on your craft or on the content of your beat.
  • Praise good editing and good coaching when you get it.
  • Ask your content editor or coach how you can help them.
  • Take responsibility for the development of your own career.
  • Keep an updated resume and look for an escape hatch.
Read more
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Top 8 Secrets of How to Write an Upworthy Headline

The best thing I’ve read about the story sharing network Upworthy was written by Katy Waldman for Slate and was republished in my local newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times. I had been alerted earlier by colleagues to a now famous trademark of Upworthy’s approach to information sharing: its three-line headline style.

That style…

See Why We Have An Absolutely
Ridiculous Standard of Beauty In
Just 37 Seconds

…has been praised for being irresistibly attractive and attacked for being cynically exploitative. For the moment, I don’t have a dog in that fight.

My angle is on the writing front. I spent some time on Upworthy and paid special attention to the headlines to determine not just what the writers were trying to do, but how they were trying to do it. If you, dear reader, want to master this mini-genre, take a look at the recurring moves and strategies:

Screenshot of’s page Monday, June 16.

1. Be outraged by injustice. A high percentage of the headlines I read signify a story or video describing an injustice, or showing an inspiring challenge or remedy to that injustice. It is an old move in journalism to attract eyeballs by provoking outrage. (Recently on the local news was a video of a bus driver slapping an autistic boy.) In some cases people do what the writer considers the right thing. Or they do the wrong thing. The key is that the reader recognizes that the writer feels a sense of injustice and invites readers to feel the same way.

2. Be amazed or inspired. There is a kind of traditional news story that goes by the crude title, “Holy shit, Martha, take a look at this.” It describes that moment at breakfast when one member of the family reads something bizarre, funny, or off-beat, as a recent case in which a family cat saved a toddler from an attack by a neighbor’s dog. Earlier in the morning my wife Karen is usually checking her Facebook page when she will call out, “Roy, come here, you’ve got to see this.” That is the Facebook-sharing instinct that Upworthy is determined to provoke.

3. Build an engine. Author and teacher Tom French was the first to use the word “engine” to describe a fundamental motif that energizes a narrative. By definition, the engine is a question that can only be answered by reading the story. The classic engines are “who done it?” or “guilty or not guilty?” But there are smaller engines as well, as simple as “You do not want to miss this video,” which inspires reader curiosity. What is in this video that I do not want to miss?

4. Use numbers to suggest the reader is getting a lot of stuff in a little time. If you want to write for Upworthy, you need numbers, numbers, numbers. The numbers can be big or small, but they have to predict the reading experience. What you will learn in 37 seconds. The six questions that will reveal something shocking about new moms.

5. Don’t be afraid of classic attractors: sex, celebrity, miracle cures. This is not the cover of Cosmopolitan with its inevitable lists and teasers about the dozen reliable ways you can please your man in bed. But Upworthy, in spite of its loftier mission and purpose, recognizes the universal attraction of certain Pavlovian stimulants. If you can combine these elements: a celebrity who, since he began walking his dog along the beach, has improved his sex life: Bingo.

6. Play with language and don’t feel squeezed by the traditional boundaries of headlines. None of the traditional headline taboos seem to matter at Upworthy. At three lines, these heads are longer than the standard. They ask questions. They use the first person. They repeat words. The play with language beyond the traditional tabloid puns. Beneath the content of the story is the underlying message: we are dedicated and curious people who really care about the world and want to share its wonderful diversity with you.

7. Put odd and interesting things next to each other. Elsewhere I have noted how authors will take two elements that do not belong together and juxtapose them, creating a tension that generates interest and light. Everything from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “The Glamour of Grammar.” Put the word Alaska in a headline about the Amazon. Put the word Doughnut in a story about the Homeless.

8. Tell the story in the headline. The three lines in an Upworthy head are often capable of explaining the narrative in a nutshell. That efficient use of language “tells” the reader what the story is about, then the video “shows” that story, fulfilling the promise of the headline.

What follows are 15 recent Upworthy headlines with my glosses underneath:

Most Of These People Do The Right Thing, But The Guys At The End? I Wish I Could Yell At Them.
Create an engine. Hint at outrage. Don’t be afraid to use the first person.

She Didn’t Think She Had A Problem With Gay People, But Anderson Cooper Cleared That Right Up

Use the name of a celebrity – either for good or for bad. Expose bias or hypocrisy.

This Is The Most Inspiring Yet Depressing Yet Hilarious Yet Horrifying Yet Heartwarming Grad Speech

Use pronouns provocatively. What is “this”? Never use one adjective when you can use four. Refer to a genre (a grad speech) that often creates interesting, outrageous, embarrassing, yet revealing effects.

When You Sexualize Men And Women Equally, It’s Amazing How Much Fun You Can Have

Sex sells. Amazing sells. Gender equality sells. Sex and Fun together sell.

WHOA: 4 Questions That Got 120 Rapists To Admit They Were Rapists
Lists work. Numbers work. “Rapists” is sensationalism, which is repeated. WHOA is demotic speech, the dialect of the common person. Holy shit, Martha, effect.

America Has A Dirty Little Secret, And This Congressman Just Exposed It
The word “secret” almost always works in a headline because readers turn it into an engine. What is the secret? “Dirty little” secret adds an outlaw element. We know that some Congressmen expose themselves, so those two words together feel like scandal. And what is IT?

A Man Slams Down A Bigoted Question So Hard He Brings Down The House

A little misdirection and double entendre helps. The first time I read this, I thought a man would ask another man an insensitive question, and that man would be slammed down by a witty or passionate rejoinder. But the man in question is a poet involved in a poetry “slam,” and he asked the question to himself as part of his routine. Just a hint of bait and switch.

A Dude Trying To Ban Abortions Is Asked A Question He Never Considered. It’s So Obvious It Hurts.

More speech of the common man by calling a politician “dude.” What is the question? We need to know.

Here’s What Happens When You Put A Few Little Kids In A Room With 2 Dolls In 2 Different Colors

Numbers seem to matter: a few little kids, a room, 2 dolls, 2 colors. We seem to like social experiments, candid camera exposes.

Matt Damon Asked A Cheery 13-Year-Old What She’ll Do With Her Free Time. Her Answer Gave Him Pause.

This may be the least successful. Story turned out to be much more interesting than the headline. Matt helped give access to clean water to a village in Haiti. The girl no longer has to hustle three hours a day for clean water. Her answer was “play.”

How about:
Matt Damon learns life lesson from cheery Haitian girl who no longer must hustle for clean water. What she will do with her free time with surprise and touch you.

1/3 Of The Fish We Buy And Eat Is Not What It Says It Is

Hint of scandal and outrage here. Numbers count again. If it is not fish, then what can it be? I love a head in which all 14 words are one syllable.

You Won’t Guess How One Ingredient In Your Doughnuts Could Be Leaving Thousands Of People Homeless

This is an old trick: put two things together that don’t quite belong, and then suggest causality between them. One thing in your doughnut leaves thousands homeless.

It’s Twice The Size Of Alaska And Might Hold The Cure For Cancer. So Why Are We Destroying It?
The answer to the riddle may be obvious to some: the Amazon jungle. Even so, there is a second part of the riddle that is not so obvious, and serves as an engine: How does something that’s bigger than Alaska provide an opportunity for a miracle cure? And how do you destroy something that big?. Question upon question.

Why Is a City That Can Barely Keep Its Schools Open Giving Millions to A Mega Corporation?
Outrage, generated by the seeming exploitation of a vulnerable institution (the schools) by a powerful one (corporation). City government to blame. Always hate the bully.

Watch This On A Day When The Earth Feels Broken. It Proves We Can Find Beauty in Broken Things.
Emotional, poetic language. Healing wisdom. Repetition of word “broken,” but shifting of context from broken to beauty. Which things? Read more


What Harry Potter teaches about naming killers

My colleague Al Tompkins has written about the journalistic imperative of using names whenever we can, including the names of mass murderers. To withhold those names in the hopes of not romanticizing the killer – and not inspiring demented copycats – is an abdication of responsibility by the journalist. We need to know everything we can about the people who terrorize society – and that begins with their names.

I stand with Al on that opinion and would add another layer to his argument in the form of this sidebar: Withholding the name of the killer may have the opposite of the intended effect.

My argument comes not just from the journalism tradition of naming, but from a much larger cultural tradition in which naming is seen as a source of power. We see this in the Judeo-Christian tradition and throughout Western literature, from the way God grants Adam dominion over the animal world by giving the him the power to name the animals. We see it again in a children’s story such as Rumpelstiltskin, in which the only way to foil the evil imp is to learn and then speak his name.

To name something is to own it. To name something is to exercise power over it.

He who must not be named from the Harry Potter movie (Flickr photo by Alex Light

A more recent example of this effect occurs in the seven books that constitute the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling. In infancy, Harry survives an attack from the most evil wizard in the world, Lord Voldemort, known widely as “the Dark Lord.” Many in the magic world will lose their lives until Harry defeats Voldemort in the end.

Throughout the seven books only Harry and the good wizard Albus Dumbledore have the courage to speak the name “Voldemort.” When they do, others cringe. He is known by them as “You Know Who” or “He Who Must Not Be Named.”

Even when the biggest story of them all emerges, the headline writers of The Daily Prophet, the primary news organ or wizards and witches, will not alter its policy of not naming: “He Who Must Not Be Named Returns.”

But Voldemort is not the Dark Lord’s real name, just a name adopted by him to enhance his power. His real name is Tom Riddle, and the moment that Harry calls him “Tom” is the moment we know that the evil wizard is doomed.

As Justin Kaplan and Anne Bernays write in The Language of Names, “New name equals new identity equals newfound power.”

To name serial killers is not to romanticize their actions or to grant them some kind of mythic status. Out of courtesy, the name of the killer need not be emphasized during those especially sensitive moments when we are writing about the lives of his victims.

While we can understand the instinct to not name – or sympathize with the stated purpose of not encouraging imitators – there is more weight to the counter-argument: that we owe it to the public to try to answer that most difficult of journalistic questions “why,” and we cannot possibly find an answer without beginning with the “who,” and the first piece of meaningful evidence of character is likely to be a name. Read more


Friendly Fire: learn its history before you use it

An Afghan police officer stands guard during a campaign rally in the Paghman district of Kabul, Afghanistan. Five American troops were killed in an apparent coalition airstrike in southern Afghanistan, officials said Tuesday, in one of the worst friendly fire incidents involving U.S. and coalition troops since the start of the war in 2001. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

The recent death of American forces in Afghanistan by what is called “friendly fire” invites a discussion of the meaning and history of that term. Should journalists use it as standard language for a certain kind of military accident? Should it be avoided as euphemism or propaganda, the way some writers avoid “collateral damage”?

What I’ve learned about the term comes from a variety of dictionaries, including the OED; an overview on Wikipedia; and a useful commentary from 2007 on the Language Log website by Ben Zimmer. Read more


How Don Zimmer’s baseball card inspired my book on short writing

I was at a baseball game in St. Petersburg, Florida, Wednesday night when news filtered through the stands that baseball legend Don Zimmer had died. His death was not broadcast by the stadium announcer or flashed on the giant video screen.

Almost everyone at Tropicana Field seemed to have a cell phone, and, as the news spread on social networks, it also spread by word of mouth. A friend even showed me a photo on his phone of Tampa Bay Rays coach Tom Foley – who wears Zimmer’s number 66 as a tribute – crying at the news in the dugout.

Don Zimmer was a baseball legend fueled, not by his talent (he was a .235 career hitter), but by his longevity and the rich variety of his experiences:

  • He knew Babe Ruth.
  • He played with and befriended Jackie Robinson.
  • A pitch fractured his skull, rendering him unconscious for two weeks, ushering in the era of the batting helmet.
  • He played six different positions, including catcher.
  • He coached and managed several teams, including the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cubs.
  • He wore the uniform of six World Series champions.

But the best evidence that Zimmer was a baseball man for life was this fact: “He and Miss Jean Bauerle were married at home plate in Elmira, N.Y., August 16, 1951.” How did I know this? Because I owned a replica, created in 1995, of a 1954 Topps baseball card. There it is as a caption on the back, right under a cartoon illustration of husband and wife, with his teammates in uniform standing around as witnesses.

I am holding that baseball card in my hand right now. And I am struck, suddenly, how it fits in my hand almost exactly in the dimensions of my cell phone. I decided to measure them, and it turns out that both baseball card and iPhone screen are 5 cm wide. The card is just a bit longer, 7.75 cm vs. 7 cm for the phones on which fans were reading the news of Zimmer’s passing.

Let me say it again for the record: that my iPhone and a replica of an antique baseball card have almost the same aspect ratios.

I can look at the images on my phone in either the vertical or horizontal position. Guess what? One side of my baseball card has a vertical colorized image of Don Zimmer, a head and shoulders shot with the Brooklyn Dodgers logo in the top right corner. A small black and white action pose sits in the lower right. But the back is organized horizontally. If you turn the card from front to back it has the same feel as if you switch the phone image from North and South to East and West.

I recently wrote a book about the power of short writing, and I say with confidence that whoever designed the back of the 1954 baseball card for Topps would have been a genius in the digital age. The amount of information contained in about six square inches of space is truly phenomenal; not to mention the efficient use of multiple forms of communication. This is, by any definition, a multi-media production, and multi-sensory, if you include the bubble gum.

Consider these elements:

A bio-box in the top left corner:

Height: 5’9”
Weight: 160
Bats Right
Throws Right
Home: Treasure Island, Fla.
Born: January 17, 1931

A text block to the right

Don was leading the American Association in Home Runs and Runs Batted In, July 7, 1953, when he was struck in the head by a pitch, missing the remainder of the season. A sure-handed Shortstop, he entered pro ball at Cambridge in 1949, seeing action in 71 games. Don has aspirations to someday become a Major League manager.

The prose is straightforward and accessible for an audience of primarily young sports fans. In retrospect, those three sentences carry some historical weight. Don’s head injury led to the mandating of batting helmets – and it should not escape us that this may have been one of the earliest attempts to deal with the effects of head injuries in sports, an issue that we continue to face in 2014.

Data visualization
Long before the era of what is now called “Big Data,” few baseball statistics were made available to the public, except in box scores in newspapers. Topps aggregated baseball statistics and found visually compelling ways to display them, using color contrast and a variety of typefaces. Consider how much data is stripped across the middle of the Zimmer card. There is room for 13 separate categories of data on parallel lines. As a child, I learned reading from the text blocks, and I learned practical math from the stats.

Features and illustrations

Even with all this information – words and numbers – there is room for not just one but two captioned illustrations, a lovely blend of language and visuals. Under the logo “Inside Baseball,” we learn that “Don led the Pony League with 23 Home Runs at Hornell in 1950.” But the lower right panel provides the payoff: “He and Miss Jean Bauerle were married at home plate in Elmira, N.Y., August 16, 1951.”

Thanks to a tip from Clay Luraschi at Topps, I now know the name of the designer of the early cards, including 1954. His name was Sy Berger, and this interview with him late in his life describes how he and an artist, Woody Gelman, designed the modern baseball card on his kitchen table. Not only did he imagine the images on the front, but he aggregated and curated the statistical information featured on the back.

Berger knew his audience: kids obsessed with baseball in the 1950s when families began to spread from the cities to the suburbs and when television brought baseball into your living room. The cards had to be colorful, informative, stackable, and portable. Kids would collect them. (My boss says he still has about 10,000.) But kids would also trade them and flip them in a variety of competitive games. One day, the kids would grow up and buy and sell them as part of a huge Baby Boomer collectibles market.

I don’t know how much money Sy Berger made in his many years with the Topps company, but I imagine he could have made another fortune working for Microsoft or Apple.

Back to Don Zimmer
A reference to Don Zimmer occurs on page 24 of my book “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.” The chapter encourages writers to “Study short writing wherever it finds you,” not just in text messages or on social media sites. Pay attention to short writing in fortune cookies, on cereal boxes, on candy valentine hearts. And, yes, on baseball cards. I wrote:

It was from these brief texts in small print on the backs of pieces of cardboard that I learned not just the background of the players but the rules of the game, its history and traditions, and, best of all, its language and slang. A “blue dart” was a line drive. A “can of corn” was an easy pop fly. “Chin music” was a pitch up and in.

The chapter ends with this epilogue:

Just a few days ago I ran into Beau Zimmer, a young Florida journalist and a grandson of Don Zimmer. “Please extend to your grandparents my warmest wishes on their sixtieth wedding anniversary,” I said. “I know they were married at home plate in Elmira, New York.’’
“You must have owned his baseball card,” said Beau.

I once read a book by a rabbi who did not believe in an afterlife. He said that if you want immortality, there are three things you can do: plant a tree, write a book, have a child. I now think there may be a fourth: be on a baseball card. Read more

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The ‘cinematic slow-motion effect’ of Laura Hillenbrand’s ‘Seabiscuit’

[What we all need leading up to a Triple Crown horse race is an essay about the rhetoric of punctuation. So here it is, adapted from a chapter in my book The Glamour of Grammar. Don’t worry, there is an actual connection to horse racing. I have chosen to analyze a special passage from a special book, Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand. A close reading of her prose will reveal how a champion among writers uses every trick in the book to create special literary effects.]

Whenever we concentrate on the rules of grammar and punctuation, we run the risk of veiling the creativity and flexibility available to authors who think of them as tools of meaning and effect.

Let’s take as an example a splendid passage from Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book Seabiscuit, a stirring narrative history of one of America’s legendary racehorses. In this scene, Hillenbrand describes the mystical glory of Seabiscuit’s last great stretch run in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap: Read more

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Coming clean: notes on becoming an honest writer

I’ve written four books since 2006, and I’m at work on another. But for every book that reaches publication, I have at least one (sometimes two or three) proposals rejected.

One of them was to be called “The Honest Writer: A Guide to Originality.” I stumbled upon my proposal last week and delivered part of it to a group of college teachers gathered for a conference on academic integrity. Having dusted it off for them, I thought I’d show it to you. It includes, you should know at the start, a list of some of my literary sins over the years. The purpose of such a list is not to insist that everyone cheats, or, as they say in the sports world: “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” I write more in the spirit of “The Confessions” of St. Augustine. I’m not trying to impose on any writer challenges I haven’t experienced myself. In that spirit, here’s my take.

*   *   *

Not long ago, I was editing a book manuscript when I came upon the phrase “fierce discipline,” which I had used to describe the capacity a writer needs to cut words, phrases, whole sections from drafts of his or her story. The phrase stopped me cold. Was it original to me, or had I encountered it in another essay or work of literature, a poem perhaps? If the phrase was not fully mine, should I attribute it (if I could find a source), or should I choose a different phrase, “exacting standards,” perhaps? I found myself disabled by what Harold Bloom described as “the anxiety of influence.”

But why? It was as simple and neurotic as this: I am considered an expert on writing and questions of plagiarism and did not want to be blown up by my own improvised exploding device. I could read the tabloid headlines in my nightmares: Ethicist Turns Plagiarist. And then, for the first time, I enlisted the tools of technology to protect me. I Googled the phrase.

I found 662 links to “fierce discipline,” none of which I recognized. Here is a sample:

–“She exercised a fierce discipline, worked hard and excelled in her studies.”

–“Are you willing to summon fierce discipline and crafty willpower not only to pump up your career ambitions but also to refine your approach to intimacy?”

–“On the contrary, putting the customer first is a fierce discipline that the market imposes on producers.”

–“Finally, ‘The Incident in the Cellar’ brings a wayward young wife home to face the fierce discipline she’s put off far too long.” (This turned out to be a kinky story about spanking!)

My search led me to two useful conclusions: 1) that this phrase “fierce discipline” was not (or at least not yet) a cliché. Remember, Google found only 662 matches, as opposed to 116,000 for “called on the carpet,” and almost two million for “face the music.” And 2) “fierce discipline” was used frequently enough so that no one writer could claim ownership. The phrase, though not original, was not common either, so I preserved it in my essay.

As I sat back and contemplated the significance of this process, I realized that I had stumbled upon the use of a search engine to test the reliability of my language. Or, to put it another way, I had discovered a tool of originality. We need more of them.

*   *   *

The best thing you can say about my writing is that it’s honest. I’ll take creative, powerful, illuminating, moving, or sexy. Give me original, thought-provoking, poignant, edgy, or courageous. Tell the world, O Critic, that my prose makes “Crime and Punishment” read like Dick and Jane. If none of these apply, I’ll settle for honest.

For the writer, in school or on the job, honesty is not just the best policy; it’s also the best insurance policy, protecting you and your reader from every form of literary malpractice. Honesty will keep you out of trouble.

Let’s imagine, for example, that you are tempted to steal the work of another writer, an act that we can trace to the earliest expression of poetry and prose, an act committed by some of our most famous authors and public figures. Tempted to commit what I once called “the unoriginal sin,” you wonder if you can get away with it. What are my chances of getting caught? In our time, literary piracy is not only easier to commit, via the Internet, but also easier to detect. Believe me: You may attend a tiny college in a small town surrounded by desert, but if you rip off part of a Maureen Dowd column for your school newspaper I guarantee that some scrofulous blogger living with his mommy half a continent away will detect it, and news of your transgression will travel round the world with the speed of light. And your life will have been changed forever.

*   *   *

If I were to write a book called the “The Honest Writer,” it would describe five primary forms of writerly dishonesty, all of which can get you into hot water, some cauldrons being hotter than others. The House of Dishonest Writing, which sends up its chimney the Stench of Scandal, can be entered through these passageways:

• Plagiarism: the intentional, fraudulent use of another person’s language or ideas without giving proper credit.
• Fabrication: Using significant fictional elements in a work that purports to be non-fiction.
• Deception of the Reader: Breaking the implied contract with readers about the nature of the work, its contents and its methods.
• Lack of Transparency: Using controversial or experimental methods without appropriate and responsible signals to the reader.
• Lazy Inattention to Craft: “I didn’t mean to plagiarize. I just kept sloppy notes and thought that paragraph was mine.”

*   *   *

Writing can be hard work, so it’s easy to see why inexperienced writers of every age might be oblivious to the standards and methods of the honest writer. I know this from my own experience. If I’m going to write a book called “The Honest Writer,” then I’m the writer in the world most obliged to be, well, honest. So I tell you, in all honesty, and with some feelings of vulnerability, that I have committed a number of the acts I’m going to ask you to avoid. Most of these false steps were taken when I was young, untutored, and unaware of academic or professional standards; but some came later, when I should have known better. If Oprah Winfrey grilled me on national television, I’d have to confess to these missteps:

–In high school, I would, on occasion, fabricate the quotations and footnotes for a term paper: “‘The ranks of the Roman army were made up of rogues, scoundrels and thieves, the dregs of Roman society,’ wrote Victor L. Duncan in his book March across Civilization (New York: Dunbar Press, 1937), p. 256.” Everything in this kind of citation was bogus, and I could count on a busy teacher – long before the Internet — not being able to track down all my references.

–In college, I lent a friend a term paper I had written a year earlier. He said he just wanted to use it for research, but I knew he would copy it word for word, which he did. If you were smart like me, the way to avoid being pegged as a nerd was to help the brain-impaired cheat on papers and examinations. My great teacher, Rene Fortin, gave me an A+, but the same paper only earned Cheater Boy something like a C-.

–A friend of a friend got in some academic trouble and needed a good grade on a paper to pass the course. My friend recounted his friend’s plight and, before I knew it, I was taking $50 to write his work for him. This is the first time I can remember dumbing down my work so his teacher would not be too suspicious. This required some awkward phrasing and the occasional comma splice or run-on sentence.

–Although I would one day become a journalist and journalism teacher, I was trained in English literature, so I was comfortable with the idea of a “higher truth.” Truth – with a capital T – was more important than literal, verifiable reality, so I took a couple of shortcuts in some of my earliest freelance writing. In a column on ideological disagreement in the Catholic Church, I made up the story of two parishioners who listened to the same sermon but arrived at radically different conclusions about its meaning. Such divergence of opinion was common in my experience as a Catholic, but I came to realize that my “composite character” was taboo in traditional nonfiction.

–As a young assistant professor, I was asked to introduce U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin of Watergate fame to a college audience. In my introduction, I borrowed a long passage, unattributed, from a nifty introduction to a book about the senator. I received great praise later for the spirit and humor of my words, and came to feel guilty that I had used another’s creativity without giving due credit. It may not have even occurred to me that I should attribute words I was borrowing for a short, public, but unpublished address.

–I’ve written and published personal essays that I now realize were way too casual in their methods. I usually settled for the most entertaining version my memory could conjure, rather than one that had been or could be verified. In the same sense, I have written narratives that, though original and truthful, were not as transparent as they should have been. My techniques were experimental enough that the reader deserved to know not only what I knew, but how I knew it.

I will not be the first author to declare he needed to make a journey from potential wordsnitch to wordsmith. In fact, some other much-more-famous writers make me feel like an archangel of honesty and originality. In his book “Stolen Words,” Thomas Mallon describes transgressions by the likes of Laurence Sterne and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The great New Yorker writer, Joseph Mitchell, would reveal in a 1992 anthology of his stories that 10 of 36 stories – all assumed to be factual – were, in Mitchell’s words, “fictional.”

A more impressive malefactor appears to be John Hersey, whose book “Hiroshima” is considered to be among the great works of nonfiction in the 20th century, and whose essay, “The Legend on the License,” is held up, including by me, as a powerful manifesto on the need for honesty and straightforwardness in nonfiction. Yet, according to Ben Yagoda and Kevin Kerrane, a story that Hersey wrote in 1944 depended upon a composite character to describe the experience of a soldier returning home from the war. And, more damning, Anne Fadiman has argued that one of Hersey’s most famous books, “Men on Bataan,” was plagiarized from her mother, a correspondent for Time magazine. She concludes, from other evidence, that Hersey “turned out to have all the marks of the compulsive plagiarist: he borrowed repeatedly, he left extravagantly obvious clues, and – what a gifted writer he was! – he didn’t need to.” (Ex Libris, p. 111) [Author’s note: This is a real source. I didn’t make it up.]

*   *   *

I reveal my faults, and those of others, not to prove the redemptive value of confession, but to let you know that all writers, on occasion, fudge it. Those who say they never have are either a) saints, b) delusional, or c) dismissive of writing standards. I also detest the scrupulous conscience. I don’t want you to turn from the ideas in “The Honest Writer” because you fear they come from a Puritan holding a torch and looking to burn a witch. I am the witch. Ouch! That’s hot!

I failed my first driving test by driving too slowly. The inspector wanted me to get up to the speed limit, but I was unable to do so, petrified that I would exceed it and fail the test. So concerned was I about my speed, that I even drove through a red light. As a writer, you may be so concerned about exceeding the borrowing limit that your writing engine will grind to a halt.

I don’t want you, or any writer, to be paralyzed by virtue.

The other moral to my story is that I’ve had to learn my way toward honesty. It did not come naturally. That’s why this book will take a green light approach, pointing you to the habits of virtue more than the seductions of writing vice. The honest writer, it turns out, needs not only an inclination to do the right thing, but also the tools of originality.

I remember a research study commissioned by Reader’s Digest on the honesty of auto mechanics, who are often thought of as generically corrupt. The researchers drove a slightly defective car around the country and stopped at auto shops to get it fixed. It turned out that very few shops tried to rip off the driver, charging for unneeded repairs. Much more often the mechanics could simply not identify the problem. So this is true in automotive engineering, in politics, and in writing: In the absence of demonstrated competence, the consumer will assume negligence.

Just as the young mechanic must learn the tools of the trade, so must the inexperienced writer learn the tools of originality. Read more

Maya Angelou speaks on race relations at Congregation B’nai Israel and Ebenezer Baptist Church on Jan. 16, 2014 in Boca Raton, Florida. (AP Photo/Jeff Daly/Invision)

What journalists can learn about authorship from Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou speaks on race relations at Congregation B’nai Israel and Ebenezer Baptist Church on Jan. 16, 2014 in Boca Raton, Florida. (AP Photo/Jeff Daly/Invision)

In 2006 the Canadian scholar Stuart Adam and I co-edited a collection of essays titled “Journalism: The Democratic Craft.” It is a rich — and largely unread — anthology of work that reflects on the key aspects of knowledge that fuel the activities we describe as “journalism.”

The essays consider the essential elements of the practice: from news and evidence, to language and narrative, to analysis and interpretation. Stuart and I begin the collection with six essays on “Authorship and Craft,” written by writers as diverse as George Orwell, V.S. Naipaul, Joan Didion, Salman Rushdie, and Robert Stone.

Toward the end of the process, I stumbled upon an interview with a famous author I found so compelling, so writerly — if there is such a word — that I argued for its inclusion.

The picture that emerged from this writer was of an artist committed to the truth but also to experimentation; to particularity and universality; to discipline and eccentricity — in short, to the achievement of a kind of crazy command of the English language that changed her, and changed us all.

That author was Maya Angelou, who has died at the age of 86.

Before I describe some of what I learned from listening to Angelou talk about her craft, let me offer our rationale for including her interview in an anthology about journalism. Stuart and I wrote: “The decision to include novelists and poets in a book directed at journalists turns on a belief that reporters, as much as writers of other literary forms, are authors. Journalists create original texts; they authorize a view of events and reality on the basis of their own work and reflection; they publish (or broadcast) what they write. So in our view, apprentice journalists will benefit from considering how serious authors — novelists as well as journalists — reflect on their work.”

Angelou was known as much or more for her autobiographical works, such as “I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings,” as for her poetry. She referred to such work as “autobiographical fiction” and offered candid descriptions of methods — such as composite characters — that blurred the lines between fiction and non-fiction. In that sense, her work can fairly be judged in a class with other genre-bending authors, such as Norman Mailer and Truman Capote.

While she was crafting a narrative truth, she never wavered from the essential elements of her childhood story. In a 1990 interview in front of a live, New York audience, she told George Plimpton of the Paris Review: “I was raped when I was very young. I told my brother the name of the person who had done it. Within a few days the man was killed. In my child’s mind — seven and a half years old — I thought my voice had killed him. So I stopped talking for five years.” She becomes the caged bird who must learn to sing.

Her life has been so rich that it provided her with materials for multiple volumes of autobiography. Here’s a summary from reviewer John McWhorter in the New Republic: “From the hardscrabble Depression era South to pimp, prostitute, supper-club chanteuse, performer in Porgy and Bess, coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, journalist in Egypt and Ghana in the heady days of decolonization, comrade of Malcolm X, eyewitness to the Watts riots.” He left out calypso dancer!

Of all her testimony, I find most charming (and consoling) the recitation of her elaborate rituals of writing, eccentricities that seem so idiosyncratic they can teach us how to embrace our own essential craziness as writers.

They begin in a hotel room. Wherever she lived, Angelou would rent a room in a local hotel. This room would serve as her writing studio. She would demand that all the pictures be taken down from the walls of the room. She would bring to this room the tools of her trade, as Plimpton describes them: “a bottle of sherry, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, and a Bible.” He left off a deck of playing cards.

She would arrive in the room about 6:30 a.m., climb atop the bed and write until about 12:30 p.m., her writing elbow rubbing on the bed sheet until it became calloused. On such a schedule, she could produce a dozen pages a day, which she would edit down to three or four at home in the evening.

Why no pictures on the walls? “I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room, and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything. No milk-maids, no flowers, nothing. I just want to feel and then when I start to work I’ll remember.”

Why the playing cards? For solitaire, to create a trance-like feeling of openness and “enchantment” that would unleash the traumatic memories of her youth.

Why the Bible? To experience the language in its most elevated and inspiring forms. Why the sherry? Why not? But especially as a reward for completed work.

Writing is a funny business, in the end. There is something Platonic about it, the way all of us must find our way to the universal categories of work: from finding an idea, to discovering a focus, to imagining a structure, to revising all aspects of the work. Those challenges must be met, but writers meet them in a thousand curious ways.

Angelou’s legacy is a powerful reminder. A glass of sherry to her! Read more