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.


caution

Public fear and ‘an abundance of caution’

I wonder how George Orwell would react to a phrase that has been repeated time and again by government and university officials to justify recent stringent actions — such as quarantines and dis-invitations — in response to the Ebola crisis.

These officials say they are acting “out of an abundance of caution.”

It seems to be one of the phrases of the day, expressed by leaders who are trying to limit or eliminate contact, not just with sick people or people who have cared for the sick, but with almost anyone who has worked or traveled through countries where Ebola has spread.

Orwell was a famous critic of political speech, especially of the kind that used euphemism or passive constructions to cloud misbehavior or avoid responsibility. Read more

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dog-225

Get the name of the dog – and the nickname

dog-catThe first writing tool I ever learned came from my city editor Mike Foley: “Get the name of the dog.” What he could have added, but didn’t: “…and get the dog’s nickname, too.”

When it comes to characters in stories, nicknames are as important as names – maybe more important. Behind every nickname there is a story.

Let’s begin with the Oxford English Dictionary’s etymology and definition of “nickname.” The Anglo-Saxon work “eke” means “also”; the phrase eke-name, then, means “also name” or “another name.” When you add the indefinite article, you get “an eke-name” and over time the “n” switches over, giving us “a neke-name” or finally “a nickname.”

The definition in the OED: “A name or appellation added to, or substituted for, the proper name of a person, place, etc., usually given in ridicule or pleasantry.” This is followed by historical uses of the word in literature, including this sentence from 1710 in which Joseph Addison writes in The Tatler of a peculiar physician: “He unfortunately got the Nickname of the Squeaking Doctor.” (More about this doctor later.)

We once had a grey cat named Voodoo. Read more

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fearbola2

From AIDS to Ebola: Journalism, disease, and the mentality of fear

I remember a day back in the 1980s when I first met a person who I thought had AIDS.  I was sitting at the front desk of the old storefront building of the Poynter Institute when a tall gaunt man entered through the glass doors and approached me with a question. I have forgotten his question, but I do remember being frightened by his appearance.

He had several lesions on his face, the kind that people got after their immune system had been compromised by the AIDS virus. I did not reach out to shake his hand, my usual gesture, but babbled some reason to direct him out of the building. I am not proud of this. I just want to establish my credentials as someone capable of panicky, irrational fear. Read more

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letters

Fear not the long sentence

A year ago I wrote an essay for the New York Times titled “The Short Sentence as Gospel Truth.” It argued that authors express their most important ideas or dramatic moments in the shortest sentences. This turned out to be a popular piece, the most emailed of the day. Teachers and editors anointed the short sentence as the solution to many writing problems.

trainFrom my shot comes a rebound:  “If the short sentence is the gospel truth, then what is the long sentence?”  My best answer is metaphorical:  “It’s a journey on a westbound train.”

Editors advise, “When it comes to the long sentence, children, be afraid, be very afraid.”  In the common view, the long sentence too often spins off the tracks, a wreck on the road to comprehensibility. Read more

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HAMMERHEAD SHARK ON DISPLAY AT MANDALAY BAY RESORT IN LAS VEGAS

Shark-hunting for ‘Old Hitler’ reveals storytelling tips

When I arrived at the St. Petersburg Times in 1977, the first writer I bonded with was Jeff Klinkenberg. We were the same age. Our desks were side by side. We both had young families. Our oldest daughters became best friends. We played in a rock band together. You get the idea.

On Tuesday, Klinkenberg took a buyout from what is now the Tampa Bay Times. His announcement on his Facebook page inspired more than 500 likes and almost 400 comments. These fervent expressions of admiration and respect from readers and other writers did not surprise me.

There is pride in knowing that a great newspaper could sustain the work of such a talented feature writer for almost four decades, especially one who is so identified with a place and a culture and the odd and interesting Floridians who have created it. Read more

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J.D. Salinger

For Banned Books Week: An X-ray reading from Catcher in the Rye

File photo of J.D. Salinger appears next to copies of his classic novel "The Catcher in the Rye" as well as his volume of short stories called "Nine Stories."  (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

File photo of J.D. Salinger appears next to copies of his classic novel “The Catcher in the Rye” as well as his volume of short stories called “Nine Stories.” (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)

Earlier this year the editors of American Scholar published a dozen examples of “best sentences,” passages from classic literature worth saving and savoring. I was inspired by these and offered my own interpretation of what made them memorable. Now I’ve caught the bug and there appears to be no cure. With the blessing of Robert Wilson, editor of AS, I have chosen a number of sinewy or shapely sentences for X-ray reading, trying to understand what a writer can learn from each. (We’ll be publishing these exemplars occasion, highlighting the writing strategies that created them.)

Since this is also Banned Books Week, I begin with the first sentence of one of the most celebrated banned books of all time: The Catcher in the Rye, published by Little, Brown, which also, I’m proud to add, happens to be my publisher. Read more

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Will this go down (or up) as the year of the elevator story?

modern elevator

The year 2014 will go down as one marked by a series of troubling news events that just happened to occur on elevators, dark moments photographed on surveillance videos. Beyonce’s sister went after Jay Z in an elevator at a Met Gala party. There was a CEO of an arena concessions franchise, Desmond Hague, who lost his job when he was captured on video in an elevator repeatedly kicking a friend’s dog. And there was the most notorious and news-worthy event of all, when Ray Rice brutalized his fiancé in the elevator of a casino parking garage.

But this is not an essay about family rage, or animal abuse, or intimate partner abuse, all of which deserve public attention. No, this essay is about elevators – and the stories inside them. Read more

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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). Read more

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Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 2.53.58 PM

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. Read more

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tmz-screenshot

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. Read more

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