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.


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Making the familiar strange: the legacy of journalist and novelist Gabriel García Márquez

This morning, on the front page of the Tampa Bay Times, I read the news that Gabriel García Márquez has died at the age of 87. He was a towering literary figure of the last century, journalist, novelist, essayist, public intellectual, and Nobel laureate. His fiction became a pillar in a literary movement known as “magical realism,” an oxymoron that elevated the work of a school of South American authors and gained it global attention.

A journalist at heart who wrote for newspapers in Colombia during the 1950s, Márquez expressed dissatisfaction with the “magical” part of the literary equation, arguing that every word he had ever written was grounded in experience.

Colette Bancroft, book editor of the Tampa Bay Times, included in her tribute to Márquez, the author’s most famous passage, the first sentences of his novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. 

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Why no Pulitzer Prize for feature writing? Here are four theories

Once again the Pulitzer Prize board has decided to withhold a prize – this time in the category of feature writing. It is in our nature as journalists to wonder why. When this news hit the streets, I tracked down the three stories selected as finalists and tried to read into them any deficiency that might disqualify them as prize-worthy. This is not the way I like to read.

What follows is not a reported piece but an exercise in mind-reading. I have been a Pulitzer juror on four occasions — twice as chair of jury for general nonfiction books, once in commentary, and once in feature writing. The year I sat on the feature writing jury, the board chose not to select any of our three finalists, but picked a winner from another category, something that they could have done this year, but chose not to.… Read more

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What it takes to create a new kind of journalism

During the night, I tossed and turned over this question: What does it take to create something new in journalism and make it stick? The question was inspired by a Jay Rosen post tracking the progress of Nate Silver’s new ESPN venture called “FiveThirtyEight” (the number of votes in the Electoral College). I glanced at the alarm clock. It said – I am not making this up, Dave Barry – 5:38. It was a sign.

So if Silver’s efforts represent a body of work – data journalism – what exactly is it? Where does it fit in the history of other analogous journalism inventions? At first glance, data journalism is bigger than a genre, more transcendent than a beat. The word “form” feels too squishy, so allow me to call it a mode.… Read more

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Books

Why these are the ‘Ten Best Sentences’

The editors of American Scholar have chosen “Ten Best Sentences” from literature, and readers have suggested many more. They threw in an eleventh for good measure. This lovely feature caught me in the middle of a new book project, “Art of X-ray Reading,” in which I take classic passages such as these and look beneath the surface of the text. If I can see the machinery working down there, I can reveal it to writers, who can then add to their toolboxes.

With respect and gratitude to American Scholar, I offer brief interpretations below on how and why these sentences work:

Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.Read more

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A new explanatory journalism can be built on a strong foundation

I like young writers with big ideas. I met Ezra Klein last year at a public writing conference sponsored by his old newspaper, The Washington Post, and the Poynter Institute. Like his writing, Klein was sharp, smart, and quick, arguing for a new kind of approach to writing about public policy.

He said that in the digital age journalists were beginning to doubt the efficacy of what he called “the reverse pyramid,” his version of the more common “inverted pyramid.” He advocated taking more responsibility for what readers know and understand about government, policy, and all such technical issues. Sometimes this is best done in a Q&A format, or via a tidy bulleted list, forms that lead to less clutter, jargon, and bureaucratic obfuscation.

Hooray, I thought.… Read more

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Grammar

Let grammar know who’s boss

So Tuesday is National Grammar Day. The first time I heard of that celebration, I thought that Poynter’s Vicki Krueger had said “National Grandma Day.”  I’m not sure it’s a good thing that grammar – especially in New England – sounds something like grandma. I prefer to remember that at one time in the history of the English language the words grammar and glamour were the same word! (That deserves an exclamation point, don’t you think?)

But even as we spend the day recognizing the importance of grammar, the question remains, “Which grammar?” Is it prescriptive grammar day, where we would mark people off for violations of standard English? Or is it descriptive grammar day, when linguists get all huffy about the ignorance and narrow-mindedness of the language scolds among us.… Read more

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SXSW Interactive and Film Festival attendees crowd the Austin Convention Center, Saturday, March 9, 2013 in Austin, Texas.(AP Photo/Jack Plunkett)

Poynter at SXSW: Welcome back to the WED dance

Editor’s Note: Poynter will be at South by Southwest, the annual music, movie and interactive festival, March 7-16, in Austin, Texas. Look for our Poynter faculty members, Roy Peter Clark, Ellyn Angelotti and Kelly McBride, and digital media reporter Sam Kirkland. Here is the first in a series of posts on what we’ll be doing at SXSW.

One of the great libels against newspapers is that they’re averse to change. It’s true that newspapers could have changed more to forestall their decline. But they have changed — the newspaper of 2014 little resembles the newspaper of 1984.

I recall Orwell’s famous year – 1984 – as a tumultuous one in the history of the news business. Old gray papers were suddenly filled with color. Vertical columns gave way to modular boxes.… Read more

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‘House of Cards’ journalists portrayed as odd but at least they’re not sociopaths

Anyone who is up-to-date on the Netflix TV drama “House of Cards” knows that journalists play a significant role. I have something to say about that with the goal of viewing this portrayal within a historical context of fictional representations of reporters and editors. (If you have not yet binge-watched the 26 episodes, not to worry. There are no spoilers in this essay.)

Based on a trilogy of novels by former conservative British politician Michael Dobbs and a BBC miniseries, “House of Cards” shows American politics at its worst. Congressman Francis Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire (played by Robin Wright) have been aptly compared to Lord and Lady Macbeth. Nothing can quench their appetite for power. No one can stand in their way.… Read more

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Gasp! How news managers can get better at listening

Here are five signs that your boss – specifically your editor – isn’t listening to you:

1. Looking over your shoulder for the next person to enter the room
2. Looking at his watch
3. Checking her cell phone
4. Staring at a computer screen while talking over his shoulder
5. Interrupting you to run off to another meeting

Been there, seen all of the above.

We’re familiar with the signs of someone who’s not listening. But what does listening — on those rare occasions it occurs – look like and sound like?

You heard it here first: It sounds like a Danish woman.

That realization first struck me about 20 years at a seaside bar in St. Pete Beach. A Danish woman – her first name was Dorthe – had traveled a long way to interview me.… Read more

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Avoiding ‘suitcase leads’ can help reporters and readers sort out the truth

News organizations change the leads of stories all the time: to update, clarify, and correct. When it happens with The New York Times, it gets more attention, especially when the subject of the story is a political scandal.

Here is the original lead of the Times story posted Friday on Chris Christie and Bridgegate, written by Kate Zernike:

The former Port Authority official who personally oversaw the lane closings on the George Washington Bridge in the scandal now swirling around Gov. Christie of New Jersey said on Friday that the governor knew about the lane closings when they were happening, and that he had evidence to prove it.

One of the standards for judging an effective news lead is considering its length. Is it six words or sixty?… Read more

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