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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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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What defines a healthy newsroom culture?

Earlier this month, I had the honor of conducting a writing workshop in Washington, D.C., for the writers and editors of.  It was a kick for me to work with a publication that I had read as a boy, one that, in 1963, had published a photo of my father, a U.S. Customs officer, pasting a sticker on the wooden crate that contained the Mona Lisa as she made her way on a tour of America.

The folks at NatGeo asked some great questions, and I want to answer one of them in this essay.

“You keep talking and asking questions about the ‘culture’ of this place,” asked one young man.   “What do you mean by ‘culture’?”

As is my habit, I was going to begin my answer with a dictionary definition of culture, but even the shortest one I could find was so complicated and multi-faceted that it would not provide much direction. Read more

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Yes, Virginia, it is OK for a writer to play with the form

As a boy, my favorite story genre was the cowboy movie.  As I got a little older, I left Hopalong Cassidy behind in favor of parodies of cowboy movies, the kind of thing Mad magazine produced or Mel Brooks perfected in Blazing Saddles.

No doubt, good writers learn how to fulfill the requirements of a particular writing form, whether it’s the inverted pyramid or the three-act play. One sign of mastery is the ability to parody. In order to ridicule something well, you need to discover its actual elements. That’s a lesson I learned from poet Donald Hall and his 1973 textbook Writing Well.

He includes an example of journalist Oliver Jensen making fun of the way President Eisenhower talked.  First Jensen must learn the quirks of Ike’s awkward rhetoric. Read more

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How graphic writing distorted the focus of the Rolling Stone rape story

As a Poynter source, I have answered dozens of questions now about the implications of the Rolling Stone story “A Rape on Campus,” by Sabrina Rubin Erdely.  I notice now that the title of the story is not the same as the headline on the print magazine’s cover, which reads “Sexual Assault on Campus.”

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rape-on-campusIt may just be that the problems with the story, reported by The Washington Post and others, are embedded in the tension between those two titles.  The phrase “Sexual Assault,” however disturbing, is more general and less graphic than “Rape.” Add the indefinite article, and you have something specific and more graphic, with promises of details to come: “A Rape on Campus.”

The particularity of that phrase is expressed most dramatically in the graphic scene that opens the narrative, a scene in which a particular woman enters a particular fraternity house with a particular date who betrays her to seven rapists, one of whom uses a beer bottle on her, another who utters the horrific, dehumanizing phrase “Grab its motherfucking leg.”

I almost gasped when I read that phrase, and why not?  Read more

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