Writing Tools: Roy Peter Clark provides tools for improving your writing.

Walter Cronkite

Accept praise for something great in your story – even if you didn’t mean it

We writers say we want more praise for our work, but, when it comes, we are often not ready to accept it. We are better at absorbing the blows of negative criticism, perhaps because we suffer from the impostor syndrome, that fear that this is the day that we will be found out, exposed as frauds, banished to law school.

If you are one of those writers who fend off criticism, this essay is for you. As I learned years ago, praise can come at some surprising moments, and for surprising reasons. When it arrives, let it wash over you like a waterfall.

My career in journalism was launched by a short essay I wrote for the New York Times in 1974. It was called “Infectious Cronkitis,” and an editor at the Times by the name of Howard Goldberg told me later that while he liked the essay, he really liked that title.… Read more

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Afghanistan

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

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Thursday, Mar. 27, 2014

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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Monday, Mar. 24, 2014

Photo of male and female hands with pens by the monitor during discussion

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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Friday, Dec. 20, 2013

Gift bag (Depositphotos)

For procrastinators: 6 gifts for writers

Christmas is just days away, but there’s still time to grab last-minute gifts — with rush shipping or a dash into your local retailer — for the journalists in your life, whether they’re minimalists or high maintenance.

Here are a few suggestions:

1. For the journalist with a sweet tooth

Vosges Chocolate Library confections come in chocolate gift boxes with a variety of choices, including a Milk or Dark Bacon Bar Library for $25, which combines hickory smoked bacon with milk or dark chocolate, and a Chocolate Bar Library with 12, three-ounce chocolate bars inside a Vosges signature book. While the signature book is $99, smaller chocolate boxes can be purchased for as low as $8.50 for the Mini Chocolate Bar Library.

Washington, D.C.-based journalist and author Tiffany Hawk is a big fan.… Read more

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Friday, Nov. 15, 2013

An undated photo of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. (AP Photo)

What writers and speakers can learn from the Gettysburg Address

Editor’s note: Nov. 19 is the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, arguably the most famous speech in American history. In his new book How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times, Roy Peter Clark devotes the chapter “Surprise with brevity” to an examination of Lincoln’s speech. It is reprinted here with permission of publisher Little, Brown.

In the fourth grade I memorized and delivered the Gettysburg Address to my parochial school classmates. I can’t remember the assignment that inspired my performance, but I do recall that I was more parrot than poet, reciting Lincoln by rote with no understanding of historical context or of the meaning of individual words and phrases, beginning with “Four score and seven…” The only “four score” I knew was a grand-slam home run at Yankee Stadium.… Read more

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Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013

rpc

Have you lost that writing feeling? Is it gone, gone, gone…?

The dialogue with a stranger on a plane often goes something like this:

Stranger:  “What do you do for a living?”
Me:  “I’m a teacher.”
Stranger:  “What do you teach?”
Me: “I teach writing.”

The response from the stranger is almost predictable. Odd looks. Nervous laughter. Usually followed by an admission that he doesn’t like to write, or that she tried to write in school once but it didn’t work out, or that he has to write as part of his job — but hates it.

Even professional writers will confess their loss of passion for their craft.

So do we hate writing? Or does writing hate us?

This feeling has many different names: writing anxiety, writing apprehension, writers’ block, paralyzing procrastination, aversive conditioning. … Read more

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Wednesday, Oct. 02, 2013

Chat

Why stories need a focus … or do they?

If there is one writing lesson that Poynter has taught for more than three decades now, it’s that good stories need a sharp focus.

I once heard my friend Chip Scanlan say that all parts of the writing process amount to these three words: focus, focus, focus.

We focus the:

  • Story idea
  • Reporting
  • Structure
  • Ending
  • Language
  • Revision

And, yes, we probably even focus the focus.

I have compared focus to the way that the eyedoctor tests you for new lenses. The image is supposed to get sharper and sharper with each slight correction.

But there’s always a big but, isn’t there?

How do we account for great works of art that defy all attempts to declare a focus? Does Hamlet have a focus? Or Moby Dick?… Read more

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Thursday, Sep. 19, 2013

Chat

How to write longform stories

You knew it was only a matter of time until the author of “How to Write Short” would turn his attention to “How to Write Long.”

It turns out that long and short writing are not necessarily in conflict. Think for a moment about your favorite magazines. Compared to newspapers, the long stories in magazines are longer, and the shorter pieces are shorter. It’s the combination of short and long that make a publication versatile for readers.

Although I’ve met some writers who tell me “I want to write shorter,” that is the exception.  Most writers I know — including me — want to go longer. The daily beat reporter wants to do a Sunday feature. The Sunday feature writer wants to do a series.… Read more

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Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013

Writingshort2

Introduction to ‘How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times’

(Editor’s note: “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times” is the fourth in a series of writing and language books written by Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark and published by Little, Brown, beginning with “Writing Tools,” “The Glamour of Grammar,” and “Help! For Writers.” The Introduction to his new book is reprinted here with permission of the publisher. The book just came out today.)

Cover of Clark’s new book.

Introduction:  When Words Are Worth a Thousand Pictures

At this moment, the right pocket in my jeans contains more computing power than the space vessel that carried the first astronauts to the moon. My Apple iPhone 4GS stores all of Shakespeare’s plays, a searchable source I can use for quick reference. More often, I use my mobile phone for access to what are no longer being called “new” forms of information delivery: blog posts, e-mails, text messages, YouTube videos, 140-character tweets, and Facebook updates, not to mention games, weather reports, Google Maps, coupons, the White House, Al Jazeera, NPR, dozens of newspapers, music sites, an electronic drum set, an app that imitates the sounds of Star Wars lightsabers, one that turns your photo into an image of a zombie, and yet another invaluable resource titled Atomic Fart, which turns your mobile device into an electronic whoopee cushion.… Read more

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