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

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. It is not an irrational fear. In almost every story I have written comes a moment when I must take that overly ambitious sentence and cut it in two. Read more

Tools:
2 Comments

Wednesday, Sep. 24, 2014

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

Tools:
1 Comment

Monday, Aug. 25, 2014

Calendar Pages and Clock

Want to avoid procrastination? Impose an early deadline on yourself

When I wrote “The Glamour of Grammar,” I turned in the manuscript about three months late. Not a good feeling.

Friday morning, I turned in a finished draft of my next book, “The Art of X-ray Reading,” three months early. A very good feeling.

The key part of the word deadline, remember, is not the “line” part, but the “dead” part.

Now solve this riddle: When does a deadline become a lifeline?

The answer: When it is self-imposed.

I describe the process in my book Help! For Writers:

Many writers procrastinate until the deadline roars toward them like a train, the writer standing on the tracks. Pressing a deadline is a devil-may-care form of exhibitionism, a Houdini escape from a straitjacket, just in the nick of time, fueled by adrenaline. The literary daredevil may self-medicate with caffeine or nicotine to stimulate the writing, but adrenaline remains the writer’s little helper – and the drug of choice.

Read more
Tools:
0 Comments

Friday, Aug. 08, 2014

The Kardashian Family Celebrates the Grand Opening of DASH Miami Beach

Dashes — the Kardashians of punctuation

The dash is the Kim Kardashian of punctuation marks: misplaced, over-exposed, shamelessly self-promoting, always eager to elbow out her jealous sisters the comma, colon, and semicolon.

My friend and mentor Don Fry has for years waged a holy war against the dash. Not the hundred-yard dash or a dash of paprika, but that most horizontal mode of punctuation, also known as an em dash — so named because it’s about as wide as a capital “M” in some typefaces.

Don, known as an enthusiastic exaggerator, has drummed up his opposition to the dash to ramming speed, and, truth be told, I can’t remember seeing a single instance of that mini-flatline in his own writing. He argues that writers use the dash profligately as a substitute for another more precise mark, and that the failure to learn, say, the colon or semicolon has created a dependence on the dash as the fallback punctuation tool. Read more

Tools:
13 Comments

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sochi Olympics Pussy Riot

Could the c-word soon be finding its way into news headlines?

If orange is the new black, then the c-word may be becoming the new f-word? It certainly seems that way. With the f-word drifting to more common usage, we need another word for its shock value.

When I write c-word, I do not mean “cable.” But it is on cable television where the c-word is creeping out of the shadows. Tony Soprano and his cronies used it. I hear it on episodes of the popular fantasy drama Game of Thrones, sometimes used to describe a body part, more often as a corrosive epithet against women and men.

Surprisingly, the c-word has taken on a political connotation. In his comedy routines and on his HBO show, Bill Maher has described Sarah Palin as a c—. He defends the use on First Amendment grounds: that Palin is a public figure and that nasty name calling is as old as the Republic.

In a recent episode of HBO’s True Blood, a Palin-type character is referred to as a “Republic–t” by one of the heroic vampires. Read more

Tools:
12 Comments

Monday, July 14, 2014

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

Tools:
19 Comments

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

Tools:
2 Comments

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

Tools:
11 Comments

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. Finally, somebody is getting it. Read more

Tools:
8 Comments

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. “I love giving Vosges chocolate libraries to writers. They seem to be a hit, too.”

2. For the reporter looking for a little humor

It’s hard to resist the ever popular “Keep Calm” motto that dons a variety of paraphernalia. Read more

Tools:
3 Comments