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

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.

Still, I grade that now-distant experience as among the most formative of my life. It put my young brain to hard work. Read more

Tools:
0 Comments

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. The best description of the problem comes from the international reading scholar Frank Smith, who once described literacy as “a club.” Usually, something bad happens in school that persuades people that they are not fit to become members of the “writing club.”

This is a very sad state of affairs. Read more

Tools:
1 Comment

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? Or Huckleberry Finn? What makes these works great (and perhaps flawed at the same time) is a certain recklessness on the part of the writer, a sense that the story cannot be easily defined or confined by theme or “focus.”

It is OK to face the question: “What is your story REALLY about?” and answer, “It’s REALLY about a lot of things.”

 

// Read more

Tools:
2 Comments

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. A series writer wants to do a book. The book author wants to do a trilogy.

If you have had any of these aspirations and want tips on how to write longform pieces, replay out chat:

 

window.cilAsyncInit = function() {cilEmbedManager.init()};(function() {var e = document.createElement('script');e.async = true;var domain = (document.location.protocol == 'http:') ? Read more

Tools:
1 Comment

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

Tools:
7 Comments

Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013

Chat

Are you a happy writer or a sad writer?

Yesterday was a happy day for me as a writer after I received an enthusiastic review of my new book “How to Write Short.”

But what if it had been a negative review, or a hostile review, or an insulting review? I would like to think that it still would have been a happy writing day. But how is that possible? It’s because I’ve finally reached a point where my self-worth as a writer is not determined by the reaction of others: not editors, not readers, not critics.

Of course, such reaction “influences” my feelings, but it does not “determine” them.

To apply some of the principles of cognitive psychology to the writing craft, here are some of our emotional responses that I now think are “cognitive distortions”:

  • “An editor changed my story, proof that I cannot do good work on my own.”
  • I’ve received a dozen rejections on this book manuscript; I must be a terrible writer.
Read more
Tools:
0 Comments

Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013

Elmore Leonard

Remembering Elmore Leonard & his writing advice

Assuming that Elmore Leonard would be unimpressed with the imperatives of Search Engine Optimization, I will retitle this essay: “My Dinner with Elmore.”

I’ve read just enough Elmore Leonard to know that he was a brilliant writer with a distinctive American voice. Now that he has passed away, I plan to read more of him, so his words can teach me more about the craft.

Elmore Leonard

I believe it was in March of 2010 that I met the man. The occasion was the Tucson Festival of Books, one of the great literary weekends in America, and I was one of more than 300 authors invited to spread the gospel of reading and writing. An opening event at the University of Arizona brought together hundreds of authors, sponsors, community leaders and volunteers.

Picture me on one of the long buffet lines, hungry for the penne pasta. In front of me are two short men, one of whom looks vaguely familiar with a grey crew cut and owlish glasses. Read more

Tools:
0 Comments

Thursday, Aug. 08, 2013

Chat

Tips for writing short and well

With official publication date three weeks away, I am happy to hold in my hand the first copy of my latest book: “How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.”

I have never had more fun writing a book, and I hope it shows. During a writing chat, I offered a practical preview of the writing strategies described in the book.

I’ve learned a lot about short writing over the last three years and want to share that knowledge widely — especially at a time when good short writing is more in demand than ever before.

Tweets, Facebook updates, blog posts, text messages — all these newer forms of expression have brought short writing into the foreground. That said, the Internet is a bottomless pit, a container for some of the longest, emptiest pieces of writing in human history.

In our online chat we:

  • Discussed the best ways to learn good short writing.
Read more
Tools:
1 Comment

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Booksandwriting3

What writers can learn from a close reading of The Great Gatsby

I just finished reading The Great Gatsby for the sixth time. Divided into my age, that makes about once per decade. Like so many other teens, I was introduced to Gatsby in high school – just about the time the Beatles arrived in America – creating a complete mismatch between my aspirations and my learning. I knew nothing about impossible wealth or hopeless love. The book was lost on me.

With age and five re-readings comes wisdom and insight. I’ll frame the question of this essay this way: “What do I see in the novel now that I was blind to 50 years ago?” What can I learn from the novel as a writer that I can apply in my next story? How can the book become for me — and for you — a mentor text?

I could select countless passages to study, as many bright and shiny things to admire as decorated Gatsby’s mansion.I could have great fun picking at the author’s naming of people, places, and things; or connecting the image clusters related to eyes – from the faded billboard ad for the eye doctor to the owl-eyed man at Gatsby’s funeral; or discussing the archetypal tensions between the promised land of West Egg and the wasteland of “the valley of ashes”; or studying Fitzgerald’s intentional elaborations on classic themes of American literature, patterns of individual and collective renewal that can be traced back to Franklin, Emerson, Whitman, and Cooper. Read more

Tools:
3 Comments

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Storm damage in Moore, Okla., on May 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

NPR tornado report reveals the elements of vivid newswriting

Driving to work Tuesday, I heard a four-minute NPR report on the massive tornado destruction in Oklahoma. So vivid was the account — and so visual the writing — that I pulled over to write down the name of the reporter. It was Wade Goodwyn, a Texas reporter who narrates the news with a husky maturity that manages to be both urgent and reassuring.

I was not alone in my admiration. Later that day I received a message from veteran North Carolina journalist Seth Effron.  “It was a transporting description,” he wrote of Goodwyn’s story.

I am about to analyze the elements of Goodwyn’s writing that make his story vivid.  I will cite lines and passages, but you may want to experience the story firsthand before I try to undress it.

Storm damage in Moore, Okla., on May 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

A weak lead-in by David Greene and Steve Inskeep deserves little attention expect to point out a kind of logical flaw:  1) A tornado can wreck a home; 2) it can devastate a whole neighborhood; 3) it can even smash a school.  Read more

Tools:
1 Comment