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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

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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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Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013

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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.
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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.… Read more

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Thursday, Aug. 08, 2013

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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.… Read more

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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?… Read more

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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.… Read more

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Monday, May 20, 2013

Bob Woodward and Roy Peter Clark

Writing and reporting advice from 4 of The Washington Post’s best

Last Saturday I had the honor of teaching at a public writing conference at The Washington Post.  After I finished my part of the program, I spent the day listening carefully to four of the Post’s most accomplished writers and reporters:  David Finkel, Bob Woodward, DeNeen L. Brown, and Ezra Klein.

I took copious notes, wrote down anything that struck me as wise or useful, and want to share with you what I learned from them.  Please don’t take these as direct quotations, but as handwritten paraphrases containing the gist of their advice.  Particularly notable were the shared values of craft and sense of mission and purpose in a gang of four that ranged from the 70-year-old Woodward, still cranking out books, to the young phenom Ezra Klein, who is trying to re-invent how to make policy stories interesting and relevant.… Read more

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Thursday, May 16, 2013

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What writers see in life, language and literature

At the end of this essay, I will be asking for your help in writing a proposal for a new book: “What Writers See: In Life, Language, and Literature.”

What do I mean when I ask the question “What do writers see?”

I once heard of a clever writing prompt given to school children: “If you had a third eye, what could you see?” Writers, I would argue, already have a third eye. They use it to see life, language and literature in special ways.

This third eye has a number of different names. It’s called vision (and then revision), curiosity, inspiration, imagination, visitation of the muse. When an ordinary person says “I see,” she usually means “I understand.” If she’s a writer, she means that and much more.… Read more

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