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


From ancient Greece to modern Boston, how stories help us survive

The events of recent days — from the bombing of the Boston marathon to the explosion of the fertilizer plant in Texas — should remind us of the power of stories. In a daily sense and over the course of human evolution, stories help us survive. But how?

We discussed this during our most recent writing chat. Our conversation was informed by the work of Brian Boyd, a scholar from New Zealand, and the author of an important book: “On the Origin of Stories.” The title evokes Darwin and evolutionary theory. It works this way: Our brains evolved to give us language; and that language gave us the ability to tell stories, even fictional ones.

We would not have that capacity, if stories did not help the species survive in these ways:

1.… Read more

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Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013

Vague descriptions in Boston bombings hurt more than they help

My colleague Al Tompkins reminds journalists to remember the case of Richard Jewell as they cover the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings. Jewell was the security guard wrongly accused of the bombing at the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta.

But there is another cautionary tale to be told, and this one comes out of Massachusetts itself. It is not the Salem witch trials, but it can stand in that tradition of paranoia and scapegoating. It involves racial identifiers in stories about suspects.

In 1989, a young Boston man named Charles Stuart shot and killed his pregnant wife after childbirth classes, shot himself as a cover, and then told police that his family had been mugged by a black man. After a wide and aggressive dragnet by police in the city’s African-American neighborhoods, an arrest was made and Stuart identified a black man as the killer of his wife and unborn child.… Read more

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Friday, Apr. 05, 2013

Ebert at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006  (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Why Roger Ebert was a good writer

Before I tackle what made Roger Ebert a good writer, I’d like to tell  a story about why he was a good colleague and good person. It was 1978 and I was spending the year as a substitute film writer for the St. Petersburg Times.  Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were flying high with their tag-team television show, and I had the chance to interview them over the telephone.

Ebert at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006 (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

A few months later, Ebert visited St. Pete to check in on the making of a disastrous Robert Altman movie called HEALTH, a political parody so lame that it was never released, in spite of a cast that included James Garner, Glenda Jackson, and Lauren Bacall.… Read more


Thursday, Apr. 04, 2013

Immigration activists demonstrated in Miami in January.  (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

AP dumps ‘illegal immigrant’ but not neutrality

All big political wars are fought more often with words than with weapons.

Your “terrorist,” so the saying goes, is my “freedom fighter.”

Your “illegal alien” may be my “undocumented worker.”

Immigration activists demonstrated in Miami in January. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

But what if you do not see yourself as a combatant in a culture war? What if your job is to report on that war in a responsible way?  What if you see language as a gateway rather than a battering ram?  All those questions, and many more, come to the surface with the AP’s decision to dump “illegal immigrant” as a supposedly neutral news label.

But let’s begin with the language wars.… Read more


Wednesday, Mar. 27, 2013

Copy - Paste

Why we should stop criminalizing practices that are confused with plagiarism

Editor’s note: This essay represents the personal and professional opinions of Roy Peter Clark and should not be used to characterize the opinions of Poynter or the standards and practices of Poynter.org.

It is time to decriminalize certain practices now described under the rubric of plagiarism.

There has been too much loose talk about plagiarism since I first wrote about the topic in 1983. I’ll share some of the blame. The result is that serious acts of literary theft have been mixed up with trivial ones. Carelessness has been mislabeled as corruption. Clear norms of personal morality and professional ethics have been confused with standards and practices.

A classic case of overcharging occurred in 2007 when journalism teachers at the University of Missouri condemned a colleague of plagiarism after he used quotes from a student newspaper in an opinion piece without attribution. … Read more


Thursday, Mar. 21, 2013


How to influence reader response to your work

All writers learn that it is not possible or desirable to control how a reader responds to story, or even a sentence.  But you can influence reader response, and you should.

How your reader responds is a crucial consequence of the writing process. To paraphrase a famous literary scholar, you may create the text, but it is the reader who turns that text into a story.  And, as we know, each reader brings his or her autobiography to the experience of a text.

For example, I have read The Great Gatsby four times: in high school, college, as a young literature teacher and as a mature adult.  The author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, stayed the same.  The text stayed the same. But the experience of reading proved different each time — because I, the reader, was different.… Read more


Monday, Mar. 04, 2013

Tips for improving your writing on National Grammar Day

Today is National Grammar Day, a special holiday for someone — namely me — who has written a book titled “The Glamour of Grammar.”

That title still puzzles some people who think of grammar as a creaky old aspect of learning, the castor oil of learning and literacy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Grammar can be glamorous, and it can be powerful, but only if you frame it more widely than the stereotypes.

So, yes, grammar can concern issues such as why subjects should agree with verbs.  But what happens when a writer has a choice in a sentence between an active verb and a passive verb; or between a transitive and intransitive verb?

During a live writing chat, we explained how to expand the definitions of grammar to include other categories of written language, such as diction, semantics and, most important, rhetoric.… Read more


Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013

How to solve your most difficult writing problems

Every writer faces problems. In the most recent  I’ll help you figure out solutions.

Much of the advice I’ll give will derive from my book, “Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces,” which just came out in paperback. The book completes (with “Writing Tools” and “The Glamour of Grammar“) a trilogy of guidebooks on how writers and readers create meaning.

In each of these books, I take a slightly different approach to the process of writing. “Help! For Writers” focuses on common problems and tested solutions. It breaks the process down into seven steps: Getting started, getting your act together, finding focus, looking for language, building a draft, assessing your progress and making it better.

For each of these seven steps, “Help!” identifies three of the thorniest problems.… Read more

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Thursday, Feb. 07, 2013

How and when to break the rules of writing

The recent passing of former New York mayor Ed Koch reminded me of one of my favorite feature leads of all time, written in 1980 by one of the AP’s all-time greats, Saul Pett:

“NEW YORK — He is the freshest thing to blossom in New York since chopped liver, a mixed metaphor of a politician, the antithesis of the packaged leader, irrepressible, candid, impolitic, spontaneous, funny, feisty, independent, uncowed by voter blocks, unsexy, unhandsome, unfashionable and altogether charismatic, a man oddly at peace with himself in an unpeaceful place, a mayor who preside over the country’s largest Babel with unseemly joy.”

At a time when big-shot editors declared a preference for short, straightforward leads, Pett served up long, winding ones. “I once set a course record,” he told me back then, “by writing a lead that was 280 words long.… Read more

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Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013

How to get feedback on your writing

In a recent essay, I described how Tom French and I wrote our books using what I called “the buddy system.” In response, one writer tweeted: “Wish I had a buddy.”

So where do you find a buddy? And where else can you find the help you need to do your best writing?

All of us, I’ve argued for a long time now, need more writing help than is given to us.

Are you a staff writer at a newspaper? Guess what: Your editor does not have the time to give you the coaching you deserve.

Are you a freelance writer? Even if a magazine buys your story, editors may cut it on their whim, without giving you feedback or seeking your input.

Are you in a college writing class?… Read more

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