Writing tips and techniques

rpc-on-accordian-100

Why I always play music during writing workshops

Roy Peter Clark plays the accordion

The most fun I have as a teacher is when I can incorporate music into writing instruction. (Photo by Armondo Solares)

I was 46 years old, and my life and time were filled by three pursuits: teaching writing, coaching girls soccer and playing in a rock band. My imagination was born, or reborn, that year in 1994.

I saw them as discrete activities. For each I wore a separate uniform, spoke a distinctive dialect and derived a different reward. It felt like a rich and satisfying life, and it was.

I would soon learn there was something more.

I was at work on the book “Coaching Writers” with Don Fry. That word “coaching” made me wonder whether there was something I was learning from coaching my daughters’ soccer teams that I could apply to the coaching of writers. Read more

Tools:
0 Comments
twitter-haiti

How one young Canadian reporter in Haiti helped turn Twitter into a storytelling tool

Twitter launched in 2006 and in less than a decade has almost 300 million users. Conceived as a social network to share information, it was gradually embraced by journalists and is now an essential tool for reporting and communication. In spite of its 140-character limit, it has also become a powerful platform for storytelling, used as a live blog or as a kind of inverted serial narrative, with each tweet a micro-scene or mini-chapter.

One of the pioneers of this use, I have argued, is a young reporter from the Toronto Star named Joanna Smith. A beat writer of Canadian government and politics, Smith was sent to Haiti to cover the effects of a devastating earthquake and early efforts to recover. This week marks the fifth anniversary of that disaster. Read more

Tools:
1 Comment
honestwriter_deposit

Coming clean: notes on becoming an honest writer

I’ve written four books since 2006, and I’m at work on another. But for every book that reaches publication, I have at least one (sometimes two or three) proposals rejected.

One of them was to be called “The Honest Writer: A Guide to Originality.” I stumbled upon my proposal last week and delivered part of it to a group of college teachers gathered for a conference on academic integrity. Having dusted it off for them, I thought I’d show it to you. It includes, you should know at the start, a list of some of my literary sins over the years. The purpose of such a list is not to insist that everyone cheats, or, as they say in the sports world: “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” I write more in the spirit of “The Confessions” of St. Read more

Tools:
3 Comments
Cow and field of fresh grass_depositphotos

When cows type: the power of the written word

My friend and Poynter colleague Chip Scanlan has called me many things over the years, including “a Philistine with a Ph.D.” I resemble that remark. In fact, I celebrate the seeming contradiction. I grew up in a working-class, television-drenched culture that immersed me in the world of The Three Stooges, roller derby, and Little Richard. On a parallel track, I experienced an elite parochial school education that pointed higher and higher to a world in which I could speak easily about Shakespeare, Aquinas, and T.S. Eliot.

One practical effect of this duality: I am never surprised by the diverse sources of enlightenment. It may come from a strange inning in a baseball game; a subway map; a Latin inscription atop an academic building; a 700-page novel; a ship’s manifest from Ellis Island; a tweet; a fortune cookie; a children’s book. Read more

Tools:
1 Comment
shakespeare_small_AP

The Shakespeare sentence that changed my writing – and can change yours

Although we do not know the exact day William Shakespeare was born, we celebrate his birthday on April 23, which brings us to the 450th anniversary of his birth. Since many of us will not be residents of this distracted globe when Will’s big 5-0-0 comes around, we should do our best to praise him now, and as often as we can for as long as we can. There is no one like him.

Those of us who have read my books or attended my classes know that I have a favorite Shakespeare sentence. It comes from “Macbeth” – or as those superstitious thespians refer to it, the “Scottish Play.” Lady Macbeth dies off stage, unable to wash the blood from her hands, no doubt. A messenger approaches Macbeth with the news. Read more

Tools:
0 Comments
Marquez_AP

Making the familiar strange: the legacy of journalist and novelist Gabriel García Márquez

This morning, on the front page of the Tampa Bay Times, I read the news that Gabriel García Márquez has died at the age of 87. He was a towering literary figure of the last century, journalist, novelist, essayist, public intellectual, and Nobel laureate. His fiction became a pillar in a literary movement known as “magical realism,” an oxymoron that elevated the work of a school of South American authors and gained it global attention.

A journalist at heart who wrote for newspapers in Colombia during the 1950s, Márquez expressed dissatisfaction with the “magical” part of the literary equation, arguing that every word he had ever written was grounded in experience.

Colette Bancroft, book editor of the Tampa Bay Times, included in her tribute to Márquez, the author’s most famous passage, the first sentences of his novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude”:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. 

Read more
Tools:
3 Comments
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
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

Tools:
8 Comments
Grammar

Let grammar know who’s boss

So Tuesday is National Grammar Day. The first time I heard of that celebration, I thought that Poynter’s Vicki Krueger had said “National Grandma Day.”  I’m not sure it’s a good thing that grammar – especially in New England – sounds something like grandma. I prefer to remember that at one time in the history of the English language the words grammar and glamour were the same word! (That deserves an exclamation point, don’t you think?)

But even as we spend the day recognizing the importance of grammar, the question remains, “Which grammar?” Is it prescriptive grammar day, where we would mark people off for violations of standard English? Or is it descriptive grammar day, when linguists get all huffy about the ignorance and narrow-mindedness of the language scolds among us. Read more

Tools:
3 Comments
Depositphotos

The worst news ever: Negative headlines outperform positive ones

Outbrain

Put the brakes on your uplifting-content startup! The firm Outbrain found in two studies that headlines with “negative superlatives” vastly outperformed those with positive words:

Compared with headlines that contained neither positive (“always” or “best”) nor negative (“never” or “worst”) superlatives, headlines with positive superlatives performed 29% worse and headlines with negative superlatives performed 30% better. The average click-through rate on headlines with negative superlatives was a staggering 63% higher than that of their positive counterparts.

But…why? “Whereas positive superlatives may have become clichéd through overuse, negative superlatives may be more unexpected and intriguing,” Alex Bennett writes in just the most depressing, soul-destroying, heartbreaking blog post you’ll read all day. Read more

Tools:
1 Comment
Page 1 of 2912345678910...Last »