Poynter offers mobile "Help! For Writers"

On a trip to Denmark in 2009, I sketched a plan for what turned out to be a series of live chats, an online course, a book, and now a mobile app -- all titled "Help! For Writers."

"Help!" is Poynter’s first app, its construction the work of a cross-departmental team drawn from Poynter.org staff and our online learning group at News University. It is available for $1.99 from the iTunes store. Think of it as a congenial writing coach for your pocket or purse.

A brief description of how I came to create “Help! For Writers” will, I hope, reveal what it means to be a content provider in a multimedia world. It will also serve as a description of how the app works, and whether it could work for you.

Like the character Shrek and an onion (not to mention a parfait), an app has layers. The general idea, I knew, was to offer a menu that would give the user some choices. Those choices would lead the user to a helpful or useful place.

Typical of Poynter work in writing instruction, I decided to begin with the seven steps of the writing process, which became five steps by the time we were editing the app for size. I challenged myself to create a version of the process that was different from ones I’d previously published.  For example, the last chapter of the book “Writing Tools,” uses this model:

  • Idea
  • Collect
  • Focus
  • Draft
  • Clarify

Versions of that model go back to the early 1980s, when Poynter began working with Donald Murray, one of America’s most influential writing coaches.

It was on that flight to Copenhagen that a different model began to emerge, built around these gerunds:

  • Getting Started
  • Getting Your Act Together
  • Finding Focus
  • Looking for Language
  • Building a Draft
  • Assessing Your Progress
  • Making It Better

At the end, I added another step, this one for pure encouragement:  Keeping the Faith.

For the app, the writing process was described in five stages.

A theory of the writing craft stood behind all this work: that writers follow several steps in a process, and that they run into problems in predictable ways. (For example, I don’t think I have ever met a writer who did not procrastinate, at least just a little.)

So -- now cruising West across the Atlantic heading back to the states -- I made a brainstorming list of the three most common problems writers face at each step of the process: 21 problems in all (15 of which are featured on the app).

Writers encounter different obstacles at each stage.

For example, if you are trying to “find a focus,” you are likely to have said to yourself at one time or another: “I don’t know what my story is really about.” Or “I struggle with the beginning.” Or “I have problems selecting my best stuff.”

So far, we described steps in the process and highlighted common problems for each. What comes next? Solutions, of course.

More furious brainstorming produced 10 solutions for each problem, a total of 210 solutions for the book version and 150 for the app.  What does a solution look like? Here’s a tip for finding a focus:

What clue can I plant early to foreshadow meaningful themes and events? A piece of writing works best when it leads the reader to some understanding or conclusion. Not every element can be packed into the first paragraph. But you can introduce a word or phrase or detail that pays off in the end.

If that tip doesn’t help, you just touch “Another tip, please.”

The “Help! For Writers” app is not meant as a substitute for a living coach, teacher, or editor. Nor does it have the depth of the book version, which is almost 300 pages long.

What it does have is a friendly immediacy. It imagines you sitting at a coffee shop or in an airport lounge trying to noodle through a problem in your writing. It helps you figure out on the spot: “What is not working?” And “What can I do about it.”

The more that writers work within the process, the greater their confidence grows about their ability to solve problems in an efficient and timely way.

Audio segments supplement the tips.

My favorite part of the app appears when you touch the button that is labeled “Inspire me.” It’s true that I love the sound of my own voice, and it resonates as particularly mellifluous when I am trying to encourage writers. Ten short audio clips offer insights on how to write collaboratively, how to grow a “third eye,” and how to live inside the English language.

Poynter has no plans to turn itself into an app factory. But in this singular effort, we pooled some of our most creative resources to craft yet another toolkit for writers. Under the rubric “Help! For Writers,” you now have a book, an online course, a series of live chats, and a mobile app, more than 200 solutions for the problems every writer faces.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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