Get the name of the dog, mind your word order, and other famous writing advice from Roy Peter Clark

September 3, 2019

Editor’s note: Forty years ago this week, Roy Peter Clark began working full-time at the Poynter Institute.

Since then, he’s taught countless journalists, educators, students and colleagues how to write. He’s also a prolific author, having written 18 books — the 19th comes out in January — including his classic “Writing Tools,” which has been published in eight languages with a quarter of a million copies in print.

In celebration of this 40-year milestone, we put the call out to readers and Poynter alums: What did Roy teach you? Here is a compilation of your answers.

‘He made visible … the sacred’

They are all with me, living forever in my brain and my heart. But when I first started to learn the lessons of Roy Peter Clark, I had no idea how far they would take me.

I was fresh out of Villanova University, at a Poynter fellowship for liberal arts graduates, when I met Roy. In that seminar and others, at writing workshops and from his books, I gathered his treasures: The power of three. The value in simply cutting, rather than condensing a story, in a vain effort to hold onto too many details. And at the point of most complexity, slowing down the pace.

That masterful and important work of Roy’s, which has helped writers the world over, masks even bigger work he does. By teaching and preaching his philosophy and values, he made visible for me and so many others the sacred in the world of journalism. He taught me that within often tough newsrooms, we should nurture a higher value, an atmosphere where journalists help and coach one another. And by mentoring me, helping me navigate a tough story, an editor conflict or a job decision, he showed me how to become a mentor myself. He helped me find my tribe — a tribe of storytellers.

This funny, smart man with a baseball hat who loves to eat pizza and has a generous spirit and a curious mind is one of a kind. Like the music he plays on the piano  — jazz, rock, classical —  he holds inside him all the rhythms and haunting melodies that put the soul in our work.

— Diana K. Sugg is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and the senior enterprise editor and writing coach at The Baltimore Sun.

‘A hell-on-wheels, world-class teacher’

I’ve known Roy Clark as a friend and colleague for most of my 37 years in St. Pete. Currently we share office space — a nook (furnished by Roy) in spacious library/collaboration space (also furnished by Roy). We like to refer to it as Poynter’s assisted living wing. We sit closest to the door out — but so far neither of us has taken the hint.

Two observations on Roy as master teacher:

A wise man (the late John Holt) argued that to be a superlative teacher, you needed through adult life to also be a learner — of something unfamiliar and very hard. In Holt’s case that was taking up the violin seriously and playing in middle age with teenage prodigies whose mastery he could never hope to equal.

For Roy it was beginning golf from a dead start at age 55. A difficult game, as you may have heard. Despite the misfortune of having me (an avid but average golfer) as his on-course instructor, Roy threw himself into the project for a period of years. He once shot 82. On the many days he didn’t do nearly that well, he stayed analytical about faults and fixes, eager to learn.

I have also come to understand that Roy can teach any size group, from 1,000 to five or even to one. We had a phase at Poynter of staff teaching each other. One afternoon I happened to be the only one to show for Roy’s mini-seminar on the connection between music and writing. We went ahead anyhow. I discovered (with guitar and piano demos) how songs could be constructed by permutations of just a few chords — stories, too, with the right combination of writing tools.

I leave it to others to chronicle Roy’s eccentricities and his extraordinary warmth to Poynter colleagues. But to the main point: He is a hell-on-wheels, world-class teacher. And 40 years in, he just won’t stop.

— Rick Edmonds, Poynter media business analyst

‘Now, I look for these little clues in every single piece of writing’

A few months after I first started working full time at Poynter, Roy said he would do a few free writing training sessions with some staff members. Being new and very self-conscious of my writing, I jumped at the offer.

I was nervous. Editing in Google Docs is bad enough, but having someone critique my work in real-time, to my actual human face, was almost too horrifying a thought to endure. I almost backed out. I’m glad I didn’t; that coaching session was one of the best things I’ve done at the institute. Roy went through some pieces I selected and simultaneously praised them and tore them apart, teaching me tips like:

  • Leave little rewards for readers: Sprinkle short sentences in between longer ones to give them a break.
  • Leads are everything: This cannot be understated. Make them snappy, but informative.
  • End on a high note: Put interesting words near the ends of your sentences so that readers will continue through your piece.

Now, I look for these little clues in every single piece of writing — whether it’s my own or someone else’s. Obviously, I’m still a neurotic writer. But with Roy’s help, I became a much better neurotic writer.

Here’s to 40 more years!

— Daniel Funke, PolitiFact reporter

He wrote the book — literally

We met years ago when I was there to speak to news executives about the digital efforts our newsroom was making at the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina.

I was never in one of his classes. But I encountered “Writing Tools” somewhere along the line, read it and decided to use it as my text in my feature writing course at the University of North Carolina. It — and he — has done more to help my students improve their writing than anything I told them. And along the way, he has dozens of new disciples who’ve never been to Poynter, but got the benefit of Clark’s knowledge and teaching.

— John Robinson, Stembler Professional in Residence at the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism

There when I need him

A steamy summer, divisions and confusion, whiplash changes in the news, storms and fires.

Several weeks ago, I felt frazzled and needed something soothing to read.

Pulling a book off my shelf, I relaxed with “The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.”

I opened it and on the title page was a note from 2006:

To Karen,
Who has the vision and hears the music.
Love, Roy.

My brother, Roy PC. I’ve known him since 1985. Over the years he’s shared his wisdom, provided comfort and relaxed us all (or made us nervous) with his humor.

I haven’t seen him for months, but he is still there when I need him. He is the gift that keeps on giving.

— Karen Brown Dunlap, former Poynter president

Courtesy of Karen Dunlap.

Use joy in whatever you are working on

Last year, I attended Essential Skills for Rising Newsroom Leaders at the Poynter Institute.

During the seminar, I had a one-on-one session with Roy Peter Clark. He recognized that I was very still very passionate about writing. We had a great discussion about how I can use that joy in whatever I am working on, whether it is crafting an article or editing a story.

I am still following his advice many months later.

— Alexa Huffman, digital news editor with CHEK News in Victoria, British Columbia

Making the play

Roy and I go way back to before I knew who he was. The guys in the sports department at the Evening Independent (a Florida newspaper) would tell me to call him and see if he could join our softball team so we’d have enough players for our games. We played softball together before I came to Poynter. He says he hired me because of a play I made: stopping the ball with my foot, it popped up to my glove and I made the out at second base.

We’ve worked together since 1987. We once were boss and assistant, then colleagues; now we are friends. Roy has always been the Poynter entertainer and the fun one. Life at Poynter has been better because of this talented guy.

— Bobbi Alsina, assistant to the president at the Poynter Institute

Lessons in generosity

Roy has taught me way too many things to count, and I’m sure I fail to give him proper credit in my own teaching and editing. But what stands out is that he taught me, through his own style, to be generous. He doesn’t hoard his wisdom in fear of someone else shining. Instead, he turns the spotlight on them and encourages them to fly, handing them a flight helmet as he does.

The culture of writers and journalists can be insecure and competitive. Roy is the opposite of those, and makes it possible — through the sharing of concrete tools and a rock-solid belief that there’s plenty of room in the pool, and that it’s a happier place with many, many others in it — for others to find their voice and soar.

If Roy were writing this, he’d find some apt literary reference, probably one from the Bible, to make a stronger point. Maybe something about loaves and fishes, or not hiding lights under bushels, or giving things away so they come back to you tenfold. Maybe he can edit me!

P.S. I still think he’s mostly wrong about the Oxford comma.

— Pulitzer Prize winner Jacqui Banaszynski is the editor of  Nieman Storyboard, the Knight Chair Professor Emerita at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a former faculty fellow at the Poynter Institute

Encouragement and endorsement

To those of us who taught with him and learned with him, Roy has always been the heart and soul of Poynter. I’m forever grateful for the role he played in encouraging me to join the faculty. To seal the deal, his charm offensive was pure RPC: a surprise serenade of Motown hits. I’d soon learn that repertoire was signature to his teaching. Commingling theory, song and laughter, he turned classrooms into communities.

I thank Roy for teaching us that syllabi are enriched by silliness, and that humor helps us learn. I thank him for the encouragement and endorsement that helped me launch the Poynter Leadership Academy. For his coaching and counsel that enabled me to publish “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know” — and for making sure he was the very first person to review it on Amazon. I join the legions of journalists who have benefitted from his books and lessons, his advice and analysis, and his commitment to excellence. I offer back to Roy the sweet, simple greeting he always shared with me: “Proud to be your colleague.”

Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Institute Fellow in Women’s Leadership

We all make mistakes

Shortly after I started working for Poynter.org in 2007, I wrote a story about journalists’ use of Twitter, long before Twitter became well-known. In the piece, I incorrectly used the word “carrot” instead of “carat.” Readers noticed the improper use and called me out in the comments section. If I remember correctly, some of the comments were pretty insensitive. I was so embarrassed, especially given that this was my first job out of college and I wanted to make a good impression.

I told my mentor Roy what happened, and he came to my defense. He responded to the commenters and even wrote a story about it called the “Carat and the Schtick.” In the piece, he shared lessons about homonyms, including carat and carrot. Then, in typical Roy fashion, he gave me a big plastic carrot. I still have it today, and it reminds me that we all make mistakes as writers. The important thing is that we acknowledge them, share lessons learned with others, and make light of them when we can.

— Mallary Tenore, associate director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin

1-2-3! No, 2-3-1.

Inverted pyramid, hourglass, boxes, martini glass … stories have shapes, but so do sentences. My favorite writing advice from RPC is a technique for writing more powerful sentences called Emphatic Word Order. Yes, you can actually make a sentence stronger without adding, deleting or changing a word. With this technique, you number the parts of the sentence by importance, 1 being the most important part. Then, you interrupt the order by placing the emphasis at the end. Just like this:

Forty years ago this week (1), Roy Peter Clark began working full-time (2) at the Poynter Institute. (3)

Roy Peter Clark began working full-time (2) at the Poynter Institute (3) 40 years ago this week. (1)

Breaking the construction can improve a sentence in a way that makes it more memorable. The technique is especially effective in broadcast writing where you write for the ear. A strong ending is easier to speak out loud. It also instills a strong final image that the listener will remember.

— Vanya Tsvetkova, Interactive Learning Producer, Poynter’s News University

Roy’s humor was the lubricant

Roy Peter Clark has had thousands of students over the past four decades. I count myself proud to be among them. As his successor as director of writing programs and editor of Best Newspaper Writing, my main goal was not to tamper with the foundations laid by Roy, that is, not screw up what he passed on to me.

He created the seminar model that inspired and edified journalists and established the yearly anthology of prize-winning writing and made them special by incorporating interviews that explored the process of newswriting. The lessons I learned — sitting in his office, over lunch at his table at the Fourth Street Pizza Hut and watching him teach or studying his many influential books on the writing craft — are too numerous to mention. Most of all, it was the sense of fun and play that Roy brought to Poynter’s climate that inspired me most. Laughter may not only be the best medicine; Roy’s humor was the lubricant that made learning easy and his master teaching seamless. Forty years of lessons and fun. Who could ask for more? Congratulations, my friend.

— Chip Scanlan, writing coach, Nieman Storyboard contributor and former Director of Writing Programs, The Poynter Institute

Avoid predictable and search for surprising

It’s hard to separate the lessons that Roy has taught me as a writer from the lessons that he taught me as a good friend and fellow parent. But the same theme runs through both: We have all the power we need to choose how we frame our stories.
As I writer, one of the first and most critical choices we make is to determine what story we are trying to tell: Is this about how someone became a victim? Or is this story about how someone responds to traumatic events? Is this story about the decline of newspapers or the reinvention of an industry? As my writing coach, Roy taught me that when I make this choice, I should avoid predictable and search for surprising.

The same is true of the stories we tell to our family, our friends and most importantly, ourselves. Did I forget to pick my kid up from camp because I’m a crappy parent? Or did I build a network of friends who stepped in to cover for me before I knew I needed their help? Did I spend two years and an ungodly amount of money on a crappy divorce settlement? Or did I fight like hell to make a new home for myself and my children?

Framing stories and finding the focus is true power, just waiting to claimed. Roy taught me how.

— Kelly McBride, senior vice president of the Poynter Institute

A 3D, multi-dimensional person

To many who pass through Poynter, Roy Peter Clark is simply a clever, fun-loving, piano-playing, quip-producing maestro of journalistic storytelling. And he is all of those things and more.

But just like the writing principles he so deftly teaches, Roy is really a 3D, multi-dimensional person. He’s thrived at Poynter for four decades not just because he can use the piano to teach great storytelling, but because beneath the public Roy is a person who’s deadly serious about coaching the craft of writing. He studies it. He goes looking for it. He obsesses over it.

The other thing that makes Roy special is his passion. He’s passionate about teaching, and he’s passionate about Poynter. So much so, in fact, that he even has a personalized Poynter license plate.

His dual passions for writing and the Institute were on full display when Poynter hosted the first Pulitzer Prize Centennial event in March 2016. Poynter was selected as one of four sites around the nation to host a Pulitzer Prize Centennial celebration. Ours focused on the work of courageous Pulitzer Prize winners who fought for social justice and civil rights. I asked Roy to write the script for this program, and I’m so glad that he did. It was a high-profile and high-pressure event, and we had journalism luminaries from around the country flying in for the program. We even had civil rights icon John Lewis there. But the program was a smashing success, and it was vintage Roy — a celebration of great writing, dramatic readings and, of course, powerful music. Roy was the perfect person for that assignment, and it was a remarkable capstone of his work.

Because Roy loves Poynter so much, he made me a better president of the Institute. I simply didn’t want to let Roy down. He’s never let Poynter down.

— Tim Franklin, senior associate dean, Medill School, Northwestern University

Spreading his fairy dust

I didn’t know much at 11 years of age, but I knew this: The moment Roy Peter Clark walked in the room, all of the air was sucked up.

Sitting with 20 knobby-kneed, malodorous preteens on a hot summer day at Poynter’s Writers Camp, I had no idea who this lanky, indomitable man was. But he filled that room in every possible way. He spoke feverishly about future journalists who could incite readers to become engaged citizens. He spoke earnestly about editing, teaching us how to rebuild sentences to eliminate hanging widows. While he spoke, I remember his arms moving in big sweeping motions, like he was spreading invisible fairy dust over us, 20 completely enchanted young writers.

Dr. Clark not only taught me how to write, but about the power of the written word. The moment he walked into that classroom and stole all of the oxygen, he changed the trajectory of my life. Dr. Clark unearthed in me a passion for using the written word to teach others about democracy, civil society, and social justice. Now, as an Assistant Professor of Political Science I strive to spark such passion in our next generation.

Every time that my students are so engrossed in discussion about government that they don’t want to leave class, or I edit a paper and find a hanging widow, I feel the air ripple around me. I know its Roy Peter Clark’s influence reaching the next group of future leaders.

— Sarah L. Young, assistant professor of political science at the University of North Georgia.

No editor need be nervous

At The Miami Herald, I didn’t hesitate for one second to say yes when Roy was looking for a paper to publish his serial “Sadie’s Ring.” Then the realization hit me: How do you suggest an editing change (even if there were just a handful) to Roy Peter Clark?

But he was entirely gracious in dealing with a young editor, even agreeing to record 10 “in case you missed the last installment” updates. I came away from the experience with a bone-deep understanding of how to structure a story, especially a long one, to grab readers and hang onto them.

— Paul Saltzman, Chicago Sun-Times

A champion for the underdog

Roy and I share an admiration for Eugene Patterson’s 1963 Atlanta Constitution column, “A Flower for the Graves,” about the Birmingham church bombing. I came to better understand the historical context of the column after I served as a researcher for Roy’s 2016 Poynter Institute project in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prizes. He described social justice journalism in a story for Poynter.org:

“An impassioned call for change. The author or artist must impress upon the audience that the status quo cannot and will not be tolerated. This does not mean that logic or reason is abandoned or that evidence is cooked for its emotional impact. It does mean that the tone of the message must have the rhetorical power to move the reader.”

— David Sheddon, Special Collections Librarian, Nelson Poynter Memorial Library, University of South Florida-St. Petersburg

Inspiration to storytellers and coaches

Roy gave journalists an enduring gift — a vocabulary to use with each other to make stories better. Every time I heard Roy teach, I learned another concept about writing and how to apply it. He helped me understand why a story stumbled or soared. He gave me his X-ray glasses to peer inside a paragraph. He gave me hope I could be a better editor.

When Roy’s first books were published, I could tell which journalists had read them or heard him teach. We would talk in Roy’s code: Get the name of the dog. Distribute the gold coins. Remember the magical power of three.

Roy inspired thousands of journalists to be storytellers and coaches. I loved being his student 20 years ago, and I’m blessed to see him more often now as a colleague. There he goes, strolling the hallways at Poynter in his wacky plaid sports coat and baseball cap and shorts, the guy who elevated conversations in newsrooms all over the world.

— Cheryl Carpenter, Poynter faculty

Roy nailed this one

Once my news org hired Roy to coach all its writers. I considered this an insult from the bosses. But Roy was empathetic. I told him what I needed was not to be taught how to write well, but just how to write fast. I was very stressed and felt that most of the imperfections in my work were from having too much work and not enough time. But Roy nailed this one.

He told me: Just imagine you have jumped (or been pushed?) off a tall building with a portable typewriter strapped to your chest. This has sort of worked to make me say what’s important before hitting the ground.

— Joe Davis (via story comments)

The importance of word order

Roy Peter Clark taught me the importance of “word order.”  The lesson was as simple as it was immediately useful. He said writers should put the most powerful word of each sentence at the end. Once I heard the lesson I discovered that everyone from Morgan Freeman to the Beatles used this technique.

Just examine the copy from the famous Visa commercial and imagine Freeman’s voice:

Hours before his race in 88, Dan Jansen’s sister Jane passed away.

He’d promised her he would win gold; he didn’t.

Until six years later; then, he skated a victory lap with his daughter … Jane.

The sentences end with power words, “passed away, didn’t, Jane.”  Roy says that makes the word and the thought behind it hangs in your ear.

I began examining movie lines and songs.

The most well-known sentence in “Gone With the Wind” follows Roy’s power word framework.  Rhett says “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” That “damn” was coarse and abrupt at the time.  It would have been less so if he had said “I don’t give a damn my dear, frankly” or “I don’t, frankly, give a damn, my dear.” Word order matters.

— Al Tompkins, Poynter faculty

A pleasure to edit

So much. Off the top of my head:

  • Selection, not compression
  • Zero draft
  • Ladder of abstraction

But most importantly: Roy is one of the most gifted living writers, but he was always a pleasure to edit. That was probably the most important thing he ever taught me.

— Ben Mullin, The Wall Street Journal and former editor of Poynter.org

The Queen, my lord, is dead

Put the most powerful words at the ends of sentences and paragraphs to stick the landing. The Queen, my lord, is dead.

— Alexandra Zayas, senior editor at ProPublica

A role model for many journalism educators and editors

I was somewhat skeptical of Roy Peter Clark when I first met him. After all, he was a PhD in English trying to tell journalists how to write. The PhDs I know wouldn’t even bother to read the local paper.

But Roy was a different animal and brought to the discussion a new set of eyes that opened my eyes. He talked the talk and he walked the walk. He worked at the St. Pete Times to learn more about journalism and how journalists work and produced some funny stories, including one at the last name in the phone book.

He was also willing to tackle serious stories; I note especially “Three Little Words.”

Discussions led by him were lively and challenging and enlightening. He was a role model for many journalism educators and editors.

Forty more years, I say.

R. Thomas Berner, professor emeritus of journalism and American studies, The Pennsylvania State University

Always there to guide me

There wasn’t a day in the newsroom that Roy Peter Clark’s advice didn’t stare at me from within a saved document on my desktop. When I felt inadequate for the job, as I often did, I clicked on that Word file to not only teach me how to improve my writing but, more importantly, to remind me why I wanted to tell stories in the first place. Now that I’ve left the newsroom in favor of storytelling at a nonprofit, I keep the same Clark document on my screen. I don’t have a copyeditor anymore, so it’s always there to guide me as I tell stories about mental illness, homelessness, suicide and incarceration. Thank you, Roy.

Matt Gleason, media and content coordinator, Mental Health Association Oklahoma

 

Roy Peter Clark is Dumbledore

In my wizarding world of word work, Roy Peter Clark is Dumbledore and the hallowed halls of Poynter stand tall as a figurative Hogwarts — a sacred space where magic and talent meet to create an explosion of awesome skill, delivered via inspiring lessons from one of the universe’s most inspired minds.

Roy Peter Clark is the best kind of teacher, that rare shepherd who understands that the exponential greatness of his own talent is most honored by mining, cultivating and advancing talent he finds in others. A purveyor of opportunity, perhaps his greatest contributions are the ways he’s taught so many to literally write their own tickets to the lives of their dreams. In doing this for decades, he has called to greatness some of our world’s best wordsmiths and shifted the trajectory of countless young people and professionals at every stage of their careers.

Those of us fortunate enough to have been touched by his excellence reflect his awesomeness. Thanks to his teaching, I understand the power of words and the responsibility of using stories to lift the world. I am honored to have been his student and forever grateful for his many gifts. — Kanika Tomalin, St. Petersburg, Florida, deputy mayor

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  • Wait a minute. That’s all there is? Seriously, to my friends, colleagues, former students, and readers, I return your generous praise with gratitude and the promise that I will keep this mission going: to share what I know, to build a community of writers, believing in the power of the word and devoted to public service.

    • This article makes me so proud to be his daughter!