Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Writing Tools

My favorite bon mot on writing comes from a former editor of the LA Times: "There are only two kinds of writers, bad ones, and the ones trying to get better." If you aspire to the latter group, you must pick up Roy Peter Clark's newly-released Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. How essential? Well, let me offer my own humble testimonial: Nothing I've ever read has helped me sharpen my writing as much as this collection of tools. I think about strategies like "gold coins," "word space" and "the name of the dog" (not to mention the "power of three") every time I sit down to write a piece. I first came across these tools, by the way, on the website of the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists where Roy's the vice president and senior scholar. Now that Roy's mojo is in book form, you got it made! I called Roy to talk to him about his tools. -- Editor

VT: Why do you call them tools not rules?

Roy: When I was looking for a word to describe what I was doing I considered words like "strategies," "tips" and "tricks." I ultimately came up with "tools." I felt the metaphor would be liberating. Tools are concrete and specific: Wrench, hammer, sandpaper. I wanted people to associate writing with making things with their hands, which to me is what writing is. They're not rules because rules exist in a universe of right and wrong, and of reward and punishment. Whereas tools exist in a world of craft, of making things, of cause and effect.

VT: Are these tools only for journalists?

Roy: The original fifty essays were written for journalists because they were the audience of my website. Maybe 75% of the examples were drawn from newspaper stories and other forms of nonfiction. But the feedback I received was much broader than my intended audience. With my publisher's encouragement, the book version has been reframed. Journalists and other professional non-fiction writers will feel right at home; they'll recognize the strategies in the examples. But I've added hundreds of examples of effective writing from a wide variety of forms -- including poetry, dramatic literature and rock and roll.

VT: How do the tools help writers improve their writing?

Roy: What I find with people who use the writing the tools is that they begin to see stories differently. They begin to have a vision of the hidden machinery of what makes stories work. They also have language to define, describe and talk about what it is they're trying to do. It changes their reading, it changes their writing and it changes the way they talk about reading and writing. These are the three basic ways any writer improves.

The tools I describe in my book I'm not describing as an expert. These are things that I've learned during the process of writing the book. And that's another thing that writing does for you: It helps give real shape to a vague intuition about how something works.

VT: Now that the book is out, are you going to keep developing more tools?

Roy: One of the things I want to do now that it's out is keep the book a living document rather than something caved in marble.

VT: So that's where your new blog comes in?

Roy: The purpose of Writing Tools -- The Blog is to keep the conversation going about the craft. Each day I receive at least one fervent message from a writer who is working hard to improve. That inspires me to learn more writing strategies that I can pass along to others.

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Tuesday February 2nd 2010, 9:33 PM
Comment by: Tina C. (Cincinnati, OH)
great work

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