Advice from a master of the writing craft
Roy Peter Clark, the man who's been teaching great writers how to write for more than three decades, aims to set you free, not slap your hands over a grammar mistake
Published: May 11, 2011
Roy Peter Clark, through his 15 books on the craft of writing and long-standing role as one of our pre-eminent writing teachers, has been helping word workers for more than three decades. He has taught multiple Pulitzer Prize winners and thousands of journalists; his influence on crafting stories reaches into almost every newsroom in the U.S.
Roy Peter Clark
Photo by Kenneth Irby, for The Poynter Institute
Former Clark student Thomas French, who won a Pulitzer and became a writing teacher himself, calls Clark “the Jedi master of writing coaches.” Another Pulitzer winner, humorist Dave Barry, says, “Roy Peter Clark knows more about writing than anybody I know who is not currently dead.”
If Clark has a single message for writers, it’s his practical approach to crafting prose. He encourages writers to master the rules of grammar and English usage, but to never fear breaking them to better serve readers (it’s even acceptable to occasionally split an infinitive, as I’ve just done).
Clark’s latest writing book, The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English, is a rare creature—a grammar/writing book that has earned bestseller status and critical acclaim.
His guidebook advocates an approach to grammar that doesn’t restrict writers, but rather sets them free to be more creative. Clark is not a hovering, old-school grammarian who yells “No!” Instead, he’s been shouting “Go!” to writers for 30 years.
Born in 1948 in New York City, Clark has been director of the Writing Center at The Poynter Institute since 1979. Located in St. Petersburg, Fla., the institute describes itself as “a school dedicated to teaching and inspiring journalists and media leaders. It promotes excellence and integrity in the practice of craft.” Clark, who is also the institute’s vice president, teaches on Poynter’s campus, offers writing instruction in newsrooms across the globe, and also gives online tutorials through podcasts, videos and blogs.
Clark has embraced digital technology to communicate his writing wisdom. For example, his outstanding 2006 book, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, was actually written as a blog and distributed via podcasts before Little, Brown published it between covers.
His writing expertise has led to appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Today Show and other national television programs. The Writer caught up with Clark recently by telephone from his office.
Q: In The Glamour of Grammar, you take a “practical” approach to grammar. Does this mean writers can break “the rules”?
I’m impatient with any polarized notions of grammar. I know that there’s a decades-old struggle between “descriptivists” (who believe language is flexible) and “prescriptivists” (who believe in strict rules). My feeling is that we should take a little from both. Even “descriptivists” mostly follow “the rules” in their own work. I find this debate a false dichotomy. Instead, I like to imagine we all have a language garage where writers have a workbench and lots of different tools. Anything that helps make meaning, any language strategy that promotes communication, will have a place in this garage.
I tend to write and teach in a supportive way, so that if people are tempted to write something, they’ll feel encouraged. There’s no reason why so many people in the United States feel as if they don’t live inside the “literacy club” [people who write and read]. When I was in school, my teachers dubbed only a few students as “writers,” and these students would be encouraged to join the school newspaper or pursue a career as a writer. Now, I think about all the other students who overheard this and felt left out, feeling they couldn’t master or develop the skill of writing. No one gets good at anything without practice and encouragement.
Q: You encourage writers to ground their stories in concrete details. Why is particularity important?
The novelist Joseph Conrad writes in one of his novels’ introductions that the purpose of art is to make you see. Seeing can refer to both the visual experience of objects, but also a higher level of understanding. One of the formative experiences of my life was reading S.I. Hayakawa, who popularized “the ladder of abstraction.” Hayakawa shows that how we experience language depends on whether it’s concrete or abstract. We start with the concrete, like the ring on my finger, which is my father’s ring. It’s a physical object. But people also want to know, what does it mean that Roy wears his father’s wedding ring? Is it about reconciliation? Family loyalty? There are many possible reasons.
We often tell stories from the ground level of concrete detail, but to understand the world often requires us to move to higher levels of abstraction. The language at the bottom of the ladder gives us examples, shows us the details. Some language keeps us grounded, while some language gives us altitude. Writers need to be able to go up and down the ladder. When we see abstract language, our curiosity craves details, and you can jump down into detail. And when writers begin with details, readers assume there’s a reason behind the story, an abstract meaning.
Q: Why do you continually urge writers to strengthen their nouns and verbs, rather than relying on modifiers?
I’ve learned this myself from sources that I admire. I think of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch a century ago giving writing lessons to his students at Cambridge University in England. He’d talk about where “the muscles” are in prose style. And where the flab tends to be. You can follow that same theme through George Orwell and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. The concrete noun lets us see and the active verb helps us move. Experts on writing have always preferred strong nouns and verbs.
Even while revising my own work, I often realize how unnecessary adverbs are. I might write, “The boy’s leg was totally severed,” but then I’ll think about what severed means. It includes totally. [Adverbs, when used, should add meaning.] Think of the difference in meaning when you describe a character as “smiling happily” and “smiling sadly.” ... A writer needs to decide which words in the sentence are doing the work and which ones are decorative. The decorative word often distracts attention from the stronger word that’s doing the real work.
Q: You tell writers to “write cinematically.” Explain.
I mean it’s important for writers to look at things from different perspectives. I remember working with reporter David Finkel [author of The Good Soldiers, a book that follows one battalion during the Iraq War] when he was at the St. Petersburg Times. Finkel was assigned to report on the opening of a new Hooters restaurant. He worked hard to make sure he was seeing this event from a variety of vantages. He stood outside for a while and looked into the restaurant’s window. Later, he walked across the street, seeing it as part of another landscape. Finkel also went inside, getting close enough to read the tattoos on a customer’s arm or identify the exact kind of earring a server was wearing. This sort of thing establishes a strong sense of place. This is similar to film cinematography, having different camera angles. We need to know what things look like up close or from the top of a hillside.
I always tell young writers not to view the world only from the most predictable position. If a student is covering an anti-war demonstration, he might stand in front of the stage. I always say “go around to the back of the stage, then deep into the crowd to where you can’t hear the speaker.” The world is complicated; people experience it in different ways. The enterprising writer has to recognize those differing vantage points to accurately capture the world.
Q: What are your views on structuring a story?
Decisions about the architecture of a story are critical, but you never know when they may come. ... Structure tends to be discovered during the process of research or during the early drafting of a story. There are common problems that get in the way of finding the best structure for a story. Word processing, for example, often results in the first half of a story getting more attention, more revision and polishing, than the second half. I read a lot of stories where the beginning is crisp and the rest is sludge. The structure crumbles. I advise writers to think of their writing time as divided into thirds: the beginning, middle and end. I also recommend drafting the story early enough so they can [revise] and polish later.
Q: Why is having a good writing process so vital?
[I’ll] be addressing it in my next book, called Help! For Writers. All writers have common problems during the writing process, such as “I can’t find focus” or “I can’t find anything good to write about.” One student told me he always had difficulty “getting his stuff together” before beginning to write; I know what he means—sometimes I can’t write until I’ve spent a week cleaning and organizing my office. That’s where my process might start.
Think of a baseball player on a hitting streak. If things are working for him, he doesn’t want the coach telling him anything about the mechanics of hitting. He just goes with the flow. But sometimes you run into problems, and need to understand where you’re stuck. If you can isolate this, you can get to the next stage and reach your final destination. Writing is like that, too. If it’s working, keep going, but occasionally you might need to understand where you’re stuck, too. It’s very important for writers, and writing teachers, to be able to identify the various parts of the process so that writers can begin to talk about and modify their own process.
Q: In The Glamour of Grammar, you emphasize the importance of inventiveness in working with words. Why?
Think about all the creativity inherent in language. The soul of expression is originality. George Orwell said in “Politics and the English Language” that writers should not use expressions that they’re used to seeing in print, to avoid clichés, slogans and stereotypes. But to avoid them requires writers to stop and think about exactly what they’re trying to say and whether there’s an original way to say it. It might mean creating a new word or adapting an old word to fit their needs. Language is being invented constantly. Language should be fun, and all great writers play with words, play with word order, denotation, connotation, etc. If it isn’t fun on occasion, then what’s the point?
Q: What general advice would you offer writers looking to improve their craft and make a career with words?
The question makes me think of that ancient joke about the tourist visiting New York City who stops and asks a local, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The local says, “Well, practice, practice, practice.” Some people have more or less talent, but people who want to improve have to read the kind of work they’d like to write themselves. The three magic words I stress are “read, write, talk,” and I mean talking about reading and writing. Writing is a process, a product, a habit, an art, and serves many different purposes. It’s a way of learning and remembering. I encourage all kinds of people—young, old, professional and amateur—to give it a try, to not be afraid.
The Roy Peter Clark File
• Clark earned a Ph.D. in medieval literature from the State University of New York-Stony Brook, where he wrote his dissertation on Chaucer.
• Growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, Clark fell in love with language from listening to rock ’n’ roll: “My passion was for Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and especially, being a piano player, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Those were my language teachers,” Clark once told an interviewer from The St. Petersburg Times.
• Clark is an enthusiastic musician. After the native New Yorker moved his family to Florida, he wrote a song for his daughters called Christmas Without Snow, which he sang and then posted on YouTube. He’s also been known to play piano for his writing students before classes.
• The audio podcasts Clark created in connection with his “Writing Tools” blog (later turned into his successful Writing Tools book) have been downloaded more than 1 million times, making Clark’s podcasts one of the most popular “how-to” podcasts of all time. These are available (and downloadable) for free on iTunes.
Chuck Leddy's many author interviews for The Writer include Bill Bryson, Richard Price and Nathaniel Philbrick. He is a contributing editor for this magazine.||