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Crafting tools to help writers

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Roy Peter Clark at the Poynter Institute, St. Petersburg, Florida.
Roy Peter Clark at the Poynter Institute, St. Petersburg, Florida.

G. Ananthakrishnan

Roy Peter Clark's specialisation and passion is to teach writing. A senior scholar and vice president at the Poynter Institute at St. Petersburg, Florida, he is constantly looking for effective ways to demystify writing and train writers in a "purposeful craft" they can learn working with "tools" that can be "borrowed... cleaned, sharpened, and passed along." He has authored or edited 14 books on writing and journalism. In his most recent work,Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer(Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2006), he has assembled an essential kit that all writers can use regardless of the nature of their work. Excerpts from an interview at the Poynter Institute:

On the availability of resources for aspiring writers

I think it is a rich time when writers are talking about their craft and writing about it. There are generous and talented people who are not keeping their strategies to themselves. They are sharing them with others.

There is also much more available and free and online about the writing craft than there has ever been before. So in addition to that yes, I am old-fashioned enough that I want to be able to hold a book and carry it around with me one of the first things we did at Poynter after the book [Writing Tools] was published was to create this writing blog that offers, two or three times a week, new material, additional examples, and new tips (at www.poynter.org) . One of the great advantages is that it makes the world even smaller.

On collaboration among writers

I have seen collaboration happening on a personal basis, not on an institutional basis. The reason that my writing tools became a book is that for about a two-year period, as I was writing the tools, they were being distributed over the Poynter website. I was getting messages from journalists who surprisingly for me because I thought there would be language and cultural barriers for journalists from many different cultures writing in many different languages were interested in a practical and strategic approach to the craft. They would ask me questions and tell me that they were writing in Indonesian or another language.

One journalist wrote asking whether this strategy could be applied to Urdu. I had to say that I did not know and that he had to tell. Whether the structure of the language allowed you to position subjects and verbs in the beginning of the sentence or wherever it had to be.

With things like the Poynter website, News University, and teleconferencing, there are methods now in which these [writing] strategies can be communicated. Having said that I am still very much attached to the idea of the book something that you can hold in your hand, that is physical and finite, and that offers a comprehensive look at a topic, in this case the craft of writing.

When I buy a book about writing that appeals to me, it is comforting to know that I have it. I don't have to go and find it anywhere, it is in hand, next to my chair or computer and I can go to it when I need some advice.

The original essays on the Poynter website were written for journalists. But the book was rewritten for the broadest possible audience of writers. My journalism roots are married to my literary training and sensibilities. We took about half of the journalistic examples out of the book version and replaced them with examples from literature, poetry, expository essays, memoirs and other forms of writing. I would say it is a much richer resource because of that.

The relationship between writers and editors

I wrote another book called Coaching Writers with my friend Don Fry. This gets to the relationship between writers and editors and responsibilities of sub-editors. One of the chapters in the book talks about the importance of collaboration. If no one else would do it, writers should reach out to all the other players who would influence the quality of the work. I think there are ways in which organisations can grow and learn while evolving protocols of responsibilities of reporters, sub-editors, and others. Not just in terms of fixing the copy but consulting the writer. I think the writer is in a better position than editors to make the necessary improvements to the copy if someone would only talk to them and collaborate with them.

Each newsroom has its distinctive culture. Some newsrooms are very collaborative, some are very directive. Once you turn in the story, you lose control over that. I would not like to work in a place where that happened. I much prefer working in a place where the reporters and editors are talking with each other on the quality of the work.

Improved writing for journalists: the three paths

There are three paths to improve writing.

One is to write, which is the definition of the job, although the writer may want to write in ways that he or she is not permitted or encouraged to write in the newspaper. So sometimes you have to write outside the framework of the newspaper in order to grow. To write for yourself, or to freelance a story for a magazine or contribute something to the Poynter website.

The second is reading. What are you reading and how are you reading. If you want to write stories, you need to read better stories. If you want to write shorter articles, you need to read better shorter articles. You need to be able to experience through your reading the kind of things that you want to write.

The third thing is talking. It is usually the one that is missing. Reading, writing, and talking about reading and writing. Talking about the writer's craft, talking about strategies that work, talking about something that you are reading and sharing your ideas about how that story works. We do that so much at Poynter that I take it as sort of breathing for me. In a newspaper, it is discouraging when you don't hear anybody talking about the craft, talking in formal ways where you sit down and talk about it, and in informal ways when you are going to lunch or when you are walking down the hall.

In the U. S., the tradition has been this pendulum swing. News writing as straightforward and responsibly formulaic, [and then] experimental and more connected to story telling. I am tracing this movement all the way back to the creation of the human interest story. It was a very controversial development in the history of the newspaper business in America because attention to the human interest seemed to be a betrayal of attention to the more formal expression of politics and government and things like that. That the body of a young woman is found face down in a lake... you tell the story of how she grew up in a good family, travelled to the big city, and came under the influence of bad people. That is [an example of] an `invisible' story.

I don't see any reason why the pendulum should swing, why we should go one way or the other. These are two intersecting lines. Reporting and story telling. At some point they mesh perfectly.

On adopting the right `voice'

All stories in newspapers have voice. It is just that in many cases the voice is neutral. In other cases columnists, leader writers they are usually given more freedom to create an effect, which is an illusion that you are listening to the writer think out loud or speak directly to the reader. That is a created effect and you need certain strategies to do that well. It is not that voice is right or wrong. It is just that it is appropriate or inappropriate in terms of what you are trying to communicate to your reader.

On new forms of writing such as blogs and SMS text messaging

Text messages are telegraphic. We are back to an old technology. They have acronyms, shorthand ways of expression that are a part of the old form of communication. I think one of the interesting questions for me is what the difference is between a blog and a column. Writing online is new enough that we haven't sort of pinned down these different modes of expression, these different genres. But we will do it when we have more experience and have more conversations about it. I think the blog is already making a contribution to both news telling, news gathering, and public information. It is done in some cases in a very professional way, in some cases a very crude way.

`Cinematic angles' in writing

It is an ancient strategy. You know in the year 1000 [there was] the first significant piece of English literature, an epic poem called Beowulf. I have read it in old English and in translations. You find that the writer writes in cinematic angles. Sometimes he has the camera pulled back so that you can see the hero on the ship against the backdrop of the mountains. In the feast, you can also see the rings on the queen's fingers, you can see the red light shining in the monster's eyes. I think what happens in conventional newspaper writing is that the writers write from the middle distance. Look at these serpentine lines [pointing to a photograph] in an election in South Africa in the barren lines of Johannesburg. I want the writer to show the lines from the distance from the sky and hilltop but I also want to see another famous image of the old lady being carried to the polling booth by her two sons. I want to get up close and also step back.

It makes writing more interesting. We would not watch a movie that only showed us the safe middle distance between the camera and the source.


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