The Writing Word

In Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, the author expertly guides writers, novice and seasoned, along the rough terrain of prose. He outfits readers with a handy toolbox that makes the task of writing a little less interminable. I’ve placed Clark’s 50 tools below both as a reminder to myself and as a benefit to readers.

Nuts & Bolts

  1. Begin sentences with subjects and verbs: Make meaning early, then let weaker elements branch to the right.
  2. Order words for emphasis: Place strong words at the beginning and at the end.
  3. Activate your verbs: Strong verbs create actions, save words, and reveal the players.
  4. Be passive-aggressive: Use passive verbs to showcase the “victim” of action.
  5. Watch those adverbs: Use them to change the meaning of the verb.
  6. Take it easy on the –ings: Prefer the simple present or past.
  7. Fear not the long sentence: Take the reader on a journey of language and meaning.
  8. Establish a pattern, the give it a twist: Build parallel constructions, but cut across the grain.
  9. Let punctuation control pace and space: Learn the rules, but realize you have more options than you think.
  10. Cut big, then small: Prune the big limbs, then shake out the dead leaves.
  11. Special Effects

  12. Prefer the simple over the technical: Use shorter words, sentences, and paragraphs at points of complexity.
  13. Give key words their space: Do not repeat a distinctive word unless you intend a specific effect.
  14. Play with words, even in serious stories: Choose words the average writer avoids but the average reader understands.
  15. Get the name of the dog: Dig for the concrete and specific, details that appeal to the senses.
  16. Pay attention to names: Interesting names attract the writer—and the reader.
  17. Seek original images: Reject clichés and first-level creativity.
  18. Riff on the creative language of others: Make word lists, free-associate, be surprised by language.
  19. Set the pace with sentence length: Vary sentences to influence the reader’s speed.
  20. Vary the lengths of paragraphs: Go short or long—or make a turn—to match your intent.
  21. Choose the number of elements with a purpose in mind: One, two, three, or four: each sends a secret message to the reader.
  22. Know where to back off and where to show off: When the topic is most serious, understate: when least serious, exaggerate.
  23. Climb up and down the ladder of abstraction: Learn when to show, when to tell, and when to do both.
  24. Tune your voice: Read stories aloud.
  25. Blueprints

  26. Work from a plan: Index the big parts of your work.
  27. Learn the difference between reports and stories: Use one to render information, the other to render experience.
  28. Use dialogue as a form of action: Dialogue advances narrative; quotes delay it.
  29. Reveal traits of characters: show characteristics through scenes, details, and dialogue.
  30. Put odd and interesting things next to each other: Help the reader learn from contrast.
  31. Foreshadow dramatic events or powerful conclusions: Plant important clues early.
  32. To generate suspense, use internal cliffhangers: To propel readers, make them wait.
  33. Build your work around a key question: Stories need an engine, a question that the action answers for the reader.
  34. Place gold coins along the path: Reward the reader with high points, especially in the middle.
  35. Repeat, repeat, and repeat: Purposeful repetition links the parts.
  36. Write from different cinematic angles: Turn your notebook into a camera.
  37. Report and write for scenes: Then align them in a meaningful sequence.
  38. Mix narrative modes: Combine story forms using the broken line.
  39. In short works, don’t waste a syllable: Shape short writing with wit and polish.
  40. Prefer archetypes to stereotypes: Use subtle symbols, not crashing cymbals.
  41. Write toward an ending: Help readers close the circle of meaning.
  42. Useful Habits

  43. Draft a mission statement for your work: To sharpen your learning, write about your writing.
  44. Turn procrastination into rehearsal: Plan and write it first in your head.
  45. Do your homework well in advance: Prepare yourself for the expected—and unexpected.
  46. Read for both form and content: Examine the machinery beneath the text.
  47. Save string: For big projects, save scraps others would toss.
  48. Break long projects into parts: Then assemble the pieces into something whole.
  49. Take an interest in all crafts that support your work: To do your best, help others do their best.
  50. Recruit your own support group: Create a corps of helpers for feedback.
  51. Limit self-criticism in early drafts: Turn it loose during revision.
  52. Learn from your critics: Tolerate even unreasonable criticism.
  53. Own the tools of your craft: Build a writing workbench to store your tools.
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