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Posted by on Apr 27, 2007 in Media | 10 comments

Writing (for Blogs, etc.): And How Not to Bore Readers

roy peter clark_1.jpg
(Photo Courtesy N. Ram — The Hindu)

Writing is a an art and a craft. Some are born with it. Others have to struggle to become good writers through hard work and perseverance. To put it in a bit of Shakespearean language: ‘It blesseth him that writes…and blesseth him that reads…’

Many people do not realise but an invisible relation/bond develops between the writer and the reader. Some consider it as sacred, while others couldn’t be bothered about it. This applies to both who write the main stories/articles or those who make comments on these.

Then there is that old debate whether one can learn good and effective writing through one’s own personal efforts and practice, or as a participatory effort in a group (without losing one’s distinct style of expression). Or by combining the two.

“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,” says Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar and vice president at the Poynter Institute at St. Petersburg, Florida.

“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 (Institute) after the book (Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer) 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.

“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.

“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.”

Roy Peter Clark’s specialisation and passion is to teach writing. 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.

The excerpts above are from Roy Peter Clark’s interview in India’s leading newspaper, The Hindu. To read more please click here…

To visit the fascinating Poynter website please click here…

To read my earlier post on bloggers please click here…

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Copyright 2007 The Moderate Voice
  • I’ve never read a book on writing that was well written nor by a writer of quality, nor one which had an interesting nor unique thing to say- they are all mere marketing ploys to suck in the gullible. It is an art and craft, but having a way with words is like being born with a gun. One can only teach someone how to aim it. But, if you’re born w/o a gun- which 99.99% of even claimed writers are, you’ll never shoot bullets.

    When one talks of strategies, what one is really stating is to follow syllabi, therefore make writing a cookie cutter thing, like MFA programs. Great writers (and artists) are notable for their individuation and uniquity. Writing books are the antithesis of that.

  • Cosmoetica:

    I suspect that Roy Peter Clark is a leftist, but he never indicated or revealed himself as such at the worshops that I attended when I was still in the biz.

    In any event, you take much too sinister a view of what Clark does for a living — and does well.

    Despite my own shortcomings as a writer, I have worked with many people over the years who were decent reporters but lousy writers.

    My own take is that you are a born writer or you aren’t, but there are things that can be done to nurse along a lousy writer. These things do, in fact, have a cookie cutter aspect to them, but that’s the way it is. Sometimes they are quite simple. For example, I have often told reporter/writers who are stuck for a lead paragraph to write the middle of the story first and then come back to the lead. It works.

    I have not read any of Clark’s books but do agree with you that I haven’t read anything book-length on writing that resonated. I do not agree that such books are ploys to suck in the gullible, but then I don’t share your abject cynicism about what seems like pretty much everything. (Do you beat your dog?)

    Clark is a gentle man who has devoted his life to helping fellow writers and I cannot imagine him writing a book merely to make money. In fact, I doubt that any of them do.

  • On this new website I’m editing books section for, Monsters & Critics, my first online interview will be w novelist Charles Johnson- who shares many of my views on the writing workshops’ horrors.

    http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/writers/313311_writer27.html

    He’s on eof the few published authors willing to talk about our deliterate culture. I’m even having to get the owners of the site to redesign the Books page to make it more reader friendly because most people are lazy.

    I know someone who knows the writer Orson Scott Card, whose made a living writing mediocre fiction and worse How To books, and it’s all about the gullible. This is why Universities cash in on deluding the gullible, as well.

    I don’t care a writer’s politics, esp in fictive works. A critic must be objective.

    BTW- Johnson also rails against the online tendency for short paragraphs and complex sentences. Just yester I got an editor at a place I post saying my sentences are too complex for average readers. The priior editor called them run-on sentences; not knowing the diff between the two. Sad.

    As for dogs. I like dogs, but love cats, and most cats are far more worthwhile than most humans I have met:

    http://www.cosmoetica.com/B59-DES27.htm
    http://www.cosmoetica.com/B51-DES25.htm
    http://www.cosmoetica.com/B476-DES408.htm

    But, keep that mind open. Butterfly nets catch all sorts of goodies.

  • Cosmoetica:

    I am relieved to hear the the animals around you are not in harm’s way.

    I’m more or less with Johnson, but I also appreciate (if sometimes wince at) amateurish aspects of some blog writing (and I’m not talking about TMV here) because there can be a kind of beauty in its rawness.

    I do not know how many articles, commentaries, book reviews, etc. that have appeared under my name over the years. Several thousand, to be sure. I do know that over time my writing has become less complex and more direct. I think I am better for that, especially if I am easier to read and understand.

    I have tried to teach this simpler-is-better philosophy as an editor, but I don’t push it. I think finding one’s writing “style” is a bit like water finding its own level.

    Finally, every writer needs an editor no matter how accomplished they are. Holly saves me from myself regularly when I write for TMV, but beyond her assists I am editor free and miss that interaction because when the editor is good the writer becomes gooder.

  • You need a ‘good’ editor, Shaun. If an editor doe not know the diff between a hyphen and dash, or a run-on or complex sentence, you’re in trouble.

    Writing today, esp. published, sucks today because of the abject failure of publishers, editors and critics to do their jobs, lest fall off the grant giving gravy train by offending someone who has a ‘connection.’

    Bad writers have always been the majority but today they are getting published for reasons unrelated to writing, another reason these How To books are irrelevant, for cojugating a verb properly (even if the ditor is competent) will still not accomplish as much as a velvet tongue (literally or not).

  • Cosmoetica:

    Amen. I am no longer shocked when I see a typo or something else that escaped an editor’s eye in an Oxford University Press book.

    Having so noted that, I am much less catholic than you when I comes to grammatical rules. My bibles are the OED, Chicago Manual of Style and Associated Press Style Book. They pretty much get me through.

  • My favorite definition an an editor is Ambrose Bierce’s:

    EDITOR (noun): A person who combines the judicial functions of Minos, Rhadamanthus and Aeacus, but is placable with an obolus; a severely virtuous censor, but so charitable withal that he tolerates the virtues of others and the vices of himself; who flings about him the splintering lightning and sturdy thunders of admonition till he resembles a bunch of firecrackers petulantly uttering his mind at the tail of a dog; then straightway murmurs a mild, melodious lay, soft as the cooing of a donkey intoning its prayer to the evening star. Master of mysteries and lord of law, high-pinnacled upon the throne of thought, his face suffused with the dim splendors of the Transfiguration, his legs intertwisted and his tongue a-cheek, the editor spills his will along the paper and cuts it off in lengths to suit. And at intervals from behind the veil of the temple is heard the voice of the foreman demanding three inches of wit and six lines of religious meditation, or bidding him turn off the wisdom and whack up some pathos.

  • Well, in cases of typos it’s the proofreader that’s needed. What gets me is so many books of fiction where the tale is so predictable- and this is supposed literary fiction.

  • Well, isn’t this the hand of fate: a spam ad in this discussion. ha!

  • The spam ad by the way is gone by the time you read it. When our new design is gone we’ll be banning a lot of these folks…and I NEVER unban anyone. It’s not welcome here.

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