(by Roy Peter Clark)
Part One: Nuts and Bolts
Tool 1: Begin sentences with subjects and verbs. Make meaning early, then let weaker elements branch to the right.
- Subject and verb are often separated in prose, usually because we want to tell the reader something about the subject before we get to the verb. This delay, even for good reasons, risks confusing the reader.
- To create suspense, or build tension, or make the reader wait and wonder, or join a journey of discovery, or hold on for dear life, he can save subject and verb of the main clause until later.
Tool 2: Order words for emphasis. Place strong words at the beginning and at the end.
- The period acts as a stop sign. That slight pause in reading magnifies the final word, an effect intensified at the end of a paragraph, where final words often adjoin white space.
- Putting strong stuff at the beginning and end helps writers hide weaker stuff in the middle.
Tool 3: Activate your verbs. Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the players.
- Verbs are either active, passive, or a linking verb, which is a form of the verb to be.
Tool 4: Be passive-aggressive. Use passive verbs to showcase the “victim” of action.
- A strong active verb can add dimension to the cloud created by some uses of the verb to be, such as replacing "there were leaves all over the ground" with "leaves cover the ground."
- Active verbs move the action and reveal the actors. Passive verbs emphasize the receiver, the victim. The verb to be links word and ideas.
Tool 5: Watch those adverbs. Use them to change the meaning of the verb.
- At their best, adverbs spice up a verb or adjective. At their worst, they express a meaning already contained in it.
- A bad adverb is repetitive: "She smiled happily." A good adverb can change the meaning: "She smiled sadly."
- Look for weak verb-adverb combinations that you can revise with stronger verbs.
Tool 6: Take it easy on the -ings. Prefer the simple present or past.
- Add -ing to a verb, and it takes on a progressive sense, or a happening.
- "Wish and hope and think and pray" is stronger than "Wishing and hoping and thinking and praying."
Tool 7: Fear not the long sentence. Take the reader on a journey of language and meaning.
- While length makes a bad sentence worse, it can make a good sentence better.
- Some strategies to achieve mastery of the long sentence: It helps if subject and verb of the main clause come early in the sentence. Use the long sentence to describe something long. Let form follow function. It helps if the long sentence is written in chronological order. Use the long sentence in variation with sentences of short and medium length.
Tool 8: Establish a pattern, then give it a twist. Build parallel constructions, but cut across the grain.
- If two or more ideas are parallel, they are easier to grasp when expressed in parallel grammatical form. Single words should be balanced with single words, phrases with phrases, clauses with clauses.
- A pure parallel construction would be "Boom, boom, boom." Parallelism with a twist gives us "Boom, boom, bang," like "hither, thither, and yon," "Peter, Paul, and Mary," or "sex, drugs, and rock n roll."
Tool 9: Let punctuation control pace and space. Learn the rules, but realize you have more options than you think.
- A well-placed comma points to where the writer would pause if he read the passage aloud.
- More muscular than the comma, the semicolon is most useful for dividing and organizing big chunks of information.
- The dash has become the default mark for writers who never mastered the formal rules. But the dash has two brilliant uses: a pair of dashes can set off an idea contained within a sentence, and a dash near the end can deliver a punch line.
Tool 10: Cut big, then small. Prune the big limbs, then shake out the dead leaves.
- Brevity comes from selection, not compression, a lesson that requires lifting blocks from the work.
- Cut any passage that does not support your focus. Don't invite others to cut. You know the work better. Mark optional trims. Then decide whether they should become actual cuts.
- Targets for cuts include: Adverbs that intensify rather than modify, prepositional phrases that repeat the obvious, phrases that grow on verbs, abstract nouns that hide active verbs, and restatements.
Part Two: Special Effects
Tool 11: Prefer the simple over the technical. Use shorter words, sentences, and paragraphs at points of complexity.
- Familiarization takes the strange or opaque or complex and, through the power of explanation, makes it comprehensible, even familiar.
- Readers benefit from shorter words and phrases, and simpler sentences, at the points of greatest complexity.
- Clear prose is not just a product of sentence length and word choice. It derives first from a sense of purpose -- a determination to inform.
Tool 12: Give key words their space. Do not repeat a distinctive word unless you intend a specific effect.
- Repeat words or phrases for emphasis or rhythm.
- Some words act as building blocks and can be repeated to good effect, while distinctive words deserve their own space.
- Leave said alone. Don't be tempted by the muse of variation to permit characters to opine, elaborate, cajole, or chortle.
Tool 13: Play with words, even in serious stories. Choose words the average writer avoids but the average reader understands.
- Too often, writers suppress their vocabularies in a misguided attempt to lower the level of language for a general audience.
- A rich writing vocabulary does not require big or fancy words.
- All of us possess a reading vocabulary as big as a lake but draw from a writing vocabulary as small as a pond.
Tool 14: Get the name of the dog. Dig for the concrete and specific, details that appeal to the senses.
- When details of character and setting appeal to the senses, they create an experience for the reader that leads to understanding.
- The good writer uses telling details not only to inform, but to persuade.
Tool 15: Pay attention to names. Interesting names attract the writer— and the reader.
- The best reporters recognize and take advantage of coincidence between name and circumstance.
Tool 16: Seek original images. Reject clichés and first-level creativity.
- Using metaphors, similes, or other figures of speech which you are used to seeing in print is a substitute for thinking, a form of automatic writing.
- If brianstorming does not lead you to an inspired image, write it straight.
- Worse than clichés of language are "clichés of vision," or the narrow frames through which writers learn to see the world. E.g. victims are innocent, politicians are corrupt, and it's lonely at the top.
Tool 17: Riff on the creative language of others. Make word lists, free-associate, be surprised by language.
- Writers collect sharp phrases and colorful metaphors, sometimes for their conversations and sometimes for their prose, but this risks plagiarism.
- The notion that new knowledge derives from old wisdom should liberate the writer from a scrupulous fear of snatching the words of others.
- Always take credit for good writing you did not intend because you'll be getting plenty of criticism for bad writing you did not mean either.
Tool 18: Set the pace with sentence length. Vary sentences to influence the reader's speed.
- Long sentences create a flow that carries the reader down a stream of understanding, creating an effect called "steady advance." Short ones slam on the brakes.
- Writers slow the pace of a story for three reasons: To simplify the complex, to create suspense, and to focus on the emotional truth.
- Radical clarity eases the reader into a story with short sentences and paragraphs, where the stopping points give the reader time and space to comprehend, but there is enough variation to imitate the patterns of normal conversation.
- Short sentences can achieve not only clarity, but also suspense and emotional power. Some call this the "Jesus wept" effect.
Tool 19: Vary the lengths of paragraphs. Go short or long— or make a turn— to match your intent.
- When the big parts fit, we call that good feeling coherence; when sentences connect, we call it cohesion.
- The paragraph is essentially a unit of thought, not of length. All sentences in a paragraph should be about the same thing and move in a sequence.
- While a writer can break a long paragraph into parts, they should not paste together paragraphs that are short and disconnected.
- A short paragraph, especially after a long one, to bring the reader to a sudden, dramatic stop.
- A solid, unified paragraph can take a turn in the middle, or demonstrate the logic of cause and effect.
Tool 20: Choose the number of elements with a purpose in mind. One, two, three, or four: each sends a secret message to the reader.
- If a writer wants the reader to think something the absolute truth, the writer should render it in the shortest possible sentence.
- Telling two characteristics invites the reader to balance them, weigh them against each other, compare and contrast them.
- Three characteristics allows us to triangulate further characteristics, and provides a sense of the whole, such as "beginning, middle, and end."
- Listing four characteristics can list and expand, but can also twist the wholeness of three: "That girl is smart, sweet, determined, and neurotic."
Tool 21: Know when to back off and when to show off. When the topic is most serious, understate; when least serious, exaggerate.
- If the subject is serious or dramatic, let the story tell itself. If the topic is playful or inconsequential, then the writer can show off.
Tool 22: Climb up and down the ladder of abstraction. Learn when to show, when to tell, and when to do both.
- At the top of the ladder is general and abstract language; at the bottom is concrete evidence. Beware of the middle rungs.
- Metaphors and similes help us understand abstractions through comparison with concrete things, working both ends of the ladder.
- "Can you give me an example?" will drive the speaker down the ladder. But "What does that mean?" will carry him aloft.
Tool 23: Tune your voice. Read stories aloud.
- Voice is the sum of all the strategies used by the author to create the illusion that the writer is speaking directly to the reader from the page. No effect is more important or elusive.
- Voice is influenced by: The level of language, the "person" or point of view, the range and source of allusions, the frequency of metaphors and figures of speech, sentence length and structure, degree of neutrality, and framing of material.
- To test your writing voice, read your story aloud to hear if it sounds like you. Do this to test what the deletion of an unnecessary phrase does to the rhythm of the sentence.
Part Three: Blueprints
Tool 24: Work from a plan. Index the big parts of your work.
- Good work has parts, and the reader who sees the big parts is more likely to remember the whole story.
- If you cannot write the outline from a story, then you cannot discern the parts from the whole, and this is a problem of organization.
- An outline, or even subtitles, reveal a movement of theme, logic, and chronology that readers can perceive and remember.
Tool 25: Learn the difference between reports and stories. Use one to render information, the other to render experience.
- Readers read for two reasons: information and experience. Reports convey information, stories create experience. Reports transfer knowledge, stories transport the reader. Reports point us there, stories put us there.
- Transforming information to a narrative, who becomes character, what becomes action, where becomes setting, when becomes chronology, why becomes cause or motive, and how becomes process.
- By combining story and report, the writer can speak to both our hearts and our heads, creating sympathy and understanding.
Tool 26: Use dialogue as a form of action. Dialogue advances narrative; quotes delay it.
- In many ways dialogue defines a story because its power drags us to the scene and sets our ears to the action.
- A good quote introduces a human voice, explains something important, frames a problem or dilemma, adds information, reveals the character or personality of the speaker, and introduces what is next to come.
- Most quotes are displaced because they are spoken above or outside the action, and not in the action. But dialogue is not just heard, but overheard.
Tool 27: Reveal traits of character. Show character-istics through scenes, details, and dialogue.
- Too often, writers turn abstractions into adjectives to define character. The reader who encounters character adjectives screams silently for examples, for evidence.
- The best writers create moving pictures of people, images that reveal their characteristics and aspirations, their hopes and fears.
Tool 28: Put odd and interesting things next to each other. Help the reader learn from contrast.
- Ironic juxtaposition is the fancy term for what happens when two disparate things are placed side by side, each commenting on the other.
- Examples include valley girl meets demons (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Hitler meets musical (The Producers), and murder meets Christmas (Holidays on Ice).
Tool 29: Foreshadow dramatic events and powerful conclusions. Plant important clues early.
- Playwright Anton Chekhov wrote "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it," a foreshadowing device called Chekhov's Gun.
Tool 30: To generate suspense, use internal cliffhangers. To propel readers, make them wait.
- A cliffhanger creates suspsense, a word derived from the Latin suspendere, "to hang under." Suspense leaves the reader, and sometimes a character, hanging.
Tool 31: Build your work around a key question. Stories need an engine, a question that the action answers for the reader.
- The engine is the question the story answers for the reader. If the internal cliffhanger drives the reader from one section to the next, the engine moves the reader across the arc from beginning to end.
- Create a cast of characters for your stories by asking the question: Who has something at stake here? The answer can lead to the creation of a story engine.
- The premise of Othello is, "Jealousy destroys itself and the object of its love." Its engine could be, "Will Othello's jealousy destroy him and the woman he loves?"
- The engine and its themes are distinct. "What is Rosebud?" is the engine of Citizen Kane, but its themes explore politics, democracy, and America.
- Some stories are driven not by what questions, but by how. For example, we know that Bond will conquer the villians and get the girl, but we are driven to know how.
Tool 32: Place gold coins along the path. Reward the reader with high points, especially in the middle.
- A good start is its own reward, and crafty writers know enough to put something shiny at the end, a final reward. But put gold coins in the middle to reward the reader, and for motivation.
- A gold coin can appear as a small scene or anecdote, a startling fact, or a telling quote.
Tool 33: Repeat, repeat, and repeat. Purposeful repetition links the parts.
- Repeating key words, phrases, and story elements creates a rhythm, a pace, a structure, a wavelength that reinforces the central theme of the work.
- If you're worried about too much repetition, delete all the repetition and read the passage aloud without it. Repeat the key element once. Repeat it again. Your voice and ear will let you know when you've gone too far.
Tool 34: Write from different cinematic angles. Turn your notebook into a camera.
- An establishing shot captures the setting in which action takes place, describing the world that the reader is about to enter, sometimes creating a mood.
- A middle distance shot is closer to the action, close enough to see the key players and their interaction.
- A close-up shot gets in the face of the subject, close enough to detect anger, fear, dread, sorrow, irony, the full range of emotions.
- An extreme close-up shot focuses on an important detail that would be invisible from a distance.
Tool 35: Report and write for scenes. Then align them in a meaningful sequence.
- Tom Wolfe argues that realism is built on "scene-by-scene construction, telling the story by moving from scene to scene and resorting as little as possible to sheer historical narrative."
- Scenes can be witnessed or, in fiction, invented, but they can also be remembered.
- Scenes can be arranged in space as well as in time, can be used to balance parallel narrative lines, shifting from the perspective of the criminal to the cop, and can flash back in time, or look ahead.
Tool 36: Mix narrative modes. Combine story forms using the broken line.
- A movement between narrative and analysis both instructs and delights the reader.
- Any story that begins without the news requires a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, a zone that answers the question "So what?"
- With the broken line form, the writer can begin with narrative and move to explanation, or begin with straight information and then illustrate the facts with an anecdote.
Tool 37: In short works, don’t waste a syllable. Shape short writing with wit and polish.
- The author of a great big novel will waste a syllable, but in an ocean of words the reader will not notice. But the shorter the story form, the more precious is each word.
- Brevity gives short works a focused power; it creates opportunity for wit; and it inspires the writer to polish, to reveal the luster of the language.
- Longer works can contain powerful, witty, and polished shorter elements: anecdotes, scenes, descriptions, vignettes, set pieces that can be lifted out of the work for inspection and delight.
Tool 38: Prefer archetypes to stereotypes. Use subtle symbols, not crashing cymbals.
- Good writers can be original by standing on a foundation of narrative archetypes, a set of story expectations that can be manipulated, frustrated, or fulfilled in novel ways on behalf of the reader.
- Examples include: the journey there and back, winning the prize, winning or losing the loved one, loss and restoration, the blessing becomes the curse, overcoming obstacles, the wasteland restored, rising from the ashes, the ugly duckling, the emperor has no clothes, and descent into the underworld.
- When it comes to powerful writing, a symbol need not be a cymbal. Subtlety is a writer’s virtue.
Tool 39: Write toward an ending. Help readers close the circle of meaning.
- In written compositions, the author can build to a cresendo, fade out, stop short, echo the opening, close the circle, tieback to the body, tell what happens last in time or space, reveal a secret or solve a mystery, show an epilogue, offer solutions to a problem, use an apt quote, look to the future, or mobilize the reader.
- Remember that other parts of your story, like sentences and paragraphs, need endings too. Each of these mini-endings anticipates your finale.
- Don’t bury your ending. Put your hand over the last paragraph, and ask yourself "What would happen if this ended here?" Move it up another paragraph and repeat the question until you find the natural stopping place.
Part Four: Useful Habits
Tool 40: Draft a mission statement for your work. To sharpen your learning, write about your writing.
- Good writers turn stories into workshops, intense moments of learning in which they advance their craft.
- Writing down your mission, covering both content and format, turns your vague hopes into language. By writing about your writing, you learn what you need to learn.
- Such mission statements are an expression of purpose, which show up in introductions or epilogues.
Tool 41: Turn procrastination into rehearsal. Plan and write it first in your head.
- To write with your hands, you must write in your head. Treat each act of procrastination as a time of mental planning and preparation.
- Eliminate writers block by lowering your standards until there is no felt threshold to go over in writing. Nothing is more liberating than no standards.
- Other strategies for eliminating procrastination: Let your fingers do the writing and not your brain, adopt a daily routine, build in rewards, write earlier to discover the information you need instead of over-researching, discount nothing, rewrite, eliminate negative words from your vocabulary, dispose of distracting tasks, find someone who praises productivity and effort, and keep a daybook for fleeting ideas.
Tool 42: Do your homework well in advance. Prepare yourself for the expected— and unexpected.
- Good writers fill a reservoir of knowledge they can drain at a moment’s notice. As Hamlet said, "the readiness is all."
- Homework should answer what the point is, why this story is being told, and what it says about life, about the world, about the times we live in.
Tool 43: Read for both form and content. Examine the machinery beneath the text.
- Reading other works for content and form informs you of what you're trying to build, and what tools you need to build it.
- When you can't put a story down, put it down and think about what magic propels you from paragraph to paragraph, page to page, chapter to chapter.
- Pay attention to the voice of the writer, undeveloped story ideas, and new storytelling forms. Read bits of books for taste, books directed by your writing compass, books on topics outside your discipline, and read with a pen nearby.
Tool 44: Save string. For big projects, save scraps others would toss.
- Use a simple file box to save items, anecdotes, and statistics about a topic. It will fill up without effort, creating a literary life cycle: planting, cultivation, and harvesting.
- Grow several crops at a time, fertilizing one even as you harvest another.
Tool 45: Break long projects into parts. Then assemble the pieces into something whole.
- At the front end, book projects seem impossible to get your arms around. Break long projects into parts, long stories into chapters, long chapters into episodes to make the task of writing a book tractable.
Tool 46: Take an interest in all crafts that support your work. To do your best, help others do their best.
- If your story is well edited, accompanied by a powerful photograph, on a page that is well designed, it will look more important and more people will read it.
- Take an interest in all of the associated literary crafts, like copyediting, photography, and design, and make nice with people who come forth to help you.
- Think of copyeditors as champions of standards, invaluable test readers, your last line of defense.
- Learn to meet your deadlines to give others time to do their jobs. Even if you lack the authority to convene conversations, encourage early planning that includes all key players.
Tool 47: Recruit your own support group. Create a corps of helpers for feedback.
- Work on developing the support system you need and deserve, including a cheerleader, an disinterested reader willing to answer your questions, expert helper who matches your topic, and a coach who helps you figure out what needs work.
Tool 48: Limit self-criticism in early drafts. Turn it loose during revision.
- To become a fluent writer, one must silence the internal critic early until enough work has been done to warrant evaluation and revision.
- Pretend to write for a friend pleading, "Tell me more. Tell me all you can. I want to understand more about everything you feel and know and all the changes inside and out of you. Let more come out."
- But during revision, the self-conscious application of all writing advice will turn you to stone if you try to do it too early, or if you misapply it as orthodoxy.
Tool 49: Learn from your critics. Tolerate even unreasonable criticism.
- Don't fall into the trap of arguing about matters of taste or defending your work against negative criticism. Explain to your critic what you were trying to do, thereby transforming arguments into conversations.
- Even when an attack is personal, in your mind deflect it back onto the work.
Tool 50: Own the tools of your craft. Build a writing workbench to store your tools.
- Sniff around for news, then explore ideas, collect evidence, find a focus, select the best material, recognize an order, write a draft, and finally revise and clarify.
- The focus of a story can be expressed in a title, a first sentence, a summary paragraph, a theme statement, a thesis, a question the story will answer for the reader, one perfect word.
- Don't dump all your research into a story or essay. Use a sharp focus to cut tempting material that does not contribute to the central meaning of the work.
- Such a blueprint for writing not only demystifies the process, but will help you diagnose problems, account for your strengths and weaknesses, and build a critical vocabulary for talking about your craft.
Last modified 06 April 2022