Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer

Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer

by Roy Peter Clark


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A special 10th anniversary edition of Roy Peter Clark's bestselling guide to writing, featuring five bonus tools.

Ten years ago, Roy Peter Clark, America's most influential writing teacher, whittled down almost thirty years of experience in journalism, writing, and teaching into a series of fifty short essays on different aspects of writing. In the past decade, Writing Tools has become a classic guidebook for novices and experts alike and remains one of the best loved books on writing available.

Organized into four sections, "Nuts and Bolts," "Special Effects," "Blueprints for Stories," and "Useful Habits," Writing Tools is infused with more than 200 examples from journalism and literature. This new edition includes five brand new, never-before-shared tools.

Accessible, entertaining, inspiring, and above all, useful for every type of writer, from high school student to novelist, Writing Tools is essential reading.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316014991
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 05/01/2013
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 151,522
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.15(d)

About the Author

Roy Peter Clark is senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, one of the most prestigious schools for journalists in the world. He has taught writing at every level — from schoolchildren to Pulitzer Prize-winning authors — for more than forty years.

A writer who teaches and a teacher who writes, he has authored or edited nineteen books on writing and journalism, including The Art of X-Ray Reading, How to Write Short, Writing Tools, The Glamour of Grammar, and Help! for Writers. He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he is considered a garage-band legend.

Read an Excerpt

Writing Tools

50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer
By Roy Peter Clark


Copyright © 2006 Roy Peter Clark
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-316-01498-2

Chapter One


Begin sentences with subjects and verbs.

Make meaning early, then let weaker elements branch to the right.

Imagine each sentence you write printed on the world's widest piece of paper. In English, a sentence stretches from left to right. Now imagine this. A writer composes a sentence with subject and verb at the beginning, followed by other subordinate elements, creating what scholars call a right-branching sentence.

I just created one. Subject and verb of the main clause join on the left ("a writer composes") while all other elements branch to the right. Here's another right-branching sentence, written by Lydia Polgreen as the lead of a news story in the New York Times:

Rebels seized control of Cap Haitien, Haiti's second largest city, on Sunday, meeting little resistance as hundreds of residents cheered, burned the police station, plundered food from port warehouses and looted the airport, which was quickly closed. Police officers and armed supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled.

That first sentence contains thirty-seven words and ripples with action. The sentence is so full, in fact, that it threatens to fly apart like an overheatedengine. But the writer guides the reader by capturing meaning in the first three words: "Rebels seized control." Think of that main clause as the locomotive that pulls all the cars that follow.

Master writers can craft page after page of sentences written in this structure. Consider this passage by John Steinbeck from Cannery Row, describing the routine of a marine scientist named Doc (the emphasis is mine):

He didn't need a clock. He had been working in a tidal pattern so long that he could feel a tide change in his sleep. In the dawn he awakened, looked out through the windshield and saw that the water was already retreating down the bouldery flat. He drank some hot coffee, ate three sandwiches, and had a quart of beer.

The tide goes out imperceptibly. The boulders show and seem to rise up and the ocean recedes leaving little pools, leaving wet weed and moss and sponge, iridescence and brown and blue and China red. On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble.

Steinbeck places subject and verb at or near the beginning of each sentence. Clarity and narrative energy flow through the passage, as one sentence builds on another. He avoids monotony by including the occasional brief introductory phrase ("In the dawn") and by varying the lengths of his sentences, a writing tool we will consider later.

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. With care, it can work:

The stories about my childhood, the ones that stuck, that got told and retold at dinner tables, to dates as I sat by red-faced, to my own children by my father later on, are stories of running away.

So begins Anna Quindlen's memoir How Reading Changed My Life, a lead sentence with thirty-one words between subject and verb. When the topic is more technical, the typical effect of separation is confusion, exemplified by this clumsy effort:

A bill that would exclude tax income from the assessed value of new homes from the state education funding formula could mean a loss of revenue for Chesapeake County schools.

Eighteen words separate the subject, "bill," from its weak verb, "could mean," a fatal flaw that turns what could be an important civic story into gibberish.

If the writer wants 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. As I just did.

Kelley Benham, a former student of mine, reached for this tool when called on to write the obituary of Terry Schiavo, the woman whose long illness and controversial death became the center of an international debate about the end of life:

Before the prayer warriors massed outside her window, before gavels pounded in six courts, before the Vatican issued a statement, before the president signed a midnight law and the Supreme Court turned its head, Terri Schiavo was just an ordinary girl, with two overweight cats, an unglamorous job and a typical American life.

By delaying the main subject and verb, the writer tightens the tension between a celebrated cause and an ordinary girl.

This variation works only when most sentences branch to the right, a pattern that creates meaning, momentum, and literary power. "The brilliant room collapses," writes Carol Shields in The Stone Diaries,

leaving a solid block of darkness. Only her body survives, and the problem of what to do with it. It has not turned to dust. A bright, droll, clarifying knowledge comes over her at the thought of her limbs and organs transformed to biblical dust or even funereal ashes. Laughable.

And admirable.


1. Read through the New York Times or your local newspaper with a pencil in hand. Mark the locations of subjects and verbs.

2. Do the same with examples of your writing.

3. Do the same with a draft you are working on now.

4. The next time you struggle with a sentence, rewrite it by placing subject and verb at the beginning.

5. For dramatic variation, write a sentence with subject and verb near the end.


Excerpted from Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark Copyright © 2006 by Roy Peter Clark. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Customer Reviews

Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Adam_Ison on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Very useful tips on writing; common sense presentation; beautifully written to boot
josh314 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An entertaining and instructive read.
LynleyS on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The best thing about this book is that you can listen to the author's succinct podcasts online (via iTunes). That's why I read the book. Fantastic pointers for creative writing and journalistic writing alike. Unlike many writing books, this one feels contemporary and contains fresh viewpoints. Which is hard, when writing about writing. Definitely one of my favourite books on writing.
ablueidol on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Writers are born, not made. Wrong! Wrong!!! You are imaginative and know basic grammar so get writing. How to allow yourself to be imaginative is a whole different subject. Look at my Random short stories blog to show what you can do with a single word. The key is to brainstorm the word to see what pops up. But back to Writing Tools which looks at fifty tools divided into:Nuts and bolts-grammar, punctuation, sentence and paragraph construction etc;Special Effects-be concrete and simple and know how to make the writing guide the response of the reader etc;Blue prints-tricks of structuring; andUseful habits-reflections of how to start and keep writing.Each of the tools are 3-4 pages long with examples drawn from journalism and fiction to illustrate the points raised. There is summary page of the 50 tools on his blog site. Talking about how to write is as about useful as cooking advice, you need to see and taste it to see if its worth taking. So this is a piece of my writing with a makeover using the tools. So which version do you prefer? Strongly recommended book for you bloggers, budding reporters and secret scribblers.Original versionSo why ,if you are still with me, would you bother to read what appears to be such a distasteful book? The clue is in the structure and descriptions of the book repetitive phraseology of medical sexual teams and the descriptions of the car and body parts. It means that you the reader experience the alienation and emptiness that is the heart of the story. The story is not erotic in any sense as it point to the emptiness of lives that depend on more and more extreme highs and drugs to keep the sexual tension going. Death then becomes the ultimate sexual act. Nowhere does love and community figure in a world of motorways, airports, roundabouts and technological emptiness. What ever the feelings and motives of the writer, the story serves as a warning of a society that obsesses objects and appearances over personal relationships and social community-who cares for the children in this vision of our lives?The tools used1 Begin sentences with subjects and verbs3 Use active and not passive verbs9 Let punctuation control pace and space10 Prefer the simple over the technical16 Seek original imagery23 Read to tune your voice31 build around a key questionThe revised versionSo why, bother to read such a distasteful book? The recurring use of clinical sexual terms and the similar descriptions of car and body parts is a clue. The act of reading makes us emotionally distanced observers of a world running on empty. Sex means ever more extreme risks until Death becomes the ultimate high. In a world of motorways, airports, roundabouts and technology where is love and community? We need to read, whatever the feelings and motives of the writer, to avoid making a society that obsesses objects and appearances leaving no place for a simple kiss or the love of parent