Roy Peter Clark is one of America’s most influential writing teachers. He is a 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. He has written, co-wrote, or edited 19 books in his career.
Recently, Roy took to answering fans’ writing queries. Here are some of the most popular questions from readers, answered by Roy.
What are the most common writing pitfalls?
1. Procrastination, but that can be neutralized by “rehearsal,” working on a project in your mind before you get your hands moving.
2. Writer’s block, which comes, according to poet William Stafford, from standards that are too high, too early in the process. The antidote is…wait for it…lower your standards, especially in the beginning. Raise them later.
3. Waiting too long to begin drafting. You can write preliminary drafts while you are conducting research. I call this “zero drafting.” It teaches you what you know, and what you need to learn.
What makes a writing book popular?
1. Practicality. Lots of advice that writers can use right away.
2. Low cost. This is essential in the age of high-priced textbooks.
3. Encouragement. A sense that the writer is on your side.
What is the most common writing question you’ve received from readers over the years? And what is your advice?
I most often get asked, “How do you write a book?” or “How do you get published?” Writing is the hardest part. Write a little bit each day. The drips and drops will turn into streams. 250 words a day becomes 60,000 in 240 days. (Check my math). That’s a book. Folks who want to write a book also want to get published. I encourage them to work on the book because that’s the hardest. I did not become a successful author until I found an agent. If your goal is to make some money, you need a literary agent.
What are the three most interesting things you’ve learned from reviewing these writings books and guides?
1. If a writing book is helpful, like Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, it will remain helpful over several generations.
2. Reading a good book on writing is like having a conversation with another writer about how meaning is created in reading and writing.
3. That some of the writing strategies I just learned were articulated more than 2,000 years ago. It was not me, but the great Roman teacher Quintilian who taught his students to place the most emphatic words in a sentence or paragraph at the END.
What’s one darling you had a difficult time dismissing?
I delivered the Providence College commencement address in 2017 in front of 12,000. In original draft, I had eight wonderful anecdotes about my mom. Final draft, none. Sorry, mom. But I tell those great stories now all the time.
(Bonus! You can check out Roy’s full commencement speech here)
How do you approach revisions for something written a long time ago, say a decade plus? Is there anything to be said about preserving the original context?
Tough question. If I find an old essay I want to revive, I am tempted to bring it up to date. In doing so, you can lose the context. I might write it both ways. Then share them with test readers. Their feedback may show you the best way.
How do you become a better editor? And do you see writing and editing as two skills that elevate each other or as exclusive of each other?
Writers and editors should be partners in the writing process: how to find story ideas, how to collect, how to focus, how to build momentum. The key is to see yourself as a coach, not just a fixer of broken stories.
How do you keep your writing fresh, especially when you write on the same topic?
It’s about curiosity. Once you get past the surface level of research you will find more gold coins. Talk about your topic to others and make a list of their questions about your topic. Keep the faith. No one else will be interested — unless you are.
What have you learned about writing strategies from publishing these books?
Murder Your Darlings is my sixth book with Little, Brown, and the great Tracy Behar, my editor. That’s about 2,000 pages on writing, reading, and language. That work comes from one mission, and one dominant strategy. The mission is to learn something new about the craft every day. The strategy I learned from the great Donald Murray, who is highlighted in Murder Your Darlings, “A page a day equals a book a year.”
How do you ensure you will make a deadline?
I have a trick I learned in the newsroom. If I had, say, a six p.m. deadline, I would make believe the deadline was 4 p.m. I would not give myself a break. I would work to make that self-imposed deadline. If my book deadline is, say, Dec. 31, I will give myself a deadline of Halloween. On one book, I actually finished a draft on Labor Day. Those self-imposed artificial deadlines give you the time to revise, which is often when the magic kicks in.
Are you a putter-inner or a taker-outer?
I love that distinction. I am a putter-inner, which means I try to write as early as possible and put in anything I think might relate to my topic. A 2,000-word speech came from an 8,000-word draft. A 50 chapter book (The Glamour of Grammar) came from a 100 chapter manuscript. This works for me. But I have seen other wonderful writers squeeze out one exquisite sentence after another. When I coach writers, I encourage them to figure out what works best for them, and follow that process.
What advice can you give on revision?
Again, I learned this in the newsroom, but it goes back to advice from Roman orators from 2,000 years ago. Let the draft cool off. So my new book has 32 chapters. I could have written one chapter at a time and revised each chapter until it was in great shape, then go on to the next chapter. Instead, I will write two or three drafts of a chapter. Go on the next one. Go on to the next one. THEN when the original draft has cooled off, I can go back and look at it with fresh eyes, with the eyes of the reader. On a day story, if I finish a draft, I walk away for a coffee and bagel, and come back to the text. Even that helps me see differently, which is what the word revise means: to see again.