Roy Peter Clark has written or edited nearly 20 books about the craft of writing, including Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Greats Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing, and most recently, Murder Your Darlings: And Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser.
Clark is a journalist, writer, and teacher who believes that writing is an essential skill for everyone, and his books are accessible and witty, full of concrete advice that anyone can follow. No matter your writing background or aspirations, Clark’s books are great guides for anyone looking to improve their writing—critical, creative, or casual! Here’s a sampling of some of his best advice!
Words have connotations and denotations—play with them.
The wonderful thing about language is that it is always evolving. The dictionary definition is not the only definition–consider how words function, their formal meanings, and their implied meanings. Play around with that, and see what you can create!
Write a short scene or vignette from different perspectives.
You may have an instinctive sense of how something ought to be written, but if your writing feels off, sometimes it's because it needs to be written in a different perspective. Try experimenting with first, second, or third person, and past and present tense.
Always read your work aloud to get a feel for voice.
It's incredible how your writing can change from the page to when you speak it aloud–you'll catch errors, inconsistencies, and awkward phrasings, but you'll also get a better sense of voice, and if your voice is consistent throughout the text.
Trust the process.
Writing is a process, and no one writes a perfect first draft. If you're having trouble with your work, trust that it needs more time and the writing is a process–you can't skip any steps.
Murder your darlings.
No, you don't need to kill your characters! But don't be so vain and precious about your own creativity or clever sentences that you cannot cut them when they don't serve your larger purpose.
Express your best thought in your shortest sentence.
When it comes to the most forceful or powerful idea, you want to distill that idea to its essentials and let it shine in the sentence. Readers tend to skim past longer sentences, and you don't want your best thought to be lost in between extra words.
Use dialogue as a form of action.
Generally speaking, people prefer to read dialogue over blocks of texts explaining action. In creative and critical writing, you can reveal a lot and reveal it more efficiently through dialogue–just make sure you're using quotation marks correctly.
Clark addressed the conventional wisdom that writers ought to avoid the passive voice...except when it's beneficial. He clarifies the difference between passive and active voices (hint: it has nothing to do with tense) and shows readers how their writing can be passive to great effect.
Prefer the simple over the technical.
A common misconception among young or inexperienced writers is that flowery language and technical terms make their writing sound sophisticated. Clark explains how simple, straightforward writing is better for clarity and understanding, and can convey ideas much easier than technical jargon.
Consult a thesaurus to remind yourself of words you already know.
While you don't need three different words to convey a single action or identify a certain object, sometimes it helps in revision to take a peek at a thesaurus if a word doesn't feel quite right. You might even find a more effective one this way.
Learn how and when to enrich your writing with foreign words.
Depending on your subject matter, there may be a word in a different language that is identifiable to English speakers or has a particular definition that its English counterpart just can't capture–but it's important to learn how and when to deploy these words!
Vary your use of punctuation to create special effects.
Punctuation is a tool that can help determine how your reader reads your words. From pacing to emphasis, punctuation is essential.
Switch tenses, but only for strategic reasons.
You can switch tenses, even within the same paragraph. However, know-how and when to do so, otherwise. your writing will look sloppy, not intentional.
Play with sounds, natural and literary.
The use of sound, translated into words, and the actual sounds that words make can all have a huge impact on your writing–play with sound and language until you've found the perfect combination!
Alternate between what's important and what's interesting.
Both important and interesting information matter in a story or article, but sometimes you need what's interesting–that human interest piece–in order to break up the monotony and draw your reader in.
Ask yourself, "What is this story really about?"
The act of writing can be laborious, muddy, and lengthy. If you're struggling, always ask yourself, "What is this story really about?" (Replace story with essay, article, etc. as needed!) This will help keep you focused on your goal so you can write clearly and concisely.
Begin your story in the middle of things.
One piece of feedback that a lot of inexperienced writers might receive is that their story doesn't start in the right spot. While beginning in media res (literally "into the middle of things") may not be the right call for all stories, why not try it if you're stuck? You can get to the heart of the action quicker, and there is always revision!
Read a book on a topic that's unfamiliar to you.
If you're feeling stuck in your own writing, nonfiction or creative, sometimes it helps to get out of your rut by picking up something that's completely unrelated to what you're writing, or something that you don't know much about. The act of exploration will leave you to be more open and curious as you read!
Leave a little something in your chapter or on the page to write tomorrow.
While it feels great to finish a scene or chapter or work to a natural stopping place, sometimes leaving a sliver of work to be done for the next work session has the added benefit of tricking your brain to get to work first thing the following day—which can be helpful if you have issues motivating yourself!
Write in the margins.
Don't do this in library books, but texts are meant to be interacted with. Writing in the margins allows you to jot down short ideas, and essential questions or phrases.
Read the work of other short writers.
Writers who are able to get across complex or exciting ideas clearly and concisely ought to be studied, so that you can learn from their techniques!
Hone your skills for brevity by summarizing famous books or movies in one or two sentences.
This is especially useful if you write novels or stories–you must understand what the story is about at its core.
Make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.
Good writing that stands out is clear and concise and makes difficult ideas easy to digest, and mundane things exciting and interesting. Play with perspective!
People will keep reading if there is a question to be answered or an unknown to explore. Give your readers something that will intrigue.
What you leave out is as important as what you include.
Absence can create a gap, and in that gap, readers can infer a lot–what you don't focus on can say a lot.
Common objects can resonate within your writing.
By looking at the use of common objects in some famous novels, Clark demonstrates that even the most mundane things can be used to impart meaning in your writing.
Tie the ending to the beginning.
Humans love patterns, and they also love closed circles. If you make connections between your beginning and ending, but with one key difference (something has to change!), your writing will resonate.
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Tirzah Price is a writer and contributing editor at Book Riot. Follow her on Twitter @TirzahPrice.