Book Summary: “Writing Tools”, Roy Peter Clark

Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark
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Writing Tools, Roy Peter Clark

“Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer”, Roy Peter Clark
295 pages – Paperback | eBook | Audiobook

TYPE: Non-fiction (philosophy), practical.

SYNOPSIS: Decades of writing experience condensed into 55 highly practical tools that will help you improve every part of your writing process – by writer, editor and writing teacher, Roy Peter Clark.

NOTE: I love it when an author takes the time to do a good crunch of their own book. Not only does it make it quick to inspect; it also shows the author’s confidence in the substance of their work.

And a good crunch is exactly what Clark gives us in Writing Tools, preparing not just a concise, descriptive list of his essential strategies, but even going so far as to make it freely available online.

You’ll find the original Quick List of Fifty Writing Tools on The Poynter’s Institute’s website, split over 4 sections:

  1. Nuts and Bolts (10 tools)
  2. Special Effects (13 tools)
  3. Blueprints (16 tools)
  4. Useful Habits (11 tools)

N.B., More recent editions contain 5 “Bonus Tools” bringing the total to 55.

Clark’s suggestions are valuable; his writing clear, concise and practical; his examples instructive and thoughtful. (In short, if you’re serious about writing, the full original is well worth a read.)

But as with all lists, it can be hard to know exactly when and how to put Clark’s tools into action. I found this especially true for Writing Tools because:

  1. The tools range widely from very tactical to very strategic; and
  2. The original groupings aren’t very user-friendly (at least not for a novice like me).

The solution? Instead of spending my time rewriting Clark’s tools for this note, I spent it regrouping them. The result values “When” over “What” – splitting the list over the different stages of the writing process.

It’s subjective and imperfect, and I’m not pretending to add any value to Clark’s decades of experience. But I do find the new grouping a little easier to work with – especially for setting next-actions or as checklists to reference while I work.

I hope you, too, find it useful. You’ll find a quick navigation below, followed by the full list.

Enjoy!

QUICK NAVIGATION

  1. General (6 tools)
  2. Planning (9 tools)
  3. Research (3 tools)
  4. Writing (12 tools)
    • Sentences (1 tool)
    • Showing vs. Telling (2 tools)
    • Storytelling (6 tools)
    • Character (3 tools)
  5. Editting (25 tools)
    • General (4 tools)
    • Tone (2 tools)
    • Paragraphs (3 tools)
    • Sentences (7 tools)
    • Words: Choice (4 tools)
    • Words: Use (5 tools)

GENERAL

  1. Draft a mission statement for your work.
    To sharpen your learning, write about your writing.
  2. Take interest in all crafts that support your work.
    To do your best, help others do their best.
  3. Read for both form and content.
    Examine the machinery beneath the text.
  4. Recruit your own support group.
    Create a corps of helpers for feedback.
  5. Learn from your critics.
    Tolerate even unreasonable criticism.
  6. Own the tools of your craft.
    Build a writing workbench to store your tools.

PLANNING

  1. Build your work around a key question.
    Good stories need an engine, a question the action answers for the reader.
  2. Express your best though in the shortest sentence.
    A short sentence has the ring of gospel truth.
  3. Break long projects into parts.
    Then assemble the pieces into something whole.
  4. Work from a plan.
    Index the big parts of your work.
  5. Look for the “inciting incident” to kick-start your story.
    Attend to the moment that changes a day or a life.
  6. Write toward an ending.
    Help readers close the circle of meaning.
  7. Foreshadow dramatic events or powerful conclusions.
    Plant important clues early.
  8. Place gold coins along the path.
    Reward the reader with high points, especially in the middle.
  9. Turn procrastination into rehearsal.
    Plan and write it first in your head.

RESEARCH

  1. Do your homework well in advance.
    Prepare for the expected — and unexpected.
  2. Get the name of the dog.
    Dig for the concrete and specific, details that appeal to the senses.
  3. Pay attention to names.
    Interesting names attract the writer and the reader.

WRITING

↳ SCENTENCES

  1. Fear not the long sentence.
    Take the reader on a journey of language and meaning.

↳ SHOWING vs. TELLING

  1. Learn the difference between reports and stories.
    Use one to render information, the other to render experience.
  2. Climb up and down the ladder of abstraction.
    Learn when to show, when to tell, and when to do both.

↳ STORYTELLING

  1. Write from different cinematic angles.
    Turn your notebook into a “camera.”
  2. Report and write for scenes.
    Then align them in a meaningful sequence.
  3. Mix narrative modes.
    Combine story forms using the “broken line.”
  4. To generate suspense, use internal cliffhangers.
    To propel readers, make them wait.
  5. Use dialogue as a form of action.
    Dialogue advances narrative; quotes delay it.
  6. Pay attention to names.
    Interesting names attract the writer and the reader.

↳ CHARACTER

  1. Prefer archetypes to stereotypes.
    Use subtle symbols, not crashing cymbals.
  2. Reveal traits of character.
    Show characteristics through scenes, details, and dialogue.
  3. Create a mosaic of detail to reveal character.
    Piece together habits, gestures and preferences into a vision of life on the page.

EDITTING

↳ GENERAL

  1. Tune your voice.
    Read drafts aloud.
  2. Limit self-criticism in early drafts.
    Turn it loose during revision.
  3. Cut big, then small.
    Prune the big limbs, then shake out the dead leaves.
  4. Save string.
    For big projects, save scraps others would toss.

↳ TONE

  1. Know when to back off and when to show off.
    When the topic is most serious, understate; when least serious, exaggerate.
  2. Prefer the simple over the technical.
    Use shorter words, sentences and paragraphs at points of complexity.

↳ PARAGRAPHS

  1. Vary the lengths of paragraphs.
    Go short or long — or make a “turn” — to match your intent.
  2. Put odd and interesting things next to each other.
    Help the reader learn from contrast.
  3. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
    Purposeful repetition links the parts.

↳ SENTENCES

  1. Set the pace with sentence length.
    Vary sentences to influence the reader’s speed.
  2. Let punctuation control pace and space.
    Learn the rules, but realise you have more options than you think.
  3. Begin sentences with subjects and verbs.
    Make meaning early, then let weaker elements branch to the right.
  4. Order words for emphasis.
    Place strong words at the beginning and at the end.
  5. Choose the number of elements with a purpose in mind.
    One, two, three, or four: Each sends a secret message to the reader.
  6. Establish a pattern, then give it a twist.
    Build parallel constructions, but cut across the grain.
  7. Seek original images.
    Reject clichés and first-level creativity. (N.b., for a good reference list, see Clichelist.net)

↳ WORDS: CHOICE

  1. Match diction to writing purpose.
    Words should fit tone, theme, content and audience.
  2. Play with words, even in serious stories.
    Choose words the average writer avoids but the average reader understands.
  3. Riff on the creative language of others.
    Make word lists, free-associate, be surprised by language.
  4. Give key words their space.
    Do not repeat a distinctive word unless you intend a specific effect.

↳ WORDS: USE

  1. In short pieces of writing, don’t waste a syllable.
    Shape shorter works with wit and polish.
  2. Activate your verbs.
    Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the players.
  3. Be passive-aggressive.
    Use passive verbs to showcase the “victim” of action.
  4. Watch those adverbs. 
    Use them to change the meaning of the verb.
  5. Take it easy on the -ings.
    Prefer the simple present or past.
Arthur
Arthur
Arthur is a learning-freak, slow-thinker, and writer who loves helping curious, busy people digest chewy topics fast. One of his passions is language learning. Send yourself his Free Ultimate Language Learning Guide today to save you or a friend thousands of dollars and hours on your journey to fluency.

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