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Feb 26 / King Kaufman

Writing problem? Roy Peter Clark probably has the solution

Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark, one of the best writing teachers around, held a chat on last week with the arresting headline “How to solve your most difficult writing problems.”

Yeah, it got my attention.

Clark wrote that most of his advice derived from his most recent book, “Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces.” He’s also the author of a useful writing blog on the Poynter site.

If you’ve never had a writing problem, stand up. You in the back there! Sit down. You have too.

The thing that I think makes Clark a great teacher is that he offers practical solutions. He goes beyond “think of it this way.” He has things for you to actually do to help your writing. Take this answer to a follow-up question about using index cards to organize thoughts. The commenter asked Clark if there are other “physical props that you use to help when writing.”

I think there is both a practical and mystical element about the size of the writing canvass, if you will, and the length of the message. So if I want to capture the structure of a story in a plan, I use a yellow pad. If I want to figure out a theme statement or a tight summary, I use an index card (think also of the tweet). If I want to compile some detailed elements I use Post-it notes and then move them around.

And here’s a subject I talk about a lot: being unique. Differentiating yourself.

Comment From Andrés: Sometimes I have a central idea or theme, have selected the information I’m going to write. but as me, there are three or four journalists doing the same. Difference is the problem for me.

Roy Peter Clark: Andres, some of the most famous examples of memorable journalism come from the desire to break off from the crowd. All the other reporters are zigging, so you want to zag. All the reporters are covering JFK’s burial service, and Jimmy Breslin interviews the gravedigger.

Here’s that famous Breslin story. And here’s the story of the day I discovered the “grave digger theory of journalism” on my own, before I’d ever heard of Breslin’s piece.

Go read that chat. It’ll get you thinking.

  • Roy Peter Clark

    B/R, thanks a million for the shout out. At Poynter, I have had the honor of working with two kinds of writers: the practical scholar and the reflective practitioner. We all belong to the same writing club; we all want to get better; we all face the same problems; we all need lifelines on deadlines. Cheers.