Book Club: Roy Peter Clark's "Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer"

Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark

Clark builds each of his chapters around a single idea. Some of these ideas are familiar but easy to forget. (“In short works, don’t waste a syllable.” “Establish a pattern, then give it a twist.”) Others feel fresh and exciting. (“Play with words, even in serious stories.” “Put odd and interesting things next to each other.”) Usually, Clark develops his ideas so that they truly sink in – but not so much that the reader gets bored.

Clark also addresses some key questions about writerly psychology. The popular image of the writer – tortured, alone, feeling alternately blocked and inspired by an ethereal Muse – is both wrong and unhelpful, he says. Most writers depend on a “support group” – people who can provide feedback, encouragement, and (when the time is right) criticism. (“Limit self-criticism in early drafts.”)

For me, Clark’s most bracing advice has to do with purpose. “Build your work around a key question,” he says. “Draft a mission statement for your work.” For a lot of writers, this will feel anathema – like watching bureaucracy murder romance.

It shouldn’t. In fact, for non-fiction writers, it’s often essential. I read a lot of student writing, and when it goes bad, it’s often because the writer hasn’t figured out what he’s trying to say. Instead, he just sorta started writing stuff, kind of realized that it was scattered, and then tried to shovel it into passable shape. There’s nothing romantic about this process; by the end, whatever real inspiration or clarity the student had is usually buried under the mud.

But it doesn’t have to be.