What do you call someone who has authored seventeen books on writing; is dubbed America’s writing coach; serves as senior scholar at The Poynter Institute, a school for journalists; falls in love with language all over every day; spends an hour dissecting a six-word sentence; and plays keyboard and sings most any song on demand, even Tina Turner? I call him Roy Peter Clark.
As soon as I heard Roy Peter Clark was speaking at the Orange County Public Library’s Book Festival last month, I put it on my calendar and made plans to attend. His books are ones I return to repeatedly for writing advice.
On April 21, I pulled Clark’s many books from my crowded shelf in hopes of having a minute to chat with this respected author and instructor while he autographed them. At the downtown library, I ran into several other Writing Your Lifers—Becky and Bruce McGregor, Anne and Mike Teipel, and Teresa Bruce. We had a few minutes to visit, and then, the music began, both in song and language.
Clark took six short words from act five, scene five of Shakespeare’s Macbeth—“The queen, my lord, is dead.”—and spent an hour talking about the importance of word placement within a sentence. He rewrote the sentence in other ways, but none packed the punch the Bard achieved.
These are a few of the points Clark made about this sentence that we can apply to our writing:
- Find the key words in a sentence and give them special attention using punctuation, position, etc.
- Choose the number of elements in a sentence with the purpose in mind. Use three for completeness, wholeness, roundness.
- The word right before the period gets special emphasis.
- Well-placed commas can slow down the reader and create drama.
- Stick the landing and put your most memorable lines at the end of a paragraph, page, chapter, section, book.
- White space is a most powerful punctuation mark, one that ventilates the page, something he calls “the writer’s friend—and the reader’s.”
Check out some of Roy Peter Clark’s books. My favorite that’s dog-eared, marked up, and abused is Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. On order is another of his books I can’t wait to dive into: Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces.
If you’d like a little face to face writing instruction, check out my upcoming workshop, The Basics of Writing Well, on Saturday, June 9, where I’ll give you simple ways to make your writing more interesting and informative. I hope to see you there.