I’ve been updating old posts from my Training Tracks blog here, trying to resurrect my contributions to the No Train, No Gain archives. Usually I provide a brief update at the end. This post, however, was about Roy Peter Clark reaching the halfway point of his series, “Writer’s Toolbox.” Since that series became a book and then a blog, I decided to update with a new Q&A with Roy. He graciously took the time to answer my questions by email.
Roy, we did a Q&A in 2004 when you were halfway through your Writer’s Toolbox series, which became the book Writing Tools, published in 2006. How did the book do? How many copies have been sold? Did it have subsequent printings? Is it still selling well?
Of the 50 tools, which is your favorite?
Is there a tool you overuse? (Last time you cited cutting adverbs; is that still true?)
“I still distrust the adverb,” he said cuttingly. But not as much as I used to. Because these are tools and not rules, there is no right and wrong, only a little better or a little worse. One of the things I find myself doing is reviving some forms of language that have been in disrepute, such as the adverb, the passive voice, and the cliche. It’s a matter of preference, which does not require verbicide.
Is there a tool you think you should use more?
I am blessed with a great copy editor named Marie Salter. When she works on one of my manuscripts, she finds many examples of useless words on almost every page. Now when I hand in a manuscript, I think it’s already pretty tight. So it amazes me how many wasted words sneak in the manuscript. It’s not just an issue of length. The weak words detract attention from the strong words.
As you re-read the 2004 Q&A, was there a question that you would answer significant differently now than you did then?
You asked me back then about how the number of writing tools grew from 20 to 30 and then to 50. Since then I’ve written “The Glamour of Grammar,” which offers 50 additional chapters of language strategy. And my next book will be called “Help! For Writers,” in which I describe 210 solutions for 21 standard writing problems. Every time I think I’ve exhausted the number of writing tools, someone shows me a new one. That’s great. It means we all can keep learning.
You described yourself in November as a “toddler” in social networks. In social-media years, that should make you an adolescent now. Just as that 2004 Q&A came midway through the Toolbox series, this Q&A comes midway through a five-part series on what you’re learning about writing in social media. What are some of your 50 original tools that you have found most useful in writing for social media?
The good news is that all of the rhetorical tools still count: the position of subjects and verbs next to each other early in a sentence; saving a good word or phrase for the end. I also love the way Twitter, for example, keeps count for you. When I go over 140 characters, I’m always amazed at the number of ways I can tighten it down (or tighten it up).
Has writing for social media taught you some new tools you would add to the box?
The key one for me is “No Dumping Allowed.” I know that readers and writers on social networks have adjusted their standards to meet the informality of the community. But I am always struck at how good writers stand out even in these tight language venues. What makes them stand out? I’m trying to learn that now.
We lump social media together, but each social tool has its own writing challenges and opportunities: What do you like (and dislike) most about writing specifically for Twitter? For Facebook?
Twitter and Facebook do constitute two completely different “discourse communities,” a fancy scholarly term for language clubs. Twitter feels more like the telegraph to me. If you add a link or two, the space gets really tight, so you wind up taking all the “the’s” out. In comparison, Facebook feels like a letter from a friend, followed by a party line telephone conversation. If you are a smart ass like me, it’s almost impossible to avoid the temptation to add a wise crack to a chain of comments.
In comparative terms, Facebook writing feels a little roomier. So my voice on Facebook sounds like me. On Twitter people can sound too telegraphic, acronymic, and emoticonic. And while I know linking is important — and generous — I have less confidence than I used to as to what deserves a reader’s time.
Your post last week mentioned your “love secrets” Facebook updates as a form of serial. What tools were most useful in writing “love secrets”?
I spent a lot of time before Writing Tools thinking and writing about serial narratives. So it was natural for me to try a crude form of serialization on Facebook. It certainly worked if the intensity of the reader reaction is any indication. Of course, love and marriage issues and complaints are universal and infinite. If you give the audience something short and sharp — and maybe funny — you will create an appetite for more of that.
Since we’re discussing social media and this is a Q&A, I should also ask about Quora, the Q&A social network. Are you using Quora yet, and if so, what are some lessons and challenges you’ve encountered there? (I’m just getting started in Quora myself.)
I am, constitutionally, a late adopter. So I’ll be eager to discover what you and others are learning. I am a big fan of the Q and A format, for teaching, writing, and learning. I probably use the Internet more as a “learner” than any other role I play. How old is Barry Manilow? Who put a happy ending on King Lear? What is Manny Ramirez’s lifetime batting average.
This wasn’t part of my emailed questions here, but I should add that you are great at answering and asking good questions (as I think our Q&A’s illustrate). You’d be a natural at Quora, though I understand the challenge of finding the time to engage through one more social tool. That has inhibited my own use of Quora, though I like it so far. To help us both learn a little more how it works, I have asked the Lear question on Quora. I will update when we get some answers. The answers to your other questions: Manilow is 67 (which I see by your Facebook page that you found the answer to that one) and Manny’s batting average is .313.
Back to the questions I emailed: Social media are not the only new writing formats you’ve used since 2004. Back then your toolbox series was described as columns, not a blog. Writing Tools today is a blog. What’s the difference for you between writing a column and writing a blog? Or are you writing the same but using a different term?
I don’t use the word column interchangeably with blog. In my case, the distinction doesn’t matter much, but then I can depend on my editors for dealing with platform and format and the dreaded “search engine optimization.” In my personal craft, I try to achieve versatility, the ability to write short or long, fast or slow, on paper or with pixels. And for a wide variety of audiences.
You’re also doing live chats now. What are some helpful writing tools for live chats? What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of that form of writing?
I love, love, love online chats. What I lack in Twitter competence I make up for in digital chattiness. First of all, thanks to my mom, I am a fast, fast typist, and accurate. So there are no long delays waiting for me to post a response. When I am not nit-witted, I’m quick witted. Whether we admit it or not, writers like to show off. But that’s not what the chat is all about. The evidence of a healthy chat is to get the participants to make helpful suggestions to the other chatters. I find that asking one or two good questions loosens everyone up — including me.
Are there other forms of writing that you’ve worked in lately (video scripts? text messages?) that have brought any other writing insights you’d like to share?
Funny you should ask. I’ve become interested in writing plays. My extended family is filled with actors, directors and performers. I play music, but I am intrigued by the challenge of generating sustained action through dialogue. I still read Shakespeare (in fact I’ve got the complete works on my iPhone) and continue to be amazed on what the Bard reveals about language, character and what it means to be a human being.
Do you have a play in the works? Care to share a topic or plot line?
I don’t have an original play in the works, but I am in the process of translating and perhaps producing an English “mystery” play from the 14th century. Just getting my feet wet.
Anything else you’d like to add to this update?
Almost everything I have learned about writing can be traced back to about a dozen teachers and editors. None was more influential than the late Donald Murray to whom “Writing Tools” is dedicated. You can see his fingerprints on almost any page of my work. The most encouraging advice was: “Remember, Roy, one page a day equals a book a year.” When someone asks me, “How can you write three books in five years?” my answer is, “You know, a page a day equals a book a year.” A liberating notion for any writer.
That’s my new Q&A with Roy. Here’s our original, published Sept. 25, 2004 on No Train, No Gain and Poynter, with links to his original columns on the tools stripped out because they are no longer online (but available in the book).
I hope you’ve been reading Roy Peter Clark’s “Writer’s Toolbox” series. I plugged it at the end of my first “Training Tracks” column, which was posted in May. Roy’s next column will put him at the halfway mark of the 50-column series, so I want to plug it again.
If you have been following the series, you might enjoy Roy’s answers to my questions (I’ve inserted notes into his answers, identifying the tools he’s discussing):
When did you do your first 20-tool toolbox?
It occurred to me about a decade ago that I really did have a toolbox. It came at a time when I realized that for about 100 years writing teachers were saying the same kinds of things. So I wrote down my list of 20 and shared it at an National Writers’ Workshop event in Portland, Oregon. Then I began to write them down in the shortest possible forms and use them in my teaching.
When did you expand to 30?
The expansion came a couple of years ago. I Googled myself (is that a sin?) and marveled at how far and wide these tools had traveled. A professor in Europe translated them into Italian! This emboldened me. These tools were really working, so why not add a few more until we got to 30. I hope to reach 50 within the next year.
As I recall, both of those were lists. Is this the first time you’ve done columns on each tool, or did either or both of the earlier toolboxes also become series of columns?
I would hand out my tools at workshops and then answer questions about them. So I had developed a “rap” on each one, sometimes using journalism as examples, sometimes music, sometimes Shakespeare. As often happens, teaching was building up my reservoir of knowledge and anecdotes. I wanted to do some special things for my 25th anniversary at Poynter, so I gave myself the assignment of writing brief essays on each tool. These have now been translated into about a half-dozen languages, and I just gave an Egyptian editor permission to translate them into Arabic.
Which tool excited you most when you first started using it?
My friend from the University of Delaware, Dennis Jackson, taught me about “right-branching sentences,” about the power that comes from putting subject and verb together at the beginning (Tool #1). Then Don Murray taught me how to put emphatic words at the end (Tool #4). Together, these tools work magic.
Which tool is rustiest (or hardest to use) in your own toolbox?
Hayakawa’s ladder of abstraction is a great tool, so great it takes a long time to master (Tool #13). It’s one of those magic tricks you wouldn’t let a Hogwarts student use until the upper grades. I understood the top and bottom of the ladder, but it was Carolyn Matalene who warned me of the dangers of the middle, where the language of policy and bureaucracy breeds.
Do you have a favorite tool that you use so readily that you worry you might use it too much or use it sometimes when another tool would work better?
I am a ruthless adverb cutter (Tool #3). (I first wrote this: “I cut adverbs — ruthlessly.”) I’m starting to worry that I’m being unfair to the poor old adverb, that I’ve become an anti-Adverbite. Also, in my original list I had a tool that said: “Remember, that three is the magic number.” Then it occurred to me that three was A magic number, but that one had magic, and two had magic. That led to a serious revision of that tool (Tool #17). I love that moment when I learn that a favorite tool is inadequate, that I’ve got to forge something new.
Writing a series of 50 weekly columns strikes me as a pretty daunting task. Unless you wrote all of these in advance, you must be writing some of these on deadline or when you’re distracted or struggling with a particular topic. Which tool(s) have been most helpful in writing the toughest toolbox columns?
At one point, I was about six weeks ahead, now I’m only two weeks ahead. But I’m over the hump. More than half-done. Downhill the rest of the way. Breaking big projects into the smallest parts will be one of my later tools. It’s how I work. Don Murray taught me “A page a day equals a book a year.” A liberating notion.
Thanks again to Roy (who deftly and, I am sure, deliberately ended both Q&A’s with the same thought.)