By Katharine GammonRoy Peter Clark says he never meant to write another book about writing.
Clark, a senior scholar at The Poynter Institute, had already written or edited 20 books about reading, writing and language. He is perhaps best known for his “Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer,” widely considered to one of the more useful guides to the writing craft, deserving of a place on bookshelves next to Strunk’s “Elements of Style” and Zinsser’s “On Writing Well.” But Clark’s toolbox approach to writing — there are now six books in the collection inspired by “Writing Tools” — is delivered in a contemporary voice; I think of him as a folksy Ted Lasso for aspiring nonfiction writers.
After all that, what more was there to say?
But then the pandemic happened. And the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. And social upheaval around America’s struggles over race.
Clark says he followed that and more from his home in St. Petersburg, Florida, watching as nonfiction professionals struggled to help the public make sense of it all:
How do you make hard facts easier reading? How do you make the difficult interesting? How do you tell a story in the public interest? How do you achieve a level of civic clarity? How do all public writers — not just journalists — take responsibility for what readers know and understand?
Those are the questions Clark sets out to answer in his new book, “Tell It Like It Is: A Guide to Clear and Honest Writing,” scheduled for release April 11 by Little Brown. My read of an advance copy brought up some of the advice found in Clark’s previous books. It also offers a valuable and timely perspective on writing, where it fits into career and life, and why it matters to communicate with both clarity and nuance. To underscore his points, he draws on examples from both high and low culture: He decodes the verbs in a Covid-19 home test, diagrams a descent into the underworld in “Dante’s Inferno” and analyzes the prose in activity guides for kids at his local art museum. True to his craft, Clark writes in a clear structure: a long listicle that takes readers from No. 1 (Embrace the role of public writer) to No. 50 (Keep reading to perfect your craft).
An aspirational mission for our times
But this aspires to be more than a guidebook of tips and tools. Clark imagines it could be “one document leading to a renaissance of news and public information.” He believes in the mission of writing, editing and discourse in our messy modern times.
I’ve picked out some of the most salient entries and takeaways that, for me, offer a writer’s map through the massive amounts of confusion and misinformation in the world. After all, as Clark writes: “The darker and more dystopian the future appears, the more influential public writers become.”
- Be proud about being a public writer
Clark says that public writers — writers of various professions or titles whose audience is the public — should wear that badge with honor and courage. Before you write, he says, jot some notes about what you are trying to accomplish with a piece. Develop a sense of good public writing by collecting and studying examples of it. Our jobs are to make important things interesting.
- Be intentional about choosing questions, words and verbs
One of my favorite tips to share with the science writers I teach is that at moments of maximum complexity — the inner workings of cell metabolism or the process of a rocket taking off — we need to make words and sentences as short, active and clear as possible. Clark goes even further, advising that writers think about the stop signs — signaled, he says, by periods — to pace a reader and smooth out the road of reading. He also urges writers to consider the white space on the page as a helper for complexity and to be intentional about the order of words. He highlights the utility of the question-and- answer format, showing how it can be employed for storytelling.
- Schedule time to step back
Clark advises that writers build in “cooling off” time to sit back and consider their work. I know too well the feeling of writing a news story only to think a day later: It would have been so cool to include this other perspective. Sometimes you don’t need a day, but just a coffee break to stare outside the window or take a walk, he says, before coming back to a topic lets you see it with fresh eyes.
- Repeat your key points, but in different forms
“Tell em what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them,” is an old adage in writing. Clark spruces it up with advice to vary the forms of repetition: The same information in a quote, a graph and an anecdote, for example, can reduce the feeling of redundancy.
- Interpret what you see into themes and make connections
Part of the job of a public writer is not just to report but to interpret: What are the emerging contained in the news event or situation? How can we help readers make sense of the world? To do so, Clark says writers should continue to learn from multiple schools of thought — science, anthropology, political science, economics, literature and more — in order to find meaning in the news, and also to explore the deeper reasons why something is happening.
What’s next, Dr. Clark?
One place I would have loved to hear Clark’s avuncular advice is on the role of AI in writing and future interactions of journalism and public discourse. Of course, it matters to cover threats to democracy and ecosystem collapse and other challenging topics. But what is the role of the writer in a future world of ChatGPT?
Maybe Clark will address my curiosity in an 8th book in his toolbox series. Is that asking too much? Perhaps. But it seems Clark can’t help but continue to write about writing. And we’re all lucky that he does.
Katharine Gammon is an independent science journalist based in Santa Monica, California. Her story interests range from culture and nature in public lands to the lives of scientists to the complexity of baby brains.