Roy Peter Clark holds the post of senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, and as such is one of narrative journalism’s hardest-working midwives. You may have already encountered him here on Storyboard or through his books on writing, including “Coaching Writers” and more recently, “The Glamour of Grammar.”
We had hoped to bring you highlights from his talk at last month’s American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors conference, but fate has denied us the opportunity. To console ourselves, we found a recording of Clark from earlier this year, presenting at the University of Florida’s Storytellers’ Summit. We highly recommend watching the the hour-long video yourself but have also pulled out some key elements on story development for your (and our) narrative edification.
Near the beginning of his session, Clark asks two people from the audience to come up and teach attendees the Chicken Dance while he accompanies them on accordion. He starts out slowly, and as the audience catches on, he picks up the tempo a little more with each repetition. And then he gets to the point:
“So what?” you might ask. “Why did you do that?” Because I can, OK? The other reason is because at a very sort of advanced stage of my career, I’ve come to believe that any creative act is learned by being able to identify the parts. You have to do two things, really: You have to slow down the process, and you have to name the parts.
So I’m going to give you the seven or eight words which describe my version or my interpretation of the writing process.
Explore. Clark builds in systematic change to his routine, to create opportunities for finding stories. “It’s part of your responsibility as a writer,” he says, “to not be dependent, to not go on teacher welfare or editor welfare for story ideas. You need to be generating your own.”
Hunt and gather. Get out and find out what is happening and why. “This is journalists’ secret, where they stand above many other writers,” Clark says. “They don’t write with their hands. They write with their feet. I don’t mean clumsily; I mean that writing requires movement, and not just movement of the mouse on the screen.”
Organize. Clark makes a distinction between gathering and organizing materials and actually structuring the story. “A student of mine made me realize that those are two different acts. … There’s a point at which I’ve got to find all my files. I have to organize my desk. I have to get out index cards. I have to label the cards. I have do some cross-referencing. I have to put some cards on a bulletin board. I have to get my shit together. … I have got to be able to find stuff that I need when I need it.”
Find a focus. Clark performs dramatic reenactments of two of his stories in which the focus was not initially apparent. We will not attempt to summarize them here, but will note that they involve the Catholic Church, a malfunctioning zipper, a stopped toilet and a leaf blower. “The central act,” Clark says, “is finding a focus for the story, finding what the story is really about.”
Select the best and most interesting material. The more stuff, the better – according to Clark, the best writers might use only 10 percent of their material. “It’s not quite as hard as panning for gold,” he says, “but I like the notion that a lot of sand goes through the sieve before something pops up that has real value to you as a writer.”
Order or structure. What shape will the story take? Clark suggests that whether it’s “a pyramid, or an hourglass, or a wine glass, or any of the other kind of structural elements that writers favor in order to do some of their best work,” choosing a structure is key.
Describing himself as “not an outline kind of guy,” Clark nonetheless writes down a game plan, if only a few key elements: the beginning, the three parts of the middle, and the end. He tentatively claims the title of inventor of the “reverse outline,” in which he checks to see if he can do a more detailed outline of his piece after he writes a draft. “If I couldn’t write the outline,” he says, “it might have meant there was some sort of interesting structural problem in the story.”
Draft and revise. Drafting comes later now, but when Clark was a young reporter, drafting and revision were the beginning of his writing process. And even now, despite his step-by-step approach to story, he says, “This is not a linear process. To describe it correctly, I would need some sort of spinning cycles or double helix. If I can’t select out of the material I have, I say, ‘Maybe I don’t have a focus.’ If I can’t find a focus, I say, ‘Maybe I haven’t gathered enough stuff.’ It’s constantly sort of cycling back.”
The Storytellers’ Summit video is worth seeing in its entirety for many other great suggestions Clark makes – especially his thoughts on the hot spots in sentences and how to shape a sentence, a paragraph or a story for maximum impact. Finishing by playing his guitar in a “stump-the-band” challenge from the audience, he is nothing if not versatile. Check it out for yourself – along with videos from other presenters, including Ellis Amburn, Lane DeGregory and Tom French.
And if you’d like to get some tips in person, you can sign up for Poynter’s National Writers Workshop Telling Your Story, Selling Your Story. Jacqui Banaszynski and Tom French will join Clark in conducting sessions for the workshop, which will take place in St. Petersburg, Florida, from December 9-11. Apply by November 18!