Poynter writing coach and author Roy Peter Clark playing the accordion

Roy Peter Clark, who often uses music in his writing workshops.

By Jacqui Banaszynski

A lot of journalists dream of having their byline on work that wins one of the top industry awards. Many long to see their name on the spine of a book. Some might even fantasy about their name on a building at their alma mater before they remember that 1) they worked in journalism and maybe public education, so likely won’t have a couple million to donate, 2) it probably takes more than a couple million to secure naming rights these days and 3) that alma mater may no longer have a building devoted to journalism, or even part of one.

So how about this for a new legacy goal: A respected journalism award named for you, one that honored a career of support for other journalists.

That’s what happened to Roy Peter Clark, emeritus senior scholar of The Poynter Institute and friend/coach to writers worldwide.

“The Roy Peter Clark Award for Excellence in Short Writing will recognize compelling writing in any medium with pieces of 800 or fewer words.” That according to an announcement today from Poynter. The award is a new category in a contest that began in 1979 as the American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Awards. It quickly became a coveted honor for newspaper journalism, perhaps second only to the Pulitzers, and placed a special emphasis on not just reporting, but the quality of writing.

As the newspaper industry contracted in recent years, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) merged with the Associated Press Managing Editors to become the News Leaders Association. NLA announced earlier this week that it was sunsetting the organization; other industry organizations are picking up many of NLA’s programs, with Poynter appropriately taking on management of the Distinguished Writing Awards.

I say “appropriately” because Poynter, for many years, produced the “Best Newspaper Writing” series, an annual anthology of winners. I have every edition, which have been referred to again and again through the my years of reporting, editing and teaching. They are as good as any journalism textbook I know.

Many of the other most-thumbed non-text textbooks on my shelf were authored by Roy Peter Clark. That work, his years of writing and teaching at Poynter, and his generous support for writers in all fields at all levels, make hiom more than deserving of a legacy award. As for the category — short writing — that, too, is appropriate. Clark once told me his sweet spot for writing is somewhere in the range of 750 to 1,000 words. His books demonstrate that, each being built with from manageable short chapters, with lots of examples. (He also has explained that those tight, focused writing bursts allow him to write a full book in a short amount of time.) Pop his name into the Storyboard search bar and you’ll get an educational sampling.

Here’s how Clark himself put it in the announcement from Poynter:

“… when I think of the greatest writing of all time, I lean toward the short: the 23rd Psalm, the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Gettysburg Address. Since the origins of literacy, writers have chosen to express their most important thoughts in the shortest possible texts,” Clark said.

In a Facebook post, he added what has become a favorite quip:

“I tell a little joke that seems appropriate at this moment: That I wrote a book — kind of long one — on short writing. That’s the long and the short of it.”

A personal PS: Most categories in the contest that Clark has been added to are named for distinguished journalists and news leaders. I have had the great fortune to work for two: Frank Blethen, publisher of The Seattle Times, whose name heads an award for Local Accountability Reporting, and the late Deborah C. Howell, who guided my reporting as  editor of the St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press in the 1980s. Her name graces the Award for Writing Excellence. I have also had the privilege and fun of teaching (learning from) with Clark through the years at Poynter writing workshops. As the seasonal movie title reminds us, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

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