A tribute to writers who write on their handwriting – Poynter


Some of the best writing tips I have ever received have come from reading interviews with writers. Perhaps the largest collection of them comes from decades of interviews in the Paris Review.

I still have in mind a glimpse shared by Elie Wiesel, the great witness to the Holocaust. He described an exhaustive research process for a book, then decided to leave out much of what he had gathered. Why did he leave it out? He replied something like: even though I chose not to use it, it’s still there.

My Poynter friend Chip Scanlan and I have spent much of the past 30 years interviewing writers. We interview them to learn their process, to listen to their stories, to ask them open-ended questions that lead to clarity and focus. Even when a writer interviews me, I will instinctively ask him questions about his process or what else he’s working on.

Chip is starting over, with a conscientious act of self-publication, a process I want to learn more about. (Chip wrote more about the self-publishing process for Poynter.) The book is titled: “Writers on Writing: In the Lives of 55 Distinguished Writers and Editors, ”And offers a surprising collection of answers to four questions about the trade.

As Chip got closer to the post, he asked me to write the foreword, which I was happy to do. It was on a deadline, so I wrote it down quickly, which was my way, as usual, to sweet surprises. (Check out my paragraph on the word and name “Chip”!)

Courtesy of Chip, Poynter republishes my foreword. Think of it as a trailer for the movie version. As I am one of the 55 writers featured in the book, we also share my answers to the Big Four Questions. Here’s a tip: If you belong to a writing group, or if you hang out occasionally in the cafe with other scribes, Chip has four questions. Take advantage of what happens next.

In 1977, I was hired as a writing coach for a newspaper then called the St. Petersburg Times. My tenure was for an annual newspaper essay competition sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. My job was to organize the winning entries and comment on their virtues. I wanted to add an additional feature: an interview with each of the writers.

The publisher who hired me wasn’t sure this was a good idea. He was not convinced that the “ink-stained wretches”, as deadline journalists were reminded of at the time, thought enough about their work to offer useful and inspiring answers to questions about the craft, trust and mission. Thirty years and 30 editions of “Best Newspaper Editorial” later, that editor, Gene Patterson, scoffed at his skepticism.

During those decades, my greatest ally, my team partner, was a journalist, screenwriter, investigator, novelist, author, and teacher named Christopher Scanlan. We all called him Chip. The name turned out to be appropriate. He would be cutting back on a writing project. He would become a piece of the old bloc – a protégé of America’s greatest writing teacher Donald Murray, who taught us all to demystify the writing process in the public interest. With his almost compulsive need to understand the craft, he shared his new ideas with readers around the world as a Chip-on-our-shoulder, whispering in our ears like Jiminy Cricket. As a technological revolution took hold, it became Computer Chip, encouraging us not to fear, but to embrace change.

Roy Peter Clark and Chip Scanlan at a lunch and farewell ceremony for Bob Steele and his family on May 23, 2008, in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Omar Schwanzer / Poynter)

In January 2020, many visionary Little, Brown published my book “Murder Your Darlings”. It was my writing book on writing books, over 50 of them “from Aristotle to Zinsser”. The book didn’t sell very well, but I attribute that to the pandemic. I look forward to a new edition. I can’t wait to add Chip’s “Writers on Writing” to my list of essentials.

A great writing teacher named Shirley Brice Heath once asked me to name the most literate people in America. I blurted out “Susan Sontag and William F. Buckley Jr.” Okay, what makes them stand out as literate? What can they do better than the rest of us? And what should we do to become more literate? “

She was Socrates and I was Young Clueless. It got me to the idea that literate people excel in three behaviors, things they do almost every day: they read with appreciation. They write on purpose. And – here is the kicker – they thought, spoke, and wrote about how meaning is created by the written word. Read, write, speak.

By asking four questions of 55 of our top writers, Chip Scanlan hosted one of the biggest writing conferences you’ll ever attend. Responses from a rich variety of scribes reveal the complexity of the profession, with wide doors that we can all pass through to become writers.

If you read this book twice, you will experience a fruitful journey. On first reading, you will be amazed by the individuality, even the eccentricity, of the scribes. Hey, when asked to adopt a metaphor for my writing, I compared myself to a “nail technician”.

But please read it a second time. In this cover, you will hear writers facing the same essential problems, a vision of writing at the heart of the teaching of our mentor Donald Murray. It doesn’t matter if you are writing a haiku or a 29-part narrative series. You have to come up with an idea, something worth writing about. You need to collect, through research and reporting, much more than you think you need. You need a goal, a guiding idea, the heart of the story. You can then use that focus to select the evidence you’ve gathered that best supports it, your best evidence. A shape for your text appears, sometimes early, sometimes late, helping sort out what belongs at the start, middle, and end. The right language finds us or we find it, by listening and by writing. We learn to turn procrastination into repetition, lowering our standards at the start of a draft and raising them through revision.

From 1977 to the present day, there has been a movement to improve the quality of writing, not only among journalists, but among all public writers. Chip Scanlan, who does not like sports, is a star of this team, a most valuable player, headed for the pantheon.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

I saw Dan Barry said a big lesson for him was that the process is getting harder. It seems true. But for me the process just got easier. I’m not a Sisyphus kicking that rock downhill. But I feel like I’m rolling it at least on a level plain. But it only gets easier if you’re willing to relearn the big lessons with each project. I’m talking about books now. I wrote six in 12 years. I have a process that I borrowed from John McPhee’s Bill Howarth description.

I need my raw material, my files, my filing folders, my bulletin board. If I try a shortcut, if I rely too much on my experience, if I try to dance on a step, I usually crash at the bottom of the stairs. Use the process. Follow the steps. Trust the process. You have to trust. Even if it’s not going well right now, keep going. Realize that the imperfection you are feeling right now is necessary.

There was a top bowler from Texas named Billy Welu who was a color commentator for the televised bowling tournaments. He pointed out that some bowlers with big hooks had to roll the ball over the edge of the gutter so that it curls into the pocket for a strike. “Confidence is a must,” he drawled in Texas, “or your game is a failure. “

What has been the biggest surprise of your life as a writer?

My biggest surprise as a writer came when I was about 30 years old. It surprised me again when I was about 60 years old. It had to do with my personal and professional identity. This is how I identified myself. I meet people all the time who say, “I’m not a writer, but I’m working on a novel. Or “I write reports at work all day, but I’m not saying I’m a writer.” I play rock and roll piano. And occasionally I hit a golf ball. I’m not Jimi Hendrix or Tiger Woods, but I feel comfortable calling myself a musician and a golfer.

I was trained in doctoral school to become a young English teacher. And I wrote a doctorate. essay on Chaucer, but I didn’t consider myself a writer. I became a newspaper writing coach, but I didn’t call myself a writer. In 1979, I had about 250 signatures in the St. Petersburg Times. Finally, it hit me: “You know, Roy, maybe you could be a writer. It’s crazy in retrospect: become a writing coach BEFORE you embrace the identity of a writer. Thirty years later, I could easily say that I was a writer and a writing teacher. Then it happened again. I wrote the book “Writing Tools” – followed by five more with Little, Brown. LB released Emily Dickinson! “Holy shit,” I thought, “I’m not just a writer, I’m an author! If you write, you are a writer. If you auth, you are an author.

If you had to choose one metaphor to describe yourself as a writer, what would it be?

I am fascinated by the work of Phoukhoun Phimsthasak, a woman who has made her way from Laos to America. She has an incredible personal history of escape, rescue, renewal, and hard work. My wife and I know her as Jane. She does manicures and pedicures. As a metaphor, I can consider myself a nail specialist. I work with an elaborate set of tools and a process that has a set of predictable steps, with special challenges and surprises along the way. My mission concerns both utility and beauty, but also listening and public service. It is also all about relationship building and referral as there are many nail specialists out there and many of them are good. But I want you to keep coming back to me.

What’s the best writing advice someone has ever given you?

The best writing advice I’ve ever received came – unsurprisingly – from Don Murray. He gave us the tools of clarity, how to make the facts easier to read. This forces copywriters to use shorter words, shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs at the most complex points. As a writer and teacher, I have put these tips into practice countless times.


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