Roy Peter Clark lays out 50 of his writing tools and invites us to borrow them for our own writing toolboxes. Each writing tool is presented in a brief chapter that explains the strategy, offers examples, and ends with practice exercises. Clark reminds us that these are tools, not rules. We should work with a few of them at a time to improve our written work and our writing process. The 50 tools are grouped into four sections.
In "Nuts and Bolts," Clark covers writing basics. There are no tedious specifications for comma placement or hyphenation. Instead there are effective techniques for using language "at the word, sentence and paragraph levels." These ten tools include "Establish a pattern, then give it a twist," which shows how repetition can set the reader's expectations. And how occasionally breaking the pattern highlights information and maintains interest. Another chapter, "Cut big, then small" discusses the painful task of revising by removing. Snip and cry, but snip.
"Part Two: Special Effects" demonstrates techniques of "economy, clarity, originality, and persuasion." The thirteen tips in this section include "Set the pace with sentence length" which shows how to influence the psychological "speed" at which a reader moves through text. "Get the name of the dog" emphasizes collecting concrete details as we do research. They allow us to move down the ladder of abstraction and bring life to descriptive writing.
In Part Three: Blueprints," Clark advocates organizing our writing process as well as our documents. Two of the best tools among these sixteen show how to encourage--and manage --readers' progress. "To generate suspense, use internal cliffhangers" and whet the reading appetite with not-yet-complete information. "Place gold coins along the path" reminds to provide points of enjoyment and closure to satisfy readers. And reduce the tension created by all of those cliffhangers.
"Part Four: Useful Habits" closes the book with eleven long-term strategies for working writers. "Limit self-criticism in early drafts--then turn it loose during revision" balances creativity and critique. It is consistent with the two-part writing process described at length in Peter Elbow's Writing With Power
. "Recruit your own support group" goes beyond standard advice about seeking feedback. Clark encourages writers to understand their own writing blind spots and needs for others' expertise. Then target helpers with matching knowledge and skills.
It does not surprise when a book from an experienced writer is well-written and entertaining--as this one is. It should not surprise that the advice is useful and can improve our writing if we follow it. This is a very good book and is highly recommended. It deserves a place on your bookshelf next to Strunk and White's The Elements of Style
, William Zinsser's On Writing Well
, Susan Bell's The Artful Edit
, and Mark Kramer and Wendy Call's Telling True Stories
Feed your shelf.