Help! For Writers

210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces


By Roy Peter Clark

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The craft of writing offers countless potential problems: The story is too long; the story’s too short; revising presents a huge hurdle; writer’s block is rearing its ugly head.

In Help! For Writers, Roy Peter Clark presents an “owner’s manual” for writers, outlining the seven steps of the writing process, and addressing the 21 most urgent problems that writers face. In his trademark engaging and entertaining style, Clark offers ten short solutions to each problem. Out of ideas? Read posters, billboards, and graffiti. Can’t bear to edit yourself? Watch the deleted scenes feature of a DVD, and ask yourself why those scenes were left on the cutting-room floor. Help! For Writers offers 210 strategies to guide writers to success.


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Table of Contents

A Preview of The Art of X-Ray Reading


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The Seven Steps of the Writing Process

Writing is not magic. It's a craft, a process, a set of steps. As with any process, things sometimes break down. Even in a good story, the writer runs into problems. So the act of writing always includes problem solving. At times, things get so bad, writers feel as if they're drowning. Before going under, they reach for a lifeline.

This book offers that lifeline.

To hear some writers talk, you would think we have problems in the gajillions, from whether to use gajillion or gazillion, to whether that exclamation point after Help is necessary.

As I've grown in my own craft, I've listened to my brothers and sisters of the word and have developed a theory to focus this book. Here it is, my Theory of Writer Redemption: The big problems of writers are few in number and lend themselves to reliable solutions. I subscribe to the gospel of Donald Murray, one of America's most influential writing teachers, that writers—across genres and disciplines—share a similar process, a set of tactical steps. If you dig deep enough, you can discover that common method.

Surely, you wonder, the sonneteer must develop a different approach to the craft than the pamphleteer? How about the author of a 140-character message on Twitter? Is her process the same as the novelist's? At the highest level of abstraction, my answer would be yes.

So what are those shared steps?

Getting started

All writers need a kick start, a starter's pistol, a spur to the flank, something that jolts them into action. This recurring need leads them to explore the world and their own experiences for writing ideas. Such curiosity turns them into hunters and gatherers who collect the raw materials that render their reports and stories interesting and significant.

Getting your act together

A writer who goes exploring can bring home so many treasures that the writing space and the writer's mind can become cluttered. Writers must be able to find what they need when they need it. At this stage, it is too early to know whether an author has what she needs to fill a novel or memoir or annual report with interesting and important ideas, facts, and language.

Finding focus

Each piece of writing benefits from a focus, a guiding idea, a scene, or an emotion that communicates to writer and reader what the work is really about. A telegram, Twitter post, or haiku needs a focus, but so does a short story, a love note, or a complaint about your plumber to the Better Business Bureau. Such a unifying notion helps the writer select the best collected material—the best characters, the best details, the most important points, down to the best word and the best mark of punctuation. A focus will help the writer craft an opening sentence or paragraph; and sometimes writing that paragraph is required to find a focus. It's the yin/yang of the writing process.

Looking for language

The Old English poets were said to have a "word hoard" from which they could choose the best language to shape their poems. How great it would be to throw open a closet door and find just the right word for just the right writing task. Where do such words come from? They come from a life of reading and study of the craft, from the daily experience of language, from travel, from dictionaries, and from the research required to gather not just raw data but the ideas, images, and key words necessary to understand a group of people or a field of study.

Building a draft

It is never easy to know when it's time to sit down at your keyboard to create a first draft. The writer often feels resistance at this stage, expressed as writer's block or procrastination. The writing will begin to flow if the writer has attended to the earlier steps. W. H. Auden once described a poem as a "verbal contraption" with a person, a guiding intelligence, hiding inside. All texts are constructed, often from a blueprint or plan, erecting an architecture of meaning and purpose. The writer must decide on a sequence—what goes first in a work and what goes last. A haiku has three lines, a legal brief builds an argument, Shakespeare wrote plays in five acts and sonnets in fourteen lines. Each part of the work carries a special power, magnified when the writer creates an effective structure for the whole.

Assessing your progress

When writers talk to teachers or editors, they often blurt blurry language to mask the one key question that concerns them: "How am I doing?" As a coach, my version of that question, as I approach a writer, is "How is it going?" Everyone wants a progress report, calibrated against different goals and criteria. The writer makes preliminary judgments about the current quality of the work and how much time and energy are left to improve it. The writer can reach conclusions on his own but often benefits from an intervention. When Donald Murray was asked how the day's writing had gone, he had two reliable answers, both framed in the affirmative. He could respond by quantity: "I produced ten pages before lunch." Or, if necessary, by quality: "I wrote one really great sentence this morning."

Making it better

Completing a draft of a text can be such hard work that the writer may be charmed by the illusion that the job is almost finished. But the process does not stop there. The final problem for the writer is how and what to revise, what to delete, what to insert. It is during revision that the writer will refine, polish, and perfect a work that can never be perfect but can grow and become good enough to fulfill the writer's purpose. Key to a successful endgame is to leave time and energy for revision, the way a long-distance runner saves energy for a sprint to the finish line.

Get started

Get your act together

Find focus

Look for language

Build a draft

Assess your progress

Make it better

If those seven phrases represent the writer's largest and most imposing tasks, the effort to complete them can be stymied by a set of pesky problems. Those problems have influenced the structure of Help! Each chapter begins with an explanation of one stage of the writing process, followed by questions for reflection. At each stage you will encounter three of the most persistent and difficult obstacles to completing that task, a total of twenty-one common writing problems. For each problem, I offer ten practical and proven solutions, drawn from the work and life stories of successful writers, living and dead. Do the math (even you English majors) and realize you own the 210 writing solutions promised on the cover, enough lifelines to survive a mudslide of deadlines.


Feel free to think of Help! For Writers as an owner's manual for your writing process. When I bought my 2002 Chrysler PT Cruiser, my first job was to read the owner's manual from beginning to end, just to get the lay of the automotive land. I don't remember consulting it again until the evening a neighbor knocked to alert me that my dome light was on, draining my battery. I tried the usual fixes: flicking switches, checking fuses, slamming doors. Nothing worked. I was stuck. What could I do? "Why don't you consult the owner's manual," said my wife with grumpy disdain.

All writers live for those days when the work speeds along the highway on cruise control, when the author's only tasks are to point the hood ornament toward the destination and steer. But then there are those days when…

  • … you can't get started, or
  • … you can't find something you need amid all your clutter, or
  • … you can't decide what to include and what to leave out, or
  • … you think your last paragraph should be your first, or
  • … you begin to wonder why you became a writer in the first place.

You realize you need help. In fact, you realize you need Help!

This book offers a road map to get you through your writing process, a travel guide that takes you from the exploration of story ideas to the final choices of revision. But it would be a mistake to think of writing as a straight and narrow road, or this book as some program of recovery for drunken drivers that must be followed one step after another. The writing process more resembles a twisting mountain roadway where solutions for your next problem can be found back a few miles. For that reason, we have built into Help! a certain amount of strategic repetition. You'll discover, for example, that the idea of setting an early artificial deadline works at almost every stage of the process, through research, planning, drafting, and revision.

It should be a comfort for you to learn that the problems of writers (and drivers!) are predictable and manageable. So click on your seatbelt. Turn the ignition key. Let's get started. And enjoy the ride.


Getting Started

Having the urge to write is one thing; acting on it is another. At the age of fifteen, I broke my ankle during a baseball game, and I still remember how I planned my first week of recovery. I would write a spy novel. It was the era of Goldfinger and Thunderball, and I dreamed of creating my own version of superspy 007. I was a good and clever writer as a teenager but had written nothing longer than a short story or a book report. No matter. I was ready to go. I found a comfortable spot on the back porch, rested my bum leg on a cushion, grabbed a legal pad and ballpoint pen, and then… nothing.

I have a clear memory of what stopped me from getting started: I did not know how to write a novel. I knew what a novel looked like, but not the process needed to create one. I thought I could write a book just by milking my imagination. After all, it was fiction. I could invent stuff. But it soon became clear that I needed to know more, a lot more—about spies, about Russians, about gadgets, about women, about everything—before I could proceed. Then the doubts arrived: "What made you think you could write a novel? You're not a writer. You're just a clumsy little asshole. You can't even slide into home plate without breaking an ankle."

Then, of course, the temptations followed: "Roy, the Yankees game is on. Wanna come in and watch it?" "Hey, kid, want to go to Carvel for some ice cream?" "Hey, Roy, Rosie's on the phone for you."

We learn in science class that inertia is a physical force that manifests itself in two ways. Things that are still—not moving—will stay still until acted upon by outside forces. (My laptop will remain on my desk until I pick it up and fling it—discus-style—out the window.) But inertia also describes the way an object in motion stays in motion until some external force slows or stops it. For the purposes of writing, I call the first kind "bad inertia" because it describes inactive writers who can't get moving. The other kind is "good inertia," because once you get started you can keep things rolling. No writing creates no writing. Some writing creates more writing. Getting started requires forms of exploration that become a way of life. The writer is a curious person who discovers topics to write about and, over time, comes to see the world as a storehouse of story ideas. Just as Rex, my little terrier, goes out into the yard to sniff for possums, so the writer is ignited by the hint of something in the air, a thought, a theory, an emotion, a story, a character worth attention, a problem to be solved.

Problems covered in this chapter:


The first challenge is to find something to write about. In my experience, there are two basic types of writers: the ones who write only in response to assignments and those who find ways to work on their own story ideas. Writers need both modes to fulfill the demands of the craft, but the best writers follow their noses along the path to good stories. They generate many more ideas than can be put into practice. That's a nice problem to have. No writer should descend into a welfare system provided by editors or teachers or bosses. The writer wants and needs the ability to work independently. That means coming up with your own ideas and arguing diplomatically that your ideas have the best juice.


There are no bad story ideas or bad story assignments. What turns out to be good or bad is what the writer does with the idea or assignment. The assignment is a starting point. Editors or teachers may disagree, especially those who insist on adding stipulations for its execution: "You've got to cover the meeting, get responses from each member of the city council, three reactions from people who live on the north side of town, three from the south side…" In such cases, the writer feels like a short-order cook. With enough freedom, the writer explores the assignment for the elements that will be most interesting and most important, being alert to those sudden moments of clarity when even a bad assignment becomes a nifty story.


If your goal is to write a book, research may take years or even decades. Or, if an emergency call comes in and you must verify whether the fire destroyed the friary or the nunnery, it can take five minutes. Writers make the mistake of thinking of writing and research as mutually exclusive tasks. Since the research usually comes first, it can grow bigger and bigger, feeding on time that could be spent on drafting and revision. A reliable strategy is to write early and often, even if just a note on the results of the day's research. Writing about your research will help you determine whether you know enough to write at full speed or need to learn much more.


Here and throughout the book, use the following questions to better understand yourself as a writer. Think about them. Talk about them with teachers, editors, students, friends, other writers. Write down your reflections and save them. Go back to them down the road and discover how far you have traveled.

  • Do you think of yourself as curious?
  • When was the last time you were dying to find out something about a person or a place?
  • Are you more likely to get story impulses, ideas, or assignments?
  • When was the last time you thought of a great writing idea?
  • What are some of the things you do now to find great stories?
  • What's the most interesting thing about you that others do not know?
  • How much of your writing time is spent on research?
  • What do you find most interesting or most frustrating about research?


I can't think of anything to write.

Spend a morning in a bagel shop or an afternoon in a bookstore.

For the price of a cup of coffee and a bagel, you can listen in on the morning's conversations about news and current events; or you can browse through new books and magazines at a favorite bookstore. A survey will generate an endless stream of story ideas. Any café or bookstore is a story idea machine.

I just spent twenty minutes with the magazines displayed in the library of the Poynter Institute, the school where I've taught writing for more than thirty years. Even with our focus on journalism, I found an array of topics in the cover stories alone, gaining an overview of the broad concerns of the day. In April 2010 these included health care reform, how to survive in a bad economy, the influence of the iPad and other reading tablets, attempts to deal with childhood obesity, the beginning of baseball season, the Tiger Woods sex scandal. Within this forest of large issues, interesting little stories hide behind the trees. (For example, I'm thinking of writing a comparison of the Apple iPad with the classic kid's toy Etch A Sketch.)

My eyes found the cover of Publishers Weekly, which included this tease: "Dystopian Future Is Here: Teens are reading about vampires, but end-of-the world scenarios are bigger than ever." A light flickered in my head. What, I wondered, is the relationship between vampire stories and narratives about the end of the world, and is there any link to the fact that we have begun calling some young people "millennials"? Suddenly, I'm off and running—and writing.

Keep a little notebook to compile story ideas.

Ideas can be elusive—like fireflies at dusk. You will need a dozen story ideas for every one you eventually execute. You'll need a place to store them. Use whatever suits you, including the notes mode on your mobile phone. I prefer to go old-school: a tiny notebook suitable for pocket or purse. I know writers who need paper in their pockets, in their cars, on the toilet tank, on the table beside their beds. The eccentric artist Salvador Dalí was known to take quick naps and awaken suddenly, his head filled with surrealistic images. He would capture these images on a pad as soon as possible so that they could not escape.

Your notebook can contain fully articulated story ideas, such as "Sports journalists and the public are harsher in their criticism of women athletes who play aggressively—to the point of violence—than of male athletes." More often, you will record the seeds of story ideas, most of which will die out. A few will bear fruit. Here are examples of seedlings:

  • Not one person played an April Fool's joke on me this year.
  • Does the word dope, as in the Disney dwarf Dopey, derive from the slang word for drugs? (Turned out the drug slang derives from the Dutch word for sauce or gravy.)
  • Saw ten big alligators around the golf course. What's the rule for a ball that's in play but dangerously close to a gator? ("Dogleg to the left; gator jaws to the right!")
  • Church was packed for Easter Sunday Mass, but saw only three Easter bonnets, all worn by little girls. Whither the bonnet?

Read a book on a topic that is unfamiliar to you.

Insomnia can be good for you. It was good for me one night when, at about three A.M., I got up and turned on the television to see a C-SPAN panel featuring the work of Timothy Ferris, author of several important books on astronomy and cosmology. No, not cosmetology. That deals with craters on your skin. Ferris is more interested in craters on the moon and one, about a hundred miles wide, off the Mexican coast, possibly responsible for the extinction of many species on earth, including the dinosaurs.

See how much I've learned just by watching, and then reading, Ferris? You should always have "a book going," advised Donald Murray, that comes from outside your normal field of interest. Because my interests are reading, writing, sports, and language, my "outside" reading includes works on photography and the visual arts, philosophy and theology, natural science, and applied mathematics. By reading such work, I discover not just specialized content but also story ideas that span more than one field.

You don't have to spend much money. New media technologies afford access to texts of all genres, from all disciplines, written over centuries. Through online bookstores alone, writers can read passages—for free—of books that are for sale. Research is not the primary purpose of such commercial enterprises, but they allow us to taste many books and articles, including the ones we will one day purchase.

Break your routine. Go to work or school a different way.

I am a creature of routine, especially when it comes to my personal life. I like to stay home and watch television on Friday nights. And I enjoy going to breakfast on Saturday morning at the Frog Pond restaurant, especially if they are serving strawberry waffles. That doesn't mean I have to drive to the restaurant the same way each week, and I try not to. There are probably ten or more routes from my house to St. Pete Beach, and I've taken most of them.

You may see stories from the vantage point of the main road: construction of a new big-box store, which might bring more traffic and more congestion—but lower prices. A great offbeat story, on the other hand, is more likely to be found on a side street, off the beaten path. An eagle sits atop a light pole, looking down at children playing soccer. An eighty-year-old Catholic nun takes dance lessons from a former Rockette. A charter school for poor kids offers golf lessons for PE. A corner of a cemetery is reserved for stillborn children. None of this is visible from the main road, so you must learn to turn left, turn right, and drive down that alley, even if it takes you a little longer to reach your destination.

There are stories that come out of Wall Street and others that come out of Main Street, but don't get stuck in that false dichotomy. There are many stories to be found on the side streets and especially, as Bruce Springsteen reminds us, on the backstreets.

Eat out.

In the last couple of years, I have switched my lunch place of choice from Pizza Hut to the Banyan restaurant and coffee shop. The Banyan is more stylish but sits across the alley from Molly's, a rooming house and bar that features a Laundromat and draft beer for a dollar. Negotiating the distance between those two unlikely neighbors, I'm sure I've run into dozens of story ideas, most of which I would never have encountered had I not abandoned my personal pan pizza routine.

Francis X. Clines, one of the finest writers in the history of the New York Times, once said that he knew he could find a good story if he could just get out of the office. With a virtual world at their fingertips, writers seem more office bound than ever. Achieving escape velocity from a mediated world to a flesh-and-blood one takes a concerted effort.

When people eat, they also laugh, argue, canoodle, whisper, check each other out, check you out, or talk too loud. Enjoy your meal but keep that mobile device in your pocket or purse and focus your attention on what is going on around you. Never be afraid to turn your listening into a conversation, especially with an interesting stranger.

There are eight million stories in the naked city, said the narrator of the old television series. Even better, there are at least three or four in a local eatery, if you can just get out of the office, or off campus, or even down the street. The school or office cafeteria may crave your business—or you may prefer a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at your desk—but your physical liberation from such cloisters will lead you to a world of stories.

Watch people in their natural habitats.

My cousin Theresa was high up in the World Trade Center when the first plane hit her building on the morning of September 11, 2001. She hadn't had breakfast yet, so she was about to enjoy a muffin and cup of coffee with her coworkers. They all felt the impact of the plane, and the whole building seemed to sway back and forth, a cart of fruit rolling first to the left, then to the right, and back to the left. She escaped with her life, but nothing would be the same for any of us.

This may be the ultimate example of what screenwriter Robert McKee describes as an "inciting incident," an event, small or large, that dramatically changes the nature of an ordinary day, that "radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist's life." Anyone who has been in a car accident knows the feeling. Just another day of work, a routine drive down the service road of a busy highway, and then WHAM. We have a cliché to describe such events. We say they hit us "out of the blue."

Before we can tell stories about these lightning strikes, we have to develop a keen sense of normal life. How were people acting in the bar and grill at the exact moment that the runaway car crashed through the picture window? One way to learn the narrative potential of normal experience is to hang out. Where? In a sense, it does not matter: Try the park, the mall, a busy street, the gym, a hotel lobby, a church, a concert hall, a pub, the airport, the bleachers during a high school football game, Dunkin' Donuts. Ride the bus. Take the train. Even when you are stuck inside that human sardine can we call an airplane, take in the setting. Imagine that a scene will play out there. Watch people's reaction upon takeoff, or when the first bump of turbulence strikes. Could you write a play from the dialogue between characters on that plane—or a novel?

Your body may just be hanging out in all these places, but your mind is on fire with curiosity, imagining character, dialogue, narrative tension, points of view, a sequence of scenes—all the building blocks of story construction.

Read posters, billboards, store signs, graffiti.

Lane DeGregory, one of the most talented narrative writers in America, offers this advice to fledgling scribes: "Let the walls talk." Drive around and look at the big signs, commercial and governmental. Walk around to see what the small signs say. When you enter a building or an office or someone's home, look at what they've hung up on the walls or, especially, on the refrigerator door. In our house, that door will have a lot to say: You'll find newspaper clippings about our daughter's theatrical performances, the names of local businesses we support, magnets with the names of products or causes, funny stories or comic strips to which we relate, crucial telephone numbers, a recipe that signals an upcoming holiday feast. If you write fiction, you have many important scenic decisions to make, including "What will the walls say about my characters?"

I once shadowed a political writer, Howell Raines, to a barbecue in rural Florida, and we wandered through the parking lot, looking at the bumper stickers. Howell wanted the car bumpers to talk to him about the political, religious, and cultural affiliations of those in attendance. "Let me know if you see any 'George Wallace for President' signs," he coached me.


On Sale
Sep 21, 2011
Page Count
304 pages
Little Brown Spark

Roy Peter Clark

About the Author

Roy Peter Clark is senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, one of the most prestigious schools for journalists in the world. A writer who teaches and a teacher who writes, he has authored or edited twenty books on writing and journalism, including Writing Tools, Murder Your Darlings, and The Art of X‑Ray Reading.

Learn more about this author