Writing Tools

55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer


By Roy Peter Clark

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A special 10th anniversary edition of Roy Peter Clark’s bestselling guide to writing, featuring five bonus tools.

Ten years ago, Roy Peter Clark, America’s most influential writing teacher, whittled down almost thirty years of experience in journalism, writing, and teaching into a series of fifty short essays on different aspects of writing. In the past decade, Writing Tools has become a classic guidebook for novices and experts alike and remains one of the best loved books on writing available.

Organized into four sections, “Nuts and Bolts,” “Special Effects,” “Blueprints for Stories,” and “Useful Habits,” Writing Tools is infused with more than 200 examples from journalism and literature. This new edition includes five brand new, never-before-shared tools.

Accessible, entertaining, inspiring, and above all, useful for every type of writer, from high school student to novelist, Writing Tools is essential reading.


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Table of Contents

A Preview of The Art of X-Ray Reading


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What if we polled readers to determine the most influential writing books of all time? The winner, no doubt, would be The Elements of Style by the teacher/student team of William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. I own a dozen copies in different editions. Any book that sells more than ten million copies in a half-century deserves the equivalent of a platinum record.

Next on the list would be On Writing Well by William Zinsser, which has sold more than one million copies over the last thirty years. If I had to summarize Zinsser's advice in three words, it would be "Dump the clutter." My appreciation for this book is marked by my affection for the man. I met him just after its publication and reunited with him by phone just before his death at the age of ninety-two. By then he was blind, but still working with visiting writers in his Manhattan apartment, and taking lessons from a poetry tutor.

If you checked lists of writing books at online booksellers, you would find Strunk and White along with Zinsser at the top. Not far below, you would find books such as:

Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

On Writing, by Stephen King

These are noble and practical writing guides that deserve their place on your bookshelf, within arm's reach of your computer. What I like best about them is that they combine narratives of the writer's life with elements of the writer's craft.

Over the last ten years there has been one pretty little book, thanks to designer Keith Hayes, that has elbowed its way into the company of these classics. You are holding it in your hands: Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. For this Tenth Anniversary Edition we've brought you five new tools, for a total of fifty-five.

Students, teachers, journalists, and freelance writers often ask me, "What one book should I buy to grow as a writer?" I used to say The Complete Works of William Shakespeare or The Great Gatsby or Flannery O'Connor: The Collected Works. Those are still good answers. "No," they will respond, "I mean what one writing book."

For a long time my answer was The Elements of Style. Then I started recommending On Writing Well. Now I say Writing Tools. I understand the immodesty and self-interest in that statement. But I say it anyway, in a spirit that I think rests in the heart of every passionate and influential writer: I believe in the work.

If you believe in the idea that motivates this book, that America should strive to become a nation of writers, then why not shout it out?

I've been busy in the decade since the publication of Writing Tools. What followed that firstborn were these siblings: The Glamour of Grammar, Help! For Writers, How to Write Short, and The Art of X-Ray Reading, all published by Little, Brown. My confidence in this body of work has come from loyal readers. I hear from them all the time, and from all over the world. One wrote to say he was stuck writing his novel until someone handed him a copy of Writing Tools. Countless readers have testified that they keep the short list of tools at their workstations. High school students send me selfies in which they're holding the book.

The most dramatic response came from a man in a store named Kramerbooks in Washington, DC. I just happened to be visiting with my brother Vincent, who noticed the man holding a copy of one of my books. Vincent ventured to tell him that the author was in the men's room but would be happy to sign it for him.

I did sign the book, as the man, almost tearful, told of how he nearly gave up graduate studies because of an inability to write a thesis, and how his sister, a college professor, had encouraged him by giving him a copy of Writing Tools. He earned his degree.

In my last conversation with Bill Zinsser, he offered me a word of encouragement: "Let's keep this mission going." I took him to mean the craft of writing, the humanity of writing, the power of storytelling in the interests of literacy, learning, community, and democracy. That is where I plant my flag, and so, I venture to say, do my brothers and sisters of the word: Strunk, White, Zinsser, Goldberg, Lamott, and King. Read me. And read them, too.


A Nation of Writers

Americans do not write for many reasons. One big reason is the writer's struggle. Too many writers talk and act as if writing were slow torture, a form of procreation without arousal and romance—all dilation and contraction, grunting and pushing. As New York sports writer Red Smith once observed, "Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." The agony in Madison Square Garden.

If you want to write, here's a secret: the writer's struggle is overrated, a con game, a cognitive distortion, a self-fulfilling prophecy, the best excuse for not writing. "Why should I get writer's block?" asked the mischievous Roger Simon. "My father never got truck driver's block."

Good readers may struggle with a difficult text, but struggle is not the goal of reading. The goal is fluency. Meaning flows to the good reader. In the same way, writing should flow from the good writer, at least as an ideal.

The ability to read, society tells us, contributes to success in education, employment, and citizenship. Reading is a democratic craft. Writing, in contrast, is considered a fine art. Our culture taps only a privileged few on the shoulder. We are the talented ones, and you're not. The teacher read our stories aloud in class, or encouraged us to enter an essay contest, or pushed us toward the newspaper or literary magazine. We thrive on such recognition, but think of the millions left behind.

If you feel left behind, this book invites you to imagine the act of writing less as a special talent and more as a purposeful craft. Think of writing as carpentry, and consider this book your toolbox. You can borrow a writing tool at any time, and here's another secret: Unlike hammers, chisels, and rakes, writing tools never have to be returned. They can be cleaned, sharpened, and passed along.

These practical tools will help to dispel your writing inhibitions, making the craft central to the way you see the world. As you add tools to your workbench, you'll begin to see the world as a storehouse of writing ideas. As you gain proficiency with each tool, and then fluency, the act of writing will make you a better student, a better worker, a better friend, a better citizen, a better parent, a better teacher, a better person.

I first gathered these tools at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, but thanks to the Internet they have traveled around the world and back. They have found their way into the hands of teachers, students, poets, fiction writers, magazine editors, students, freelancers, screenwriters, lawyers, doctors, technical writers, bloggers, and many other workers and professionals who traffic in words. To my surprise, online versions are being translated into several languages, including Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, Japanese, and Indonesian, reminding me that writing strategies can and do cross boundaries of language and culture.

You will find in this toolbox new ways of thinking, along with many familiar pieces of advice, dusted off and reframed for a new century. But where do writing tools come from?

From great works on writing, such as The Elements of Style and On Writing Well. These tools took a lifetime to gather, and not just mine. They took the lifetimes of Dorothea Brande, Brenda Ueland, Rudolf Flesch, George Orwell, William Strunk and his student E. B. White, William Zinsser, John Gardner, David Lodge, Natalie Goldberg, Anne Lamott, and all generous authors who share their knowledge about how good writing is made.

From the authors whose works, more than two hundred of them, are sampled here. Using a method of close reading, I find a passage that intrigues me, put on my X-ray glasses, and peer beneath the surface of the text to view the invisible machinery of language, syntax, rhetoric, and critical thinking that creates the effects I experience as a reader. I then forge what I see into a writing tool.

From productive conversations with professional writers and editors. I once learned that only three behaviors set literate people apart. The first two are obvious: reading and writing; but the third surprised me: talking about how reading and writing work. Many of the tools came from great talk about the construction of stories and the distillation of meaning.

Finally, from America's great writing teachers. They have labored for decades to demystify the writing process for students, to describe writing as a craft, a set of rational steps, a box full of tools, habits, and strategies.

I reveal these sources—great works about writing, the effective work of writers, good talk among writers and editors, tools passed on by teachers—not only to give due credit, but also to offer the means and methods by which to gather a lifetime of writing tools. As Chaucer wrote more than six hundred years ago: "The life so short, the craft so long to learn."

Before I open Writing Tools for your inspection, let me suggest ways to use this book:

Remember, these are tools, not rules. They work outside the territory of right and wrong, and inside the land of cause and effect. Don't be surprised when you find many examples of good writing in the world that seem to violate the general advice described here.

Do not try to apply these tools all at once. Aspiring golfers swing and miss if they try to remember the thirty or so different elements of an effective golf swing. I promise you a case of writing paralysis if you think about too many of these tools when you sit down to write. Let your writing flow early. You can reach for a tool later.

You will become handy with these tools over time. You will begin to recognize their use in the stories you read. You will see chances to apply them when you revise your own work. With time, they will become part of your process, natural and automatic.

You already use many of these tools without knowing it. You cannot think, speak, write, or read without them. But now these tools will have names, so you can talk about them in different ways. As your critical vocabulary grows, your writing will improve.

You will notice that I have drawn examples of good writing from several genres of writing and storytelling: from fiction and poetry, from journalism and nonfiction, from essays and memoirs. The range is important. The literature reveals the best work that could be created under any circumstances, the journalism the best created under the exacting limits of time, space, and civic purpose. The testimony of many readers persuades me that tools in this book apply to the general tasks of most writers.

Writing Tools presumes some familiarity with the principles of standard English usage, grammar, punctuation, and syntax, but I have held technical language to a minimum. To gain full benefit, you should be able to identify the parts of speech, subjects and verbs, and the main clause of a sentence, and know the difference between active and passive voice. If you lack that knowledge, please read this book anyway. It will still help you improve your writing and will make clear what else you need to learn.

When a good friend first read these tools, he noted that they carried the writer and reader on a journey from the subatomic to the metaphysical level, from where to put the subject and verb to how to find your mission and purpose. That comment inspired a division of the tools into four boxes:

1. Nuts and bolts: strategies for making meaning at the word, sentence, and paragraph levels

2. Special effects: tools of economy, clarity, originality, and persuasion

3. Blueprints: ways of organizing and building stories and reports

4. Useful habits: routines for living a life of productive writing

At the end of each tool, you will find a set of workshop questions and exercises, more than two hundred in all. I wrote these with the student and teacher in mind, but I encourage everyone to read them, even if you do not perform the suggested task. They will help you imagine ways to grow as a writer.

Now that you know the contents and structure of this book, I'd like to enlist you to stand behind its mission and purpose. You will notice that my title, Writing Tools, is modest, but the title of this introduction, "A Nation of Writers," is bold. It's hard enough to imagine a village or colony of writers, but a nation? Why not?

Look around you. The National Commission on Writing has described the disastrous consequences of bad writing in America—for businesses, professions, educators, consumers, and citizens. Poorly written reports, memos, announcements, and messages cost us time and money. They are blood clots in the body politic. The flow of information is blocked. Crucial problems go unsolved. Opportunities for reform and efficiency are buried.

The Commission calls for a "revolution" in the way Americans think about writing. The time is right. Students now face high-stakes writing tests to advance in school and enter college. But technology stands on our side, easing the burdens of drafting and revision. I wrote my first book in 1985 on a Royal Standard typewriter. A machine just like it sits in my office, a museum piece. Now young writers use cell phones to communicate in the telegraphic and acronymic language of instant messages; words flash around the world with breathtaking speed. These new writers have created millions of Web logs and Web sites, becoming publishers of their own work.

No doubt, the standards expressed in these new forms are looser than those suggested by Strunk and White. The voices are more casual, the approaches more experimental, and the personae of the authors more elusive. These new voices cross old boundaries and command attention, but who would argue that the quality of writing online is what it could be? As these new writers mature, they will need writing tools to perfect their work.

We need lots of writing tools to build a nation of writers. Here are fifty of them, one for every week of the year. You get two weeks for vacation.

Learn and enjoy.


Nuts and Bolts


Begin sentences with subjects and verbs.

Make meaning early, then let weaker elements branch to the right.

Imagine each sentence you write printed on the world's widest piece of paper. In English, a sentence stretches from left to right. Now imagine this. A writer composes a sentence with subject and verb at the beginning, followed by other subordinate elements, creating what scholars call a right-branching sentence.

I just created one. Subject and verb of the main clause join on the left ("a writer composes") while all other elements branch to the right. Here's another right-branching sentence, written by Lydia Polgreen as the lead of a news story in the New York Times:

Rebels seized control of Cap Haitien, Haiti's second largest city, on Sunday, meeting little resistance as hundreds of residents cheered, burned the police station, plundered food from port warehouses and looted the airport, which was quickly closed. Police officers and armed supporters of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled.

That first sentence contains thirty-seven words and ripples with action. The sentence is so full, in fact, that it threatens to fly apart like an overheated engine. But the writer guides the reader by capturing meaning in the first three words: "Rebels seized control." Think of that main clause as the locomotive that pulls all the cars that follow.

Master writers can craft page after page of sentences written in this structure. Consider this passage by John Steinbeck from Cannery Row, describing the routine of a marine scientist named Doc (the emphasis is mine):

He didn't need a clock. He had been working in a tidal pattern so long that he could feel a tide change in his sleep. In the dawn he awakened, looked out through the windshield and saw that the water was already retreating down the bouldery flat. He drank some hot coffee, ate three sandwiches, and had a quart of beer.

The tide goes out imperceptibly. The boulders show and seem to rise up and the ocean recedes leaving little pools, leaving wet weed and moss and sponge, iridescence and brown and blue and China red. On the bottoms lie the incredible refuse of the sea, shells broken and chipped and bits of skeleton, claws, the whole sea bottom a fantastic cemetery on which the living scamper and scramble.

Steinbeck places subject and verb at or near the beginning of each sentence. Clarity and narrative energy flow through the passage, as one sentence builds on another. He avoids monotony by including the occasional brief introductory phrase ("In the dawn") and by varying the lengths of his sentences, a writing tool we will consider later.

Subject and verb are often separated in prose, usually because we want to tell the reader something about the subject before we get to the verb. This delay, even for good reasons, risks confusing the reader. With care, it can work:

The stories about my childhood, the ones that stuck, that got told and retold at dinner tables, to dates as I sat by red-faced, to my own children by my father later on, are stories of running away.

So begins Anna Quindlen's memoir How Reading Changed My Life, a lead sentence with thirty-one words between subject and verb. When the topic is more technical, the typical effect of separation is confusion, exemplified by this clumsy effort:

A bill that would exclude tax income from the assessed value of new homes from the state education funding formula could mean a loss of revenue for Chesapeake County schools.

Eighteen words separate the subject, "bill," from its weak verb, "could mean," a fatal flaw that turns what could be an important civic story into gibberish.

If the writer wants to create suspense, or build tension, or make the reader wait and wonder, or join a journey of discovery, or hold on for dear life, he can save subject and verb of the main clause until later. As I just did.

Kelley Benham, a former student of mine, reached for this tool when called on to write the obituary of Terry Schiavo, the woman whose long illness and controversial death became the center of an international debate about the end of life:

Before the prayer warriors massed outside her window, before gavels pounded in six courts, before the Vatican issued a statement, before the president signed a midnight law and the Supreme Court turned its head, Terri Schiavo was just an ordinary girl, with two overweight cats, an unglamorous job and a typical American life.

By delaying the main subject and verb, the writer tightens the tension between a celebrated cause and an ordinary girl.

This variation works only when most sentences branch to the right, a pattern that creates meaning, momentum, and literary power. "The brilliant room collapses," writes Carol Shields in The Stone Diaries,

leaving a solid block of darkness. Only her body survives, and the problem of what to do with it. It has not turned to dust. A bright, droll, clarifying knowledge comes over her at the thought of her limbs and organs transformed to biblical dust or even funereal ashes. Laughable.

And admirable.


1. Read through the New York Times or your local newspaper with a pencil in hand. Mark the locations of subjects and verbs.

2. Do the same with examples of your writing.

3. Do the same with a draft you are working on now.

4. The next time you struggle with a sentence, rewrite it by placing subject and verb at the beginning.

5. For dramatic variation, write a sentence with subject and verb near the end.


Order words for emphasis.

Place strong words at the beginning and at the end.

Strunk and White's The Elements of Style advises the writer to "place emphatic words in a sentence at the end," an example of its own rule. The most emphatic word appears at "the end." Application of this tool will improve your prose in a flash.

For any sentence, the period acts as a stop sign. That slight pause in reading magnifies the final word, an effect intensified at the end of a paragraph, where final words often adjoin white space. In a column of type, a reader's eyes are likewise drawn to the words next to the white space. Those words shout, "Look at me!"

Emphatic word order helps the writer solve the thorniest problems. Consider this opening for a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The writer, Larry King, must make sense of three powerful elements: the death of a United States senator, the collision of aircraft, and a tragedy at an elementary school:

A private plane carrying U.S. Sen. John Heinz collided with a helicopter in clear skies over Lower Merion Township yesterday, triggering a fiery, midair explosion that rained burning debris over an elementary school playground.

Seven people died: Heinz, four pilots and two first-grade girls at play outside the school. At least five people on the ground were injured, three of them children, one of whom was in critical condition with burns.

Flaming and smoking wreckage tumbled to the earth around Merion Elementary School on Bowman Avenue at 12:19 p.m., but the gray stone building and its occupants were spared. Frightened children ran from the playground as teachers herded others outside. Within minutes, anxious parents began streaming to the school in jogging suits, business clothes, house-coats. Most were rewarded with emotional reunions, amid the smell of acrid smoke.

On most days, any of the three elements would lead the paper. Combined, they form an overpowering news tapestry, one that reporter and editor must handle with care. What matters most in this story? The death of a senator? A spectacular crash? The deaths of children?

In the first paragraph, the writer chooses to mention the senator and the crash up front, and saves "elementary school playground" for the end. Throughout the passage, subjects and verbs come early—like the locomotive and coal car of an old railroad train—saving other interesting words for the end—like a caboose.

Consider also the order in which the writer lists the anxious parents, who arrive at the school in "jogging suits, business clothes, house-coats." Any other order weakens the sentence. Placing "house-coats" at the end builds the urgency of the situation: parents racing from their homes dressed as they are.

Putting strong stuff at the beginning and end helps writers hide weaker stuff in the middle. In the passage above, notice how the writer hides the less important news elements—the who and the when ("Lower Merion Township yesterday")—in the middle of the lead. This strategy also works for attributing quotations:

"It was one horrible thing to watch," said Helen Amadio, who was walking near her Hampden Avenue home when the crash occurred. "It exploded like a bomb. Black smoke just poured."

Begin with a good quote. Hide the attribution in the middle. End with a good quote.

Some teachers refer to this as the 2-3-1 tool of emphasis, where the most emphatic words or images go at the end, the next most emphatic at the beginning, and the least emphatic in the middle, but that's too much calculus for my brain. Here's my simplified version: put your best stuff near the beginning and at the end; hide weaker stuff in the middle.

Amy Fusselman provides an example with the first sentence of her novel, The Pharmacist's Mate: "Don't have sex on a boat unless you want to get pregnant." The most intriguing words come near the beginning and at the end. Gabriel García Márquez uses this strategy at the opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude to dazzling effect: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

What applies to the sentence also applies to the paragraph, as Alice Sebold demonstrates in this passage: "In the tunnel where I was raped,


On Sale
Jan 10, 2008
Page Count
272 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