Q-and-A with Roy Peter Clark: Writing excellence is plain and simple

January 25, 2008

Copyright © 2008 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Chris Cobb

The following article appears in the February 2008 issue of PR Tactics.

Roy Peter Clark has worked at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., since 1979 as director of the writing center, dean of the faculty, senior scholar and vice president. He is the author or editor of 14 books on journalism and writing. His latest, “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer,” was recently released in paperback. Here, he discusses his work with PR professionals as well as the hallmarks of great writing.

Have you ever conducted writing seminars for PR professionals?

Roy Peter Clark: Yes. I did a writing seminar for the Disney PR team and for IBM’s intranet writing team. Occasionally, a small number of PR professionals have come to our [Poynter Institute’s] Writing Tools seminars.

How do they perform?

Clark: They do very well. I don't have to make many adjustments for them to satisfy their need to grow in the craft.

Does that mean they, and you, have limited expectations?

Clark: No. It means that after a week I can’t tell them apart from the journalists.

If you’re doing a dedicated workshop for PR practitioners, what do you tell them?

Clark: First of all, I tell them that the 50 tools in my book apply to them just as they apply to novelists or journalists or humorists. They are tools for creating meaning — tools of clarity, narrative and storytelling. I talk about the shape of the story and how to influence the reader so the reader takes from the article what you intend to put into it. I also stress that although they represent a company or an organization of some sort, they should also embrace a mission and purpose deeper than that.

What do you mean?

Clark: I mean their primary allegiance should be to the public interest, rather than private interest.

So what reaction do you typically get when you tell them that?

Clark: Skepticism. But I remind them of the Tylenol case. It’s about communicating a sense of responsibility. When you act [responsibly] on behalf of a company, you’re also acting in the public interest. The problems come when a company is caught behind a story, when there is an obvious attempt to circle the wagons or hide problems from public scrutiny. The effects can be devastating. Good, clear, honest writing and storytelling lets you get ahead of the story. It allows the writer and the company to stand courageously in the light of day, rather than sneak around in the shadows.

We are in an age of rapid-fire electronic communication. What has been the effect on the craft of writing?

Clark: Right now, writing is trapped between two competing forces. One has excellence as its hallmark and the other has equality. E-mail messages democratize writing, as do social networks such as MySpace and Facebook. The Internet lets you be your own publisher so blogs and Web sites put the means of production in the hands of the workers [laughs]. It’s the same with photography. There used to be professional photographers and the rest of us, but, because of new technology, some of the best — or at least first — news photography comes from someone’s mobile phone.

So where does that leave the professionals?

Clark: I don’t object to the amateurization of the craft but I do find myself trying to build a bridge between the two writing communities. Writing should not be in the hands of just a few high priests.  Anyone who wants to join the club can raise their standards and improve the quality, power and influence of their work. In the land of the blind, a one-eyed man is king and by that I mean in a media world where there is so much crap, something well done and interesting stands out.

If you’re communicating through e-mail, social networks, blogs and the rest, what does good writing achieve for you?

Clark: I can describe it best by using a technical term from language studies. Each one of us exists in a number of  “discourse communities.” It’s a useful term but really what it means is that we exist in a number of different language clubs. Nobody expects us to write an encyclopedia entry with the same prose we would use to write a Facebook entry. Different groups use different standards. The task is not to make your Web site or blog sound like a New Yorker essay. It’s to figure out what the standards of excellence and best practices are in your language club and observe the way the best practitioners use the language. The greatest writers of our culture were not creating language or stories out of thin air. To some extent, they all inherited a tradition and knew what the requirements of a particular form of writing were. So Shakespeare read sonnets and took that form and moved it to a different level. That’s what the best practitioners do: They take the form to a place nobody thought it could go.”

But what about people punching in messages on their PDAs or cell phones?

Clark: I like to write on airplanes. If you’re stuck on a runway, you can escape into the work. I found myself writing haiku poetry as text messages from my cell phone. The question is, can you turn three lines into a literary form? Dylan Thomas said, “I sing out in my chains,” which means that barriers and boundaries of the form gave him the context to create art. But you’re not a slave to the form. There is always room to grow, room to surprise and to set up expectations and give it a twist. That’s what good writers do.

What are the hallmarks of great writing?

Clark: Simplicity and clarity, not fancy language, metaphor and simile. I’m sure it’s very hard for a woodworker to make a beautiful plain table and it’s just as hard to write a beautiful plain story.

Author and journalist Chris Cobb is a senior writer at the Ottawa Citizen newspaper in Canada’s capital where he specializes in reporting on media and government communication. He is a frequent contributor to Tactics.

Check out Clark’s Writing Tools — The Blog.


linda reeder says:

I just borrowed Writing Tools from my local library, and after all books regarding Creative Writing, I fell in love with Mr Clark's book. I like the last part of each chapters where he gives you assignments, like reading a newspaper, then write your own sentences to be sure they are grammatically correct. As a very beginner in writing, Mr Clark would be the teacher I would want if in a class room setting. The books is a haven of as Mr Clark states Nuts and Bolts. I will buy the book personally.

July 1, 2013

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