Writing is a magical craft and an uncompromising, demanding mistress. Secret spells exist to empower those who seek to become masters of the craft and win the hand of the mistress - in fact, they've been around for years, so why the hell haven't I found them before now?
Thanks to BC's own Paul Jordan, I've discovered those tools. He linked to the treasure trove of writing tips on Poynter Online, one of the best journalism sites on the web, named after the late journalist Nelson Poynter. One of Poynter's faculty has developed a series called "The Writing Tools: Writing tools from the workbench of Dr. Roy Peter Clark." Listed are 50 tips that are essential for anyone who's interested in the craft. If you click on each tool, it takes you to Clark's longer piece explaining it in more detail.
Consider just two of the tools of which Clark, in an interview with Steve Buttry says "Together, these tools work magic."
- "Tool 1: Branch to the right. Begin sentences with subjects and verbs, letting subordinate elements branch to the right. Even a long, long sentence can be clear and powerful when the subject and verb make meaning early."
Clark makes the point continually that nouns (subjects) and verbs are powerful words; adjectives and adverbs are weak. Think about your own writing - how often you start a sentence with a subordinate clause such as, "Not meaning to insult his readers, ..."
How much more powerful to begin, "Schannon never meant to insult his readers." Hmm. Try a different example next time, genius.
- "Tool 4: Period as a stop sign. Place strong words at the beginning of sentences and paragraphs, and at the end. The period acts as a stop sign. Any word next to the period says, 'Look at me'."
This tool is one of the toughest because it requires you to be cognizant of every word you use in a sentence. It also brings to mind one of the best pieces of advice from Strunk & White's <i>Elements of Style</i>, "Every word counts."
If you can master just these two tools, you'll find that what happens between the beginning and end of a sentence falls into place so much more easily. I have to admit that Tool 4 is tough and is probably one that I should pay more attention to in my own writing.
The problem with writing an article about Clark's tools is knowing where to stop. Each seems more brilliant than the last. Consider Tool #17, "The Number of Elements." Sounds dull? Go read it. Clark explores the power of the number of elements in a sentence demonstrating why writing can be magic.
Clark explains relatively simple issues such as the weakness of adverbs, the power of strong verbs and the active vs. passive tense, but he also branches off into esoteric realms such as understanding when repeating a word is a tool of power or simple laziness, or knowing how to move up and down "the ladder of abstraction." The latter tool is a philosophical tract explaining why some writing is clear, powerful, and elegant while other can best be called babbling.
I'd continue, but I'm going back to the site to get smarter and become a better writer.