Better Writing is Only 50 Steps Away

Roy Peter Clark wants to fill the world with well-written prose. Drawing from lessons taught in his book "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer," an extensive knowledge of medieval literature, and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," he mercilessly hunts happily smiling adverbs.

His Anglo-Saxon vocabulary may get him in hot water with IBM, but the science writers listening to Clark were quickly convinced to drop their wordy Latin. "I want you to embrace the value of one- and two-syllable words," said Clark.

Tip after tip from his new book was presented by the frenetically pacing presenter. Advice was simple to understand and implement, such as "Order words for emphasis." He went on to explain, "It's an old comedic device. Use the ends of paragraphs or sentences to seal the deal."

Clark suggested guiding the reader through the story with "gold coins" or wonderful turns of phrase. "The reader is looking for a 'nasty parasitic infection,'" exclaimed Clark, referring to a nice word choice in a piece about sea slug sexual relations.

The Poynter Institute professor also described how to organize big projects such as features or books. "A book was too big for me to write, but I could write 1000 words a week. After all, you may not be able to run a marathon, but over a year that's just only half a mile each week."

Clark also emphasized pace, suggesting that good writing should provide "less information at a more leisurely pace."

Those not able to attend the presentation can check out Clark's blog at or pick up the book at any sensible book shop. And, Clark warned that journalists should watch out for the upcoming "Writing Tools" podcast and musical. (Okay, just kidding about the musical ... that would be as crazy as a dancing demon, right Roy?)

Graeme Stemp-Morlock writes freelance science news in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, whenever he's not busy making igloos, wrestling polar bears, or enjoying the benefits of free healthcare (doesn't everyone love reading waiting room magazines from the 1970s?).

Oct. 29, 2006