If I Were a Carpenter: The Tools of the Writer

If I Were a Carpenter:
The Tools of the Writer

by Roy Peter Clark
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute
© Used by Permission of Roy Peter Clark and the Poynter Institute

At times it helps me to think that writing is like carpentry. That way, I can work from a plan and use the tools I've stored on my workbench. You can borrow a writing tool whenever you'd like. And here's a secret: you don't have to return it. You can pass it on to another writer without losing it. Here is my list of 20 writing tools. I've borrowed these from reporters and editors, from authors of books on writing, and from teachers and coaches. I've learned how to use many of them by reading the work of storytellers I admire. In this space, I can offer only the briefest description of how to use the writing tool, but I hope it is enough to help you build your own collection.

Sentences and Paragraphs Begin sentences with subjects and verbs, letting subordinate elements branch off to the right. Even a very long sentence can be clear and powerful when subject and verb make meaning early.

  • Use verbs in their strongest form, the simple present or past tense. Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the players. Beware of adverbs. Too often, they dilute the meaning of the verb or repeat it: "The building was completely destroyed."
  • 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 plays jazz. Language
    1. Observe word territory. Do not repeat a key word within a given space, unless you intend a specific effect.
    2. Play with words, even in serious stories.
    3. Dig for the concrete and specific: the name of the dog and the brand of the beer. Details help readers see the story.
    4. When tempted by cliches, seek original images. Make word lists, free-associate, be surprised by language.
    5. Prefer the simple over the technical: shorter words and paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity.
    6. Strive for the mythic, symbolic, and poetic. Recognize that common themes of newswriting (homecoming, conquering obstacles, loss and restoration) have deep roots in the culture of storytelling.
    1. For clarity, slow the pace of information. Short sentences make the reader move slowly. Time to think. Time to learn. See what I mean?
    2. Control the pace of the story by varying sentence length. Long sentences create a flow that carries the reader down a stream of understanding, creating an effect that Don Fry calls "steady advance." Or stop a reader short.
    3. Show and tell. Begin at the bottom of the ladder of abstraction, at the level of bloody knives and rosary beads, of wedding rings and baseball cards. Then ascend to the top to summarize and analyze, discovering meaning in the world's random details.
    4. Reveal telling character traits and the glories of human speech. Avoid adjectives when describing people. Don't say "enthusiastic" or "talkative," but create a scene where the person reveals those characteristics to the reader.
    5. Strive for "voice," the illusion that the writer is speaking directly to the reader. Read the story aloud to hear if it sounds like you.
    1. Take advantage of narrative opportunities. You want to writestories, not articles. Think of action, conflict, motivation, setting, chronology, and dialogue.
    2. Place gold coins along the path. Don't load all your best stuff high in the story. Space special effects throughout the story, encouraging readers to find them and be delighted by them.
    3. Use sub-headlines to index the story for the reader. This tool tests the writer's ability to find, and label, the big parts of the story.
    4. Repeat key words or images to "chain" the story together. Repetition works only if you intend it.
    5. In storytelling, three is the magic number. Four is too many. Two is not enough.
    6. Write endings to create closure.