Book Review -
Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer
Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark will help you communicate better, whether writing speeches, reports, handouts, or articles.
As I breezed through Writing Tools, I confessed to my wife that I felt inspired to write. Thus, the book achieved the rare feat of delivering on the promise of the front cover review (from the Boston Globe): “Writers will be inspired to pick up their pens.”
This article is one of a series of public speaking book reviews from Six Minutes.
Writing Tools is a collection of 50 short chapters. Each chapter illuminates a single principle for good writing. Tight focus restricts each chapter to just four or five pages, and every word contains valuable insights. Along the way, the author cites hundreds of examples, demonstrating that these tools apply to all writing genres, including speech writing.
The 50 chapters are organized into four parts, each containing between 10 and 16 chapters. Here’s how the author describes these parts:
- Nuts and bolts: strategies for making meaning at the word, sentence, and paragraph levels.
- Special effects: tools of economy, clarity, originality, and persuasion.
- Blueprints: ways of organizing and building stories and reports.
- Useful habits: routines for living a life of productive writing.
The table of contents is given below. I have bolded the many chapters which are of particular interest to speech writers.
- Part One: Nuts and Bolts
- Begin sentences with subjects and verbs.
- Order words for emphasis.
- Activate your verbs.
- Be passive-aggressive.
- Watch those adverbs.
- Take it easy on the -ings.
- Fear not the long sentence.
- Establish a pattern, then give it a twist.
- Let punctuation control pace and space.
- Cut big, then small.
- Part Two: Special Effects
- Prefer the simple over the technical.
- Give key words their space.
- Play with words, even in serious stories.
- Get the name of the dog.
- Pay attention to names.
- Seek original images.
- Riff on the creative language of others.
- Set the pace with sentence length.
- Vary the lengths of paragraphs.
- Choose the number of elements with a purpose in mind.
- Know when to back off and when to show off.
- Climb up and down the ladder of abstraction.
- Tune your voice.
- Part Three: Blueprints
- Work from a plan.
- Learn the difference between reports and stories.
- Use dialogue as a form of action.
- Reveal traits of character.
- Put odd and interesting things next to each other.
- Foreshadow dramatic events and powerful conclusions.
- To generate suspense, use internal cliffhangers.
- Build your work around a key question.
- Place gold coins along the path.
- Repeat, repeat, and repeat.
- Write from different cinematic angles.
- Report and write for scenes.
- Mix narrative modes.
- In short works, don’t waste a syllable.
- Prefer archetypes to stereotypes.
- Write toward an ending.
- Part Four: Useful Habits
- Draft a mission statement for your work.
- Turn procrastination into rehearsal.
- Do your homework well in advance.
- Read for both form and content.
- Save string.
- Break long projects into parts.
- Take an interest in all crafts that support your work.
- Recruit your own support group.
- Limit self-criticism in early drafts.
- Learn from your critics.
- Own the tools of your craft.
At the time of writing this review, you can get this book for only $9.79 from amazon.com. This is 25% off the list price. Incredible value!
1. “[T]hese are tools, not rules.”
Clark points out that his “tools” are not unbreakable rules; rather, they are guidelines which will improve your writing in most circumstances. As I read Writing Tools, I thought about how I would follow the tools and how I might break them.
I hold the same philosophy in public speaking, and try to reflect it on Six Minutes. Great speaking takes many forms, and nearly every speaking guideline can be broken occasionally. The key is to learn the guidelines first, and then learn how and when to break them.
2. Easily devoured, digested, and incorporated into your writing.
The format of Writing Tools makes for easy reading. With each chapter just 4 or 5 pages, this is the perfect book to read when you have just a few minutes a day.
At the end of each chapter, Clark includes a “Workshop” section with a number of exercises. Some exercises involve study (e.g. critique the writing of others in the context of the tool) while others are involve writing practice (e.g. apply the tool to your own writing).
3. Wonderfully written and edited.
Writing Tools is expertly written, with each chapter’s tool (in the first three parts, at least) demonstrated in the chapter’s text. Lessons are communicated crisply and convincingly. I also appreciate the obvious attention to editing (a full example of which is given in the chapter devoted to editing).
Of course, I would expect nothing less. Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at the Poynter Institute for over 30 years. As well, he is the author of numerous writing books.
I’m a pretty critical reader. I can usually list several areas for improvement for almost any book. Not so for this book. I’ve read it twice, and still cannot find fault.
I would not change a thing.
Ratings on amazon.com are very high: 81% of reviewers give it 5 out of 5 stars.
My two favorite tools — “Fear not the long sentence” and “Climb up and down the ladder of abstraction” — alone worth the price of the book.
This book is an excellent resource for everyone who is writing professionally. Based on the book, I’ve created a 28-point list that I use as a reference/reminder in my on-the-job writing and editing, as well as other types of writing.
[The book] steps the reader through the entire writing process, from the bare fundamentals all the way up to high-level organization and keeping your head straight as a writer facing deadline and word count. Each step is clear, concise, and doesn’t condescend or patronize – Clark clearly knows how to treat his reader with respect (a writing skill in itself), and it shows here. At the end of each chapter, Clark also includes a “Workshop”, a small set of exercises to help the reader internalize that particular strategy into his or her broader skill set.
The reader leaves believing that he can write well if he takes the time and uses the right tools. Writing tools is an excellent resource for anyone who aspires to write well.
Writing Tools is is best summarized by the three words that end the author’s introduction: Learn and enjoy.
I strongly recommend that you get a copy of Writing Tools and keep it within arm’s reach whenever you are writing. It will help you write better speeches, and it will help you in all of your other writing as well.
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