Writing Tools

writingtools50 writing tools – a progressive summary-list I’m knocking together as I work through the book: “Writing Tools” by Roy Peter Clark.


1. Begin sentences with subjects and verbs, unless…

A writer composes a sentence with subject and verb at the beginning, followed by other subordinate elements, creating what scholars call a right-branching sentence. Think of that main clause as the locomotive that pulls all the cars that follow. If a writer wants to create suspense, or build tension, or make the reader wait and wonder, or join a journey of discovery, or hold on for dear life, he can save subject and verb of the main clause until later. As I just did. [practice – read the NYT and mark the locations of subjects and verbs]


2. Order words for emphasis.

Place emphatic words in a sentence at the end. Some encourage the use of the 2-3-1 tool of emphasis, where the most emphatic words or images go at the end, the next most emphatic at the beginning, and the least emphatic in the middle. [practice – read an essay you admire – circle the first and last words in each paragraph]


3. Activate your verbs (voice).

George Orwell wrote of verbs: “Never use the passive where you can use the active”. Active verbs can either be used in the past tense to keep a narrative moving, or they can immerse readers in the immediacy of an experience when used in the present tense. An example of Active/present use of verbs might be…

“Madina, 20, sits on her hospital bed. Her hands tremble. She picks nervously at the soles of her feet and confesses that three months earlier she set herself on fire with Kerosene.”

Action can also be intellectual, in the force and power of an argument, as Albert Camus demonstrates in The Rebel...

“The metaphysical rebel protests against the condition in which he finds himself as a man. The rebel slave affirms that there is something in him…”

Cut verbal qualifiers out of your writing, and convert passive and “to be” verbs (such as “was”) into active verbs.

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