The most important advice I received about the writing craft came from an influential teacher and author named Donald Murray
. "Remember, Roy," he told me, "a page a day equals a book a year."
It did not seem possible, but I did the math. A double-spaced page equals about 250 words. Now multiply 250 x 300 days (I'm taking 65 days off!). That creates 75,000 words, more than enough for a book of 300 pages.
A page a day equals a book a year. That pace turned out to be too fast for me. But from 2006 until 2016, I will have written five books in ten years, all published by Little, Brown. So a less ambitious version of Murray's advice would be, "A half-page a day equals a book every two years." Still, pretty productive.
You would think such productivity would require a reliable method, a set of reproducible steps. I've got a few tricks to share. But as I describe what I learned from writing each book, you will notice that the differences stand out as much as the recurring strategies.
So let's go back to the years preceding 2006, a time when I had already written and published a number of academic texts and anthologies, but nothing commercially viable. I was stuck. I pitched some ideas to literary agent Jane Dystel, who said in quick succession: "No, no, and no. What else have you got?"
"I'm writing these essays about writing," I said, in desperation. And so it began.
Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (2006)
This book is a child of the age of the Internet. On my 25th anniversary teaching at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, I created a special project for Poynter's influential website, Poynter.org
. I told the editor that I would produce over the next year 25 essays on the writing craft. The first one would be "Get the name of the dog," a reminder to writers to seek out interesting and revealing details. I promised to deliver an essay every two weeks. But as I built momentum, the essays began coming quicker and quicker. When I got to 25, I realized I had not yet exhausted my supply of writing tools. So I wrote more and more, until I came to a stop at 50.
I did not have a book yet, of course, but I did have something important: an audience. Feedback came from around the world. Could I please translate these strategies into Farsi? Someone, without permission, translated them into Italian. Before long, I had an agreement with Jane Dystel to represent me. There was an auction. The winner was Little, Brown. I became a winner when Tracy Behar became my editor.
The book has been translated into Danish, German, and Portuguese. More than two million podcasts based on the book have been downloaded from iTunesU. More than 150,000 are in print. Writing Tools
consistently ranks among the top five most popular writing books in America.
Break the big work into the smallest possible units — in this case, 1,000- word essays. Divide the marathon into a series of one-mile runs.
The Glamour of Grammar: The Magic and Mystery of Practical Language (2010)
I had no interest in writing a book about grammar, until my publisher made me an offer I could not refuse. When I sit down to write a book, I almost always begin with the advantage of expertise. Not so with The Glamour of Grammar
. This would be a learning book, not an expert book. I began with a process of reading and exploration. What did aspiring writers need to know about the elements of the English language?
The learning slowed me down: What was the difference between a correlative and coordinating conjunction, and why did it matter to the writer? A bigger problem was my inability to define for my editor what I meant about grammar. It took some time, but I persuaded her that our focus should be on rhetorical grammar, not the right and wrong of language, but the cause and effect.
I missed a March deadline. Guilty, I wrote and wrote and handed in a 130,000-word manuscript two months before the new deadline. A new problem: the manuscript was twice as long as required by contract. A 100-chapter book would have to be reduced to 50 chapters. I realized I could not cut this down to size by word editing. Big limbs would have to be pruned. And they were. The New York Times Book Review
called it "a guide for the 21st century."
To quote Don Murray again, brevity comes from selection and not compression. First prune the limbs, and then shake out the dead leaves.
Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces (2011)
This book — I think of it as my middle child — was conceived and developed on a round-trip flight to Denmark. That's about 14 hours of work — seven hours each way. My utensils were a spiral bound notebook and a couple of ballpoint pens, black ink. What I was creating, I thought, was not a book, but the architecture of a mobile app that writers could use on deadline.
When it comes to designing an app, it's very much about supportive levels of meaning and explanation. The algorithm, if I may call it that, went something like this:
1. List the seven main steps of the writing process.
2. For each of those seven steps, writers will face predictable problems. Let's list the three most serious problems for each step, 21 in all.
3. For each of those problems, let's give the writer ten possible solutions.
To review: seven stages, 21 problems, 210 solutions.
My colleagues at Poynter helped create the app for an iPhone. It costs $1.99 to download, and has not been successful at attracting users or revenue.
But, guess what? The architecture created for the app turned out to be congenial to the development of a book. Need a lifeline on deadline? Just find the part of the process where you are stuck, say, "Finding a Focus." Now drill down to your particular problem: "I struggle with the beginning." Go through the list of solutions until you find one that clicks: maybe, "Decide what the reader needs to know first," or "Think of a scene or anecdote that captures what your story is about."
In an era of multiple media, use various platforms to publish and market your ideas.
How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times (2013)
I describe this book as a bit of a scam. How can you write a book
about writing short? Doesn't that feel like a bit of an oxymoron? I realized when I started that I would have to define short writing, however arbitrarily, and came up with 300 words. That's a couple of sentences longer than the Gettysburg Address, which is iconic for its power and brevity.
Once I knew the length limit, the process of hunting and gathering excellent short texts became most efficient. I collected them from everywhere, old school and new: prayers, proverbs, tattoos, aphorisms, epitaphs, song lyrics, telegrams, but also blog posts, text messages, tweets, even emoticons.
I call this process saving string. Pick a topic and when you find something related to it, put it in a box. This form of literary composting creates time and space you did not know you had. Once you start sorting these mini-texts, patterns and topics — leading to chapter titles — begin to appear. Create a file for each of those chapters. Arrange them in a convenient, but not final, order. Begin to write.
Save string. Collect things others would throw away. Before you know it, you'll have a body of knowledge and evidence to support your writing.
The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing (2016)
By now, I have learned that books are written more by habitual writing than any other strategy. For many of us, that means a dedicated time at the keyboard — from 30 minutes to two hours — in the morning. I can write about 1,000 words an hour if I am on my game.
The key to fluency and productivity is that trick suggested by poet William Stafford
. To overcome procrastination or writer's block, writers need to "lower their standards." So when I sit to write, I am not even calling it a "first draft." I call it a "zero draft." Just get my hands moving to see what meaning — especially what surprises — are in store for me.
Before I drafted this book, I had chosen 25 passages from 25 authors to analyze. That hunting and gathering paid dividends. Knowing what I was going to be writing about allowed me to rehearse the construction of chapters and helped me build momentum when I sat at the keyboard.
The result was a manuscript, delivered in good shape, months ahead of deadline.
Perfect is the enemy of good, especially at the beginning. Lower your standards as you draft a work; raise them as you move toward revision.
Will there be a sixth book? I have friends who after they have run a marathon or given birth to a child swear they will never do it again. Then one day... But enough about me. Isn't it time you wrote your book, so you could schedule a signing some day at Powell's? Try beginning with a page a day.
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Roy Peter Clark
is the author of the five books described in this essay, all published by Little, Brown. He teaches writing at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, a school for journalism and democracy.