Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Yoda of Journalism Speaks

My all-time fave book on writing has been displaced. Sorry, Associated Press, I still love you and “The Word” by Rene J. Cappon, but you’re going to have to step aside for the Poynter Institute’s Roy Peter Clark, the Yoda of journalism.

This Jedi grandmaster’s book was published in 2006, six years after I left journalism to become a full-time writing coach in the corporate world. I didn’t know about it until last week when the Poynter Institute tweeted Clark’s article on J.D. Salinger, who died last week.

I now have a borrowed copy of “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.” My colleague, also a former AP reporter who now works for A&R Edelman, pulled it off his cubicle shelf for me.

Here’s an excerpt, taken from Tool 21: “Know when to back off and when to show off.”

In “Why I Write,” George Orwell explains that “good prose is like a window pane.” The best work calls the reader’s attention to the world being described, not to the writer’s flourishes. When we peer out a window onto the horizon, we don’t notice the pane, yet the pane frames our vision just as the writer frames our view of the story.

Most writers have at least two modes. One says, “Pay no attention to the writer behind the curtain. Look only at the world.” The other says, without inhibition, “Watch me dance. Aren’t I a clever fellow?” In rhetoric, these two modes have names. The first is called understatement. The second is called overstatement or hyperbole.

Here’s a rule of thumb that works for me: The more serious or dramatic the subject, the more the writer backs off, creating the effect that the story tells itself. The more playful or inconsequential the topic, the more the writer can show off. Back off or show off.

That’s most of one page. The next page and a half gives examples and commentary. The chapter (all 3 1/5 pages of it) ends with a section called Workshop, which lists four activities and more examples.

How I love this man! Like all grandmasters, he’s humble and keeps a low-profile. If you read his bio, you might nod off even before you tune out.

Clark’s accomplishments are in fact immeasurable because they are living things. His uncommonly nuanced wisdom and impeccable judgment guide and transform countless journalists whose growth and contributions in turn spark more growth and contributions by untold others. (Whew! I need to rest. Writing that sentence made me tired! ... OK, here I go again:)

He’s like the Olympic torch, always being carried forward, or a venture capitalist, creating wealth by investing wealth. Or Barbara Streisand, whose perfectionism and perfect pitch let her occupy a different perceptual world than the rest of us. He thinks, feels and sees better than we regular people do, and – most importantly – articulates his vision in a way that propels the rest of us forward.

I never met the man or even so much as exchanged an e-mail. My respect grew slowly over years. I used to read the annual “America’s Best Newspaper Writing” anthologies, which Clark edited for a while. Other editors were Don Fry, Karen F. Brown and Christopher Scanlan, also stars in journalism’s coaching pantheon.

The “America’s Best …” books are compilations of award-winning journalism from each year since 1979. The editors offer insights and raise questions intended to help the reader become a better writer. If you want a snapshot of journalism’s glory days, the "America's Best ..." series is it.

Like Yoda and The Force, Clark's work offers timeless lessons.