Peter Roy Clark’s book Writing Tools answers writing questions I never thought to ask. When should I list just one item versus two, three, or more? When is passive voice useful? What’s the most powerful placement in a sentence or paragraph for a given word?
Starting with the smallest details and expanding to ever broader ideas, Clark’s fifty writing tools struck me in the head like an unexpected apple from a very insightful tree. Opening with “Begin sentences with subjects and verbs” and wrapping up with “Own the tools of your craft,” Writing Tools offers unambiguous, concise, practical recommendations for all varieties of writing, starting each of of its fifty sections with an explanation of the point, then driving it home with illuminating examples.
Clark uses these tools as he explains them. For example, in summarizing “Tool 20: Choose the number of elements with the purpose in mind,” Clark says
- Use one for power.
- Use two for comparison, contrast.
- Use three for completeness, wholeness, roundness.
- Use four or more to list, inventory, compile, and expand.
Along with pointing out ways to optimize writing, Clark trots out metaphors that show effective ways to accomplish key writing tasks, like keeping the reader happy (with gold coins left here and there in your piece) and explaining difficult concepts (by climbing up and down the Ladder of Abstraction).
Many of the good habits Clark describes can gradually develop without ever registering as specific techniques, as when an untrained but skilled singer uses vibrato and grace notes to add more feeling to a song. Certainly some of Clark’s points felt validating to me because I had already figured them out intuitively. Even then, though, Clark often sheds new light. Writing Tools adds, clarifies, and completes what we already understand about writing.
You may not agree with every one of Clark’s suggested techniques, and some of them may not be entirely applicable to your writing, but regardless of who you are or how long and well you’ve been writing, I’d be amazed if you didn’t come away from reading Writing Tools without at least a few insights that will be worth many times the price of the book.
Note: For a little more discussion of the “gold coins” tool, see my blog post.