Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Roy Peter Clark on writing complicated stories with clarity

Poynter's Roy Peter Clark guided us through a list of great tips on how to make a complicated story easy to read and understand during the last of NewsU's series of writing webinars this afternoon.

They're so good I'm going to list them all here (my notes from Clark's powerpoint). You can also see his webinar at (see me for access):

  • Use shorter words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs at the point of greatest complexity (from writing coach Donald Murray). You have to report well to do this effectively. But the point is: Guide people through the heavy stuff with your writing choices.
  • Slow the pace of information. Use periods to make the reader pause, at which point he/she can absorb information before moving on.
  • Translate jargon. Kind of self-explanatory. But basically, you don't need to use the same specialized language your source does in order to help your reader understand.
  • Lift numbers and technical info out of text and convey it in images (graphics, breakout boxes).
  • Engage readers in conversation. Blogs, social networks, etc. You'd like to get to the point where you know what language your readers are comfortable with.
  • Find a microcosm -- a small example that represents a larger reality. Clark gave the example of a New York Times reporter who told the story of 9/11 by focusing on one person, because the overall story was too big.
  • Introduce difficult concepts one at a time. I like this at the story level, but also at the sentence level. I think a lot of times we think we have to introduce several facts or concepts in one sentence, because they're related. But (see above) use the period and give readers a chance to absorb one piece of info, then the next, then the next.
  • Reward readers with high points. As Clark puts it, "gold coins" sprinkled throughout a story tell the reader, "Thanks for coming this far. Here's your reward. Keep going."
  • Keep boring parts short. Be selective. Use your best stuff. Self-edit and cut 10-20 percent of your text.
  • Assume responsibility for what readers learn. Can the reader ID the most important points of the story, pass that info on to another person, or pass a test on the main points?
  • Watch the separation of subjects and verbs. The further apart they are, the less understandable the sentence will be.
Terrific teaching, as usual, from Clark. Thoughts or elaboration on any of these points, anybody? 


  1. While I'm not directly affiliated with any news media outlets, these are great tips for anyone that writes. As an amateur blogger, I'm always critical of what I write and strive to make it easy to read and understand.

    I tend to become long-winded at times and feel I can go overboard with details, but if laid out properly, those details can make an average blog post great.

    Thanks for sharing these tips. I'll surely try to utilize them in my blog.

  2. Blake, thanks for the note. You're absolutely right they're really tips for any writer doing any kind of writing. And when you think about them, they really amount to a kind of common sense-approach to writing. RPC said a couple times during the webinar that the No. 1 goal, after all, is that the reader understands what you've written.