I could blather on here about various ways that writing improves craft—applying the techniques that you uncovered during the reading and talking phases and such—but that’s kind of evident. So I’m just going to move straight to the single best writing improvement technique that I’ve encountered. I call it the RPC Method—as in, “I’m going to RPC that sucker!”
I first encountered this collection of techniques in a session at the 2006 NASW annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland. It doesn’t involve five or ten or even twenty tips for improving your writing. Oh, no! It packs a walloping 50 useful tools for self-improvement.
What is it? Why it is Roy Peter Clark’s lovely little mint green book, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.
Reading Clark’s book from start to finish, while certainly entertaining, can be almost paralysing–where to start? That’s why I’ve developed a few sure-fire ways of applying the tools to best serve my writing.
Tool of the day
In periods of concentrated self-improvement, I have started my writing day by opening the book at a random page to select a tool of the day. For example, #34 Write from different cinematic angles.
Sure, it’s random, and it might be hard to apply it to the day’s tasks but it stretches your brain (from what other perspectives could I approach a 250-word news piece?). It guards against feeling overwhelmed by all 50 tools. And it provides a minimal level of commitment, which is good when you’re overstretched.
Don’t weasel out and select the next tool because it sounds more appealing. Love the one you pick and you’ll soon reap the rewards.
Quick & dirty
Many of the tools, especially those covered in the first section of the book, offer quick and easy fixes that smooth the work-in-progress at the word and paragraph level. I like to combine several and run through a piece applying them as I go. They don’t demand too much time and effort (or rewriting) but instantly brighten a piece–like dabbing on lip gloss before you leave the house.
- #2 Order words for emphasis: Place strong words at the beginning and end.
- #3 Activate your verbs: Strong verbs create action, save words, and reveal the players.
- #6 Take it easy on the –ings: Prefer the simple present or past.
These tools work as well for short news pieces as for longer features. Notice how the strong imagery of applying lip gloss adds emphasis to the paragraph above. In my first draft, that segment was placed at the end of the first sentence. Then, I RPC-ed the graf.
Once you start putting the quick fixes into action, they’ll quickly become habit. As you get comfortable with these, start adding a few more tools to your writing quiver.
I employ a similar technique for longer pieces but this requires advance planning. I still use the quick and dirty tools as I go but I also want to apply some of the more involved tools, the ones that affect organization, structure, the deeper fabric of a piece.
Before tackling a passion project, I’ll browse the book and select several tools that I think will make the biggest difference to the project. Again, start small and selective and broaden as you get more comfortable with them.
These are a few of my favorite tools to sculpt longer-form works:
- #32 Place gold coins along the path: Reward the reader with high points, especially in the middle. (This is one that I especially love because it reminds me to thank my reader with some little, unexpected treat in a surprising part of the story. It might be some unusual fact, a choice word or a compelling quote. At Nieman Storyboard, Jacqui Banaszynski highlights the gold coins that Pulitzer Prize-wining science writer Amy Harmon placed in a 2011 New York Times story.)
- #18 Set the pace with sentence length: Vary sentences to influence the reader’s speed.
- #30 To generate suspense, use internal cliffhangers: To propel readers, make them wait. (Most TV shows are masters of this technique, both at the end of a season and right before a commercial break. Use it at the end of a paragraph in a long piece to make the next paragraph irresistible.)
As with the quick and dirty improvers, these tools become second nature with repeated use. Continue to add to your collection, apply them diligently and before you know it, others will be asking for your secrets on improving craft.
Photo credits: Steve Sasso (top), motoyen