Book Review: “Help! for Writers”

By Mark Nichol

Writers stymied by challenges can too easily while away their time seeking solace in writing guides, looking for tips to help them overcome obstacles rather than actually, you know, overcoming obstacles. You can easily spend the rest of your life reading rather than writing.

But when offered in small doses, such advice can unblock writers’ block. Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces, by Roy Peter Clark, offers tips organized around seven stages of writing. For each category, Clark, vice president of the Poynter Institute, a prestigious school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Florida, presents three obstacles to moving on from that stage, followed by ten solutions for each one. (His emphasis is on journalistic writing, but the advice also applies to more extensive nonfiction as well as to fiction.)

In the first section, “Get Started,” Clark poses the problems “I can’t think of anything to write,” “I hate writing assignments and other people’s ideas,” and “I have trouble doing all the research.” The last chapter reminds writers to persevere to the payoff of finding the person who has the inside story, and emphasizes the value of seemingly doing too much research, quoting Elie Wiesel: “There is a difference between a book of two hundred pages from the very beginning, and a book of two hundred pages which is the result of an original eight hundred pages. The six hundred pages are there. Only you don’t see them.”

His last recommendation in “Getting Your Act Together” is to write a mission statement for your project: Answer the question “What am I trying to accomplish?” Corporate and organizational mission statements are usually the length of a sentence, but an article or story mission statement can be longer — just remember not to indulge yourself at the expense of actually writing the article or the story.

“Finding Focus” offers such suggestions as imagining that your article or story is a film. Who doesn’t do that these days? But the key is to visualize the first image the viewer sees — that’s your lead paragraph.

In “Looking for Language,” Clark devotes an entire short chapter to clichés, advising the reader not to go overboard in avoiding any clichés and to improve them by improvisation. His advice for the draft stage? In order to help get you started, extemporize a story to a friend — or to the mirror — or write a memo about it.

One of the three chapters in the “Assessing Your Progress” section offers various thoughts about the middle of a story — the part of the story overshadowed by the beginning and the end where most of the heavy lifting is done. And speaking of the middle, the best piece of advice in the final chapter, concerning revision, seems to be out of place at this late stage, but it is a gem: Start a story in the middle of the action, or even later (especially a short story, rather than a novel.)

Some of Clark’s ideas — word maps, writing the ending first (and maybe you’ve read the start-in-the-middle tip before) — may seem obvious or familiar, but their breadth and depth, and his examples and insights, will give you the inspiration you need to work through writing roadblocks.

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2 Responses to “Book Review: “Help! for Writers””

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    Oh, I love Roy Peter Clarke. His books are the greatest (Writing Tools was a fantastic book and great bite-sized podcasts as well), they are easy to use and each chapter is small enough to enact and still think about what you read.

    I’ll have to check this out though; never heard of it, but I am sure it is filled with some good writing nuggets. Thanks for sharing!

  • Alexandre Piccolo

    Maybe “Crime and Punishment” offers a good example to Elie Wiesel’s quote. Moreover, “start-in-the-middle” may sound like a tip for writer dealing with writer’s block, when it’s also an advice on how to begin a masterpiece – something the ancient Romans used to say in the expression “in medias res”. Nice review, Mark.

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