The Book: “Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions To The Problems Every Writer Faces,” by Roy Peter Clark.
The Takeaway: This is a great book for nonfiction writers who are looking for specific strategies to combat common writing problems, such as organizing their material, selecting fresh, imaginative language to use in their stories, or how to complete a draft of their work.
The Review: Too many books about writing try to be all things to all people, when they really aren’t capable of the task. The author will cover everything from how to interview celebrities to how to hire a copy editor, lavishing many pages on his or her areas of expertise, while giving everything else a cursory glance. The result is often a lopsided, unsatisfying book.
Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, deftly avoids this trap in “Help! For Writers,” while still managing to cover vexations from across the entire writing process. His secret weapon is his approach – instead of presenting writers with his “master plan” for how to write and expecting them to fit themselves into his paradigm, he organizes his material, as the subtitle suggests, by addressing specific “trouble spots” that are frequently found on the writing journey, such as “my work habits are so disorganized” or “I can’t stop procrastinating.” (He also wins points with me for phrasing the trouble spots in language that clearly has come directly from the mouths of actual writers!)
The beauty of training this lens on the writing process is that it avoids one-size-fits-all solutions and makes the book useful to a broad spectrum of writers. For example, when responding to the problem “I hate writing assignments and other people’s ideas,” Clark suggests the following strategies:
- Learn to turn an assignment into your story.
- Treat assignments as story topics rather than story ideas.
- Make it your own.
- Send up a flare to express dissatisfaction with an assignment or to suggest something better.
- Take what you think is a bad assignment and brainstorm with other writers to turn it into something special.
- Use your favorite search engine to discover surprising connections.
- If a story assignment points left, don’t be afraid to turn right.
“Help! For Writers” will be very useful to those looking for those looking for tips and tools to move them out of a writing bog caused by an issue that they can articulate and define. Newbie as well as experienced writers will be able to relate to the problems Clark addresses and benefit from his proposed solutions. It’s also a book that will continue to be useful to writers as they advance in their careers, as the situations that Clark pinpoints are ones that can challenge all writers, regardless of their experience level or professional status.