Roy Peter Clark has tips for public writers

“Tell It Like It Is,” the bestselling writing teacher’s seventh book, was born of the tumult of the early COVID pandemic.
Roy Peter Clark, pictured in his favorite T-shirt, has published his seventh book.
Roy Peter Clark, pictured in his favorite T-shirt, has published his seventh book. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]
Published April 13

Roy Peter Clark thought he was done writing books about how to write.

“Six in 12 years,” he says. “Isn’t that enough?”

Clark retired in 2016 after 40 years as a writing teacher and coach at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, having helped found the nonprofit media school (which owns the Tampa Bay Times).

There were tens of thousands of copies of his books in print. His first, the classic “Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer,” had sold more than 250,000 copies and been translated into eight languages.

But now he’s published No. 7, “Tell It Like It Is: A Guide to Clear and Honest Writing.”

“It’s the only book I’ve ever written with the urgency of a breaking news story,” Clark says. “It’s the product of the pandemic, of the whole world turned upside down, and all the cataclysms that followed.”

Clark wrote a number of personal columns for the Times after the pandemic had started, but he was also working on the book. Sometimes, he says, he knows what a book is about before he begins writing. But this time he learned what it was about by writing it.

Clark’s writing books have always been aimed at general audiences but mainly focused on journalists. In “Tell It Like It Is” he defines a different group of readers: public writers.

Public writers include journalists, but they also can be scientists, teachers, medical workers, government employees, everyday citizens — anyone who writes in the interest of the public good.

Early in the book, Clark offers an example of effective public writing as he breaks down his experience of giving an at-home COVID test to his wife, Karen, a cancer patient. He leads us through the instructions that accompany the test, which are clearly structured and carefully written to teach and reassure the user.

Those instructions achieve what Clark calls “civic clarity,” a transparency that occurs when a writer writes with the public good foremost in mind.

“During the pandemic, I learned from paying attention,” Clark says, “not just to what journalists were doing but to other public writers.”

Other examples he analyzes in the book include a column by a California respiratory therapist who described the seven stages of severe COVID in harrowing detail and a 16-year-old St. Petersburg student who wrote vividly for his high school newspaper about his own experience with the disease.

Clark cites, too, people who might not be writers but take the role of acting in the public good seriously — notably a teenager named Darnella Frazier, whose videotape of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis went viral. She was awarded a Pulitzer special citation.

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In “Tell It Like It Is,” Clark wants to provide advice any writer can use. Some writing guides, he says, aren’t entirely practical.

“We have books about writing by two of the great nonfiction writers, Robert Caro and John McPhee. But you probably can’t move to a town in Texas for several years to see what it was like to grow up with LBJ,” he says, referring to Caro, whose best-known work is a magisterial four-volume (with one more to come) biography of President Lyndon Johnson, written over the course of more than 40 years.

Clark says he’s still learning about writing from journalists. “I’ve learned from all the great writers at the Tampa Bay Times that versatility is a virtue,” he says.

Civic clarity is important, Clark says, but public writers must go a step further and take responsibility for what readers need to know and understand. He wades into the touchy subject of neutrality: “We need to achieve the appropriate distance from neutrality. Just because we strive to be neutral does not require us to be neutral about everything.

“The disinformation, the big lies — we need to call them what they are.”

Tell It Like It Is: A Guide to Clear and Honest Writing

By Roy Peter Clark

Little, Brown and Co., 300 pages, $28

Meet the author

Roy Peter Clark will present a workshop on “Writing With Power and Purpose” and sign his new book at 3:30 p.m. April 16 at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Tickets $5 at

Tombolo Books will host a book launch for Clark, with guests, at 7 p.m. April 20 at the bookstore, 2153 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Free; RSVP at