“Writing Tools” by Roy Peter Clark

Posted By: ryan On:

There are not many good books on writing music. Plenty of writers have tried, but almost every one I’ve read has left me unsatisfied. There are, however, a lot of good books on writing words, and there are so many parallels to writing music that they are worth reading as a composer.

“Writing Tools” by Roy Peter Clark is one such book. It offers 50 short tips for writing, and I’ve found that maybe 3/4 of them can be translated to music. I will most likely develop many of these into their own posts, so for now I’ll just list the relevant tools and my brief translation from writing to composing.

  1. Begin sentences with subjects and verbs – Start with strong and interesting motives
  2. Activate your verbs – Activate your melodies with runs, trills, and other flourishes
  3. Fear not the long sentence – Fear not the long phrase, especially one that builds and rises in tension and suspense
  4. Establish a pattern, then give it a twist
  5. Let punctuation control pace and space – Let cadences control pace
  6. Prefer the simple over the technical – Don’t over-busy things so they become unclear
  7. Give key words their space – Use rests
  8. Get the name of the dog – Work down to every detail
  9. Seek original images – Seek original figures, cadences, sounds, etc.
  10. Riff on the creative language of others – Riff on the harmony, phrases, orchestration, etc. of others
  11. Set the pace with sentence length – Set the pace with phrase length and harmonic rhythm
  12. Vary the lengths of paragraphs – Vary the lengths of phrases and sections
  13. Know when to back off and when to show off – The more serious the subject the more restrained you should be
  14. Tune your voice – Be authentic in your writing
  15. Work from a plan – Sketch out the basic form first
  16. Learn the difference between reports and stories – Scoring what is on screen vs what it means for the story
  17. Use dialogue as a form of action – Get energy from the line, not just ostinato and rhythmic parts
  18. Put odd and interesting things next to each other – Make liberal use of contrast
  19. Foreshadow dramatic events and powerful conclusions – Tie every element together with a common motivic thread
  20. To generate suspense, use internal cliffhangers – Use half cadences to keep things moving forward
  21. Build your work around a key question – Build your piece around a central motive
  22. Place gold coins along the path – Use the 7-8 moments idea to keep interesting nuggets throughout your piece
  23. Repeat, repeat, and repeat- Do not be afraid to be repetitive if you are using variation
  24. Write from different cinematic angles – Make good use of contrasting dynamics
  25. Report and write for scenes – Write section by section
  26. Prefer archetypes to stereotypes – Don’t use cliches, but use the effects they produce
  27. Write toward an ending – Write phrases with a destination in mind, otherwise you’re just rambling
  28. Draft a missing statement for your work
  29. Read for both form and content – Listen for both form and content
  30. Save string – Save your ideas, don’t delete if you don’t have to
  31. Break long projects into parts
  32. Take an interest in all crafts that support your work
  33. Recruit your own support group
  34. Limited self-criticism in early drafts – Write first, edit later

  35. Learn from your critics
  36. Own the tools of your craft


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