55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer
by Roy Peter Clark
If there’s one book all translators working with English should read, it’s Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark.
Most translators are not taught how to write and why English is written certain ways. I certainly wasn’t! I was taught the basics of how to write in school, of course. English lessons covered writing for different mediums, but my teachers were never sticklers on writing rules, on how to write well. School was also…a while ago.
Yet when writing English is your profession it’s important to keep the skill polished, if not honed.
Which is why I picked up Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark (the 10th Edition). I got this book at the same time as Dazzling Dialogue, which I read first (you can read a review of it here), but Writing Tools is a more useful resource for translators—especially for translators working with creative mediums.
Why Translators Should Study Writing
First, it always helps if a creative translator is a writer in their own right. Why? Because even if you’re not writing original prose, translation is an act of writing. Understanding the rules and best writing practices improves your writing skills, which improves your translation skills.
Learning about writing English better equips you with the tools and ability to accurately and effectively convey the original work in your translation. You don’t want word-soup that will confuse a reader as they fight to understand the meaning of the text. You want clear, easy to read work that conveys the meaning and intent of the source text.
Video game localizer Alexander O. Smith stated in a podcast interview that aspiring translators should work on their original writing skills. Whether it’s original fiction or fan fiction, any form of writing is good translation practice.
Writing Tools: 55 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark does exactly what it says on the tin. It gives you 55 tools on how to write English, including a couple of exercises per tool. The tools are more like tips and tricks, with each one split into “Nuts and Bolts”, “Special Effects”, “Blueprints”, “Useful Habits”, and “Bonus Tools”.
Clark’s writing is incredibly easy to read, making it one of the most accessible non-fiction books I’ve ever read. (Seriously, Routledge Course in Japanese Translation, why do you have to be so dry?)
Each tool is only a couple of pages long with a main point, examples, exceptions, and workshop prompts written clearly. This helps you easily understand the points Clark is trying to make and how to apply them to writing. The workshop prompts also give you clear action if you want to test out some of the tools for yourself.
What Writing Tools Will Teach You
Nuts and Bolts
This section offers 10 tools which focus on the micro—word level advice. This first section is honestly gold for creative translators working into English. Especially if you translate from Japanese (or a similar language like Korean.)
The tools look at the power of subjects and verbs, emphatic word order, and the difference between stronger and weaker elements in prose. In other words, you can place emphasis on different words by where you place them in the sentence.
Let’s take a look at a Japanese sentence and the different impact word order has on the translation.
If we follow the Japanese sentence pattern and start the translation with 要約力が高いと we get,
“With a strong ability to summarize you can competently grasp the essence of a subject.”
But if we put 要約力が高いと at the end we get,
“You can competently grasp the essence of a subject with a strong ability to summarize.”
They both mean the same thing, but the emphasis in the first sentence is the “essence of the subject” while the emphasis in the second is the “strong ability to summarize”.
This first section is great at teaching you the importance and uses for passive and active sentences, and the trap of using too many adverbs (a trap that Japanese literary translators easily fall into). As well as the impact of long and short sentences, and how to use punctuation.
The final tool in this section goes over tips for effective editing, including an example of the chapter being edited! (Ugh, so good.)
These tools focus on the sentence and paragraph-level and how to create specific and intended cues for the reader. It looks at writing cliches, how to be more creative, set the pace of the writing, how to handle overstating and understating, and how to show not tell.
Translators will probably need to be a little more picky with some of these tools because we are constrained by the writing of the original work. But we are also not entirely beholden to it either. It’s okay to pick your words, and move information around and adjust sentence lengths in order to convey the meaning of the original work and create the same effect as the original.
In other words, some of these tool might be more useful for original prose, but it doesn’t mean a translator can’t still use them.
These tools almost exclusively focus on writing original work: the difference between reports and stories, planting clues for readers, generating suspense, and rewarding readers.
If you are interested in creating your own writing, whether fiction or not, then these are great tools. They might not apply to translators as much but it’s still interesting to read about some of the thoughts that go into original prose.
Just be warned these are tools for English speaking Western writers, and the writing conventions of the language you work from might not be the same.
The (almost) final section consists of tools which focus on things you can do outside of writing to improve your writing and overall knowledge and skills. Almost every single one of these tools can be used by translators.
I am a firm believer that translators can improve their craft by sharing their knowledge and expertise with others through blogs and articles. “Draft a mission statement” and “turn procrastination into rehearsal” and “do you homework well in advance” all have great advice for improving your skills through writing and reading about what you do.
This section also teaches you how to read other people’s works to improve and criticize your own writing. As well as how to build a network of colleagues who can support you in your career as you support them.
The final few tools are probably some of the most important as they look at how to be kind to yourself, but also how to take criticism and apply it to your work. Translators often face imposter syndrome and an excess of criticism, so it’s good to read about tools that can help you manage and utilize both.
The final section feels like it’s not as polished as the rest of the book. The original Writing Tools only consisted of 50 tools but the 10th Anniversary Edition comes with 5 additional tools tacked onto the end. These are interesting but not as useful (I think) as the other tools and overlap with some of them.
Still, I think it’s worth getting the anniversary edition for these extra little tit-bits, even if they aren’t the best.
A Great Guide to Writing English That Every Translator Should Read
You can probably guess by the number of tabs I used, but I really liked this book. I thought it was an enjoyable, insightful, and useful read.
Clark’s tools aren’t gospel, though! You can choose to ignore them and he even discusses when you might want to do things differently and the effect that has on your writing. He clearly explains the points he wants to make without bogging you down with too much information. And he’s filled the book with useful and interesting examples and helpful exercises.
Did I do all the exercises? No. I honestly haven’t done any of them. But I would like to give this a re-read and pick at least one workshop from each chapter to do.
Overall, a great guide to writing English.
Similar reviews you might find interesting