WRITE: Frequently Made Errors #8: Lack of Focus
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“The writing’s not bad, but I can’t tell what your article’s about. At first, I thought it was about [this topic.] Then, I thought it was about [that topic]. It doesn’t have a main point!”
The words stung. I’d looked forward to meeting this editor. In fact, we’d already enjoyed an engaging lunchtime conversation.
She didn’t fall in love with my article? What was she trying to tell me?
Only the truth: my words wandered. Instead of writing about one topic, I’d covered many. In my mind, my article summarized the points of one of those recent book projects. But the editor—as a good editor should—was remembering the reader. What would the reader take away from my article?
As I reexamined my article, I realized she was right. In attempting to summarize the book, I’d forgotten to stick to the point (or provide a point to consider). My article presented not one but multiple topics. Because it said a little about many things, it said almost nothing at all.
I share this true confession to remind my fellow writers that even a published, usually-polished professional doesn’t always get it right. I also share it to encourage you that, regardless of any personal tendencies to stare out the window, interrupt others in conversation, tap your foot incessantly, or chase the proverbial rabbit (or squirrel), your writing must demonstrate focus.
But how? Decide on one main point and stick to it. Your anecdotes, your bulleted lists, and your explanations all need to return to that main point. Yes, the main point may have subtopics. If you’re writing an article about making Christmas memories, for example, you may want to discuss decorating, baking, and shared family time. But each of those subtopics should support the main point.
And how do you maintain focus? Decide ahead of time what you want to communicate. Go back to high school English and write a purpose or thesis statement. For example, for the article mentioned above, “My readers will learn to make lasting Christmas memories with their families.”
You may decide not to use your statement in the article (and please don’t begin with “This article is about . . .”), but please keep it in mind as you write. Reread each section and ask “Does this help achieve my overall purpose?” If not, it needs to go.
In another WRITE post, we’ll discuss self-editing. But for now, please know that the old KISS (Keep It Simple, Sweetheart) rule applies. Write about one thing. Teach your reader one thing. They’ll appreciate it—and your editor will, too.
This post addresses nonfiction writers, but I think it has applications in fiction writing as well. To my readers who write: Have you had trouble maintaining focus in your work? How have you avoided this Frequently Made Error?