July 13, 2010

When I think about “focus” as the central act of the writing process, I am using a metaphor drawn from photography.

In most cases, the photographer wants the image to be “in focus,” as sharp and as clear as it can be. As the photographer tries to focus the visual image through adjustment of the lens, so the writer tries to see the story as clearly as possible. As the photographer adjusts the focus for clarity, so the writer must undertake a process of “re-vision,” seeing the story with fresh eyes.

But let’s not stop there. Let’s reach down for an even deeper set of connotations for the word “focus.” I learned only recently that the word derives from the Latin word for “hearth.”

I find that so interesting. The hearth is the center of the household, the source of light and heat. The place where a family gathers for heat, sustenance and contact with other members of the family.

Famed writing coach Donald Murray used the word “focus” to describe the heart and the hearth of the story. His greatest disciple, Chip Scanlan, has come to believe that every step in the writing process is about how to achieve focus.

So how does focus express itself in a story? How does a writer achieve it?

Here are some common questions that can lead to strategies of focus:

  • What’s the news here?
  • What’s the point?
  • What really matters?
  • What’s the one thing your reader needs to know?
  • What’s most important?
  • What’s interesting?
  • What will be in your lead?
  • What will you say in your “nut paragraph”?
  • Can you think of a good headline for this (or title)?
  • What is your story about?
  • No, what is your story REALLY about?

Most problems in stories derive from a lack of focus.

If you want to report, write and edit stories with a more powerful focus, join us Thursday, July 15, at 3 p.m. ET for a live chat that will be completely focused on finding a focus.

Twitterers can tweet questions to #poynterchats before or during the chat. You can revisit this link at any time to replay the chat after it has ended.

<a href=”http://www.coveritlive.com/mobile.php/option=com_mobile/task=viewaltcast/altcast_code=cc50790229″ >How Do I Find a Focus For My Writing?</a>

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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