Writing tip of the week: keep your focus

A few more days of headaches and general sickness means I’m a day late on this week’s writing tip.

My first student papers come in this week, and though I haven’t started the grading yet, it seems like a good time to talk about one of the top issues I see with student papers.

First, let me say that I get where this comes from. Students want so much to impress, and they want to be seen as smart and intelligent. They are smart and intelligent. I haven’t yet had a student in my classroom that I don’t think that about, even though they have smarts and intelligences in different areas. It breaks my heart when so many of them tell me that they’re bad writers, that they hate writing. It’s clear that they don’t think they have it in them to be good writers. If there’s one thing I want to change in them, I want to disabuse them of this notion. They might not be superstar writers in every situation, but each student has situations in which they are capable of being superstar writers and communicators.

But back to focus. So many writers—not just student writers—think more is better, but in writing, it’s usually less that’s better. Staying focused on one thing, or a few things, allows you to go deeper into your subject, to explore it in ways that are interesting, that are new, or at least new angles. When writers stay off focus, when they reject depth, they have to go for breadth instead.

The trouble is, when we, as writers, go for breadth, we spread ourselves thin. We don’t go past the surface, which means we don’t move into originality. We don’t move past summary.

Now, on the one hand, that surface information is often essential. We have to start from somewhere, and what good is it to know, to pick a random example from my science days, how electrons affect bonding if we don’t first know what an electron is, or an atom, or a molecule. However, if all of the papers—or talks or whatever—on electron bonding first explained what a molecule was, then an atom, then an electron, readers would get bored pretty fast. Every time a reader picked up a piece on electron bonding, they’d get the same information, over and over, rather than learning about something new. Maybe the end of each of those pieces would do something different, but it’s a lot of breadth—a lot of surface, a lot of repetitive stuff—to get through before getting to the meat of the matter.

Now, we can think about this from a creative writing angle, too. Readers want to get into the complexity of a plot, they want to see the depth of characters. Think about Harry Potter, for instance, with just the surface plot. Where Harry, Ron, and Hermione just go after Voldemort. Where they don’t have deeper interactions with each other, or with any of the other characters. There’s no complexity of character. Harry doesn’t feel mixed feelings about his father, Dumbledore doesn’t end up being more complex, and Neville doesn’t shift from feeling scared and unimportant to brave and full of self-worth. It would be a different kind of series, then, and way shorter. It probably also would be an obscure series, not one beloved by millions. Depth is what makes those stories stand out, what makes them catch our attention, and it’s the same for most types of writing. There are of course some exceptions, but then again, there always are.

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