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Finding your article’s focus with Roy Peter Clark

Identifying their focus is one of the biggest challenges for many of my blogging class students. I try to help them by asking “What problem do you solve for your readers?” I found additional helpful techniques in the “I don’t know what my story is really about” chapter of Roy Peter Clark’s Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces. I discuss some of them in this post.

1. “Write a six-word theme statement.”

If your idea requires more than six words, it may be too big. A six-word theme may still be too broad. For example, consider “More women than men reach ninety,” one of Clark’s sample themes. However, at least it provides a starting point.

My theme for this blog post is “Tips to focus your articles.”

There are two ways to use your theme. First, as inspiration for your article. Write to explain your theme.

Second, use it to narrow your article. Pare away anything that doesn’t relate to your theme.

2. “Cut the elements least supportive of your focus.”

Use your best material and lose the rest. As Clark says,

Not all evidence is equal. If you can identify the weakest evidence, what is left—your strongest stuff—can support a sharp focus.

The saying “less is more” often applies to articles, blog posts, and more. By deleting flabby evidence, you sharpen your main focus.

Clark lists eight characteristics that make evidence weak. Two of them often apply to financial pieces.

  1. “It will appear in the story only because of your interest in it.”
  2. “It is impossible to write it clearly and quickly for a general audience.”
The next time you read a poorly written post, ask yourself if it suffers from #1 or #2.
……  

3. Use the funnel

Putting your ideas through a metaphorical funnel may also help. As Clark suggests on his book’s back cover:

See your work in the form of a funnel. You pour everything in at the top, but as the funnel narrows, you must become more selective, reaching a point where you can leave things out with confidence.

Alternatively, think of yourself as a sculptor with a block of marble. Only by cutting away stone can you reveal your masterpiece.

How do YOU find your focus?

There are many ways to identify the focus of an article, blog post, or other written communication. What’s your favorite technique?

 

 

Margin analysis to improve your writing

Like belongs with like in your writing, as I discussed in “Key lesson for investment commentary writers from my professional organizer.” In Help! for Writers, Roy Peter Clark suggests a way that you can analyze and then reorganize your drafts so that your information goes in the right places.

Step 1: Print and write in margins

Print your draft on paper and then list in the margin the main topics of each paragraph. This helps you to get some distance from your draft so you can analyze it.

Step 2: List most important topics

On a separate piece of paper, list your draft’s most important topics. Assign each topic a color. Use colors of markers that you have handy or of highlighter colors in your word-processing program.

Next, color each section or paragraph according to its topic. If you see one color scattered throughout your draft, you can assess whether to leave it that way or, as Clark says, “bring those elements together in a single coherent passage.”

If you try this technique, I’d like to hear from you about how it works for you.

 

Note: On July 2, I added a clarifying phrase to this post.

Simplify and clarify to write better

how to not write bad ben yagoda“The road to not writing badly starts with simplifying and clarifying,” wrote Ben Yagoda in “In Writing, First Do No Harm.” Yagoda is the author of How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and How to Avoid Them.

Here are some steps you can take to apply Yagoda’s advice to your writing:

  1. Use the first-sentence check method to make sure your article flows logically.
  2. Ask yourself if every sentence of every paragraph supports the paragraph’s topic sentence.
  3. Shorten your sentences.
  4. Delete excess words.
  5. Replace jargon with plain English.
  6. Test your writing on a member of your target audience.

 

“Turn signals” and good writing

“Use ‘turn signals’ to guide your reader from sentence to sentence,” suggests Kenneth W. Davis  in The McGraw-Hill 36-Hour Course: Business Writing and Communication (p. 24).

I like Davis’ analogy, but I think it’s even more important to apply it at a higher level than sentences. Every time your article, blog post, or other written communication changes direction, you should signal that to your readers.

Two key “turn signals” for writers are headings and topic sentences.

Headings show that a new section, typically running more than one paragraph in length, has started.

A topic sentence is the first sentence of a paragraph. It sums up or introduces the topic of the paragraph that follows.

Here’s a test to see if you’re using a writer’s turn signals effectively. Read out loud your headings and topic sentences in the order in which they appear. If a listener can grasp the gist of your argument from them, you’ve done your job.

Let’s submit this blog post to the test.

  • “Use ‘turn signals’ to guide your reader from sentence to sentence,” suggests Kenneth W. Davis  in the McGraw-Hill 36-Hour Course: Business Writing and Communication (p. 24).
  • I like Davis’ analogy, but I think it’s even more important to apply it at a higher level than sentences.
  • Two key “turn signals” for writers are headings and topic sentences.
  • Headings show that a new section, typically running more than one paragraph in length, has started.
  • A topic sentence is the first sentence of a paragraph.
  • Here’s a test to see if you’re using a writer’s turn signals effectively.

What do you think? Do turn signals help?