Of all the various craft techniques, the most difficult – for many professional as well as student writers – is focus. Until we get our ideas on paper, we’re not always sure what we want to say. Once we’ve written a draft – our down draft, as Anne Lamott calls it in ‘Shitty First Drafts,’ my favorite chapter in her terrific book on writing, Bird by Bird – we see how our ideas interact and play off one another. Ideally, this step clarifies focus.


T.S. Eliot said, ‘Between the idea and the reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the Shadow.’ * If you’ll excuse the expedient interpretation: the problem, it seems to me, is that we too often write in the Shadows. Fuzzy thought, writing in the shadows, as opposed to the light, produces fuzzy, unfocused writing.

So how do we cut through the fuzz?

Writer's Ideas

How do we cut through the fuzz?

The truth is, it can be hard. We often think around ideas, as though feeling for a light switch in the dark. Or maybe the idea seemed clear – until we put it on paper. As we write, the slippery idea wiggles and squirms; lacking a compass, we begin to digress.

This is one of many reasons for engaging a beta reader or belonging to a writer’s group. Because they’re not as close to the work, they can see things we’ve missed and help us discover our focus. Alternately, we can set the work aside, look at it later, a day, a week, a month, a year, after that first flush of enthusiasm subsides. Only by putting distance between our self, our heart, and the work, separating from it emotionally, recognizing that the work doesn’t define us, can we gain proper perspective.

Let’s assume you’ve got distance; you’re ready to don your editor hat. What do you do?

Ask questions

What is this story about? What is the central struggle? For a story – by story I mean any piece of writing – to be interesting, there must be a collision of forces. Someone has to want something that someone or something doesn’t want him or her to have. Something is one way and should be another. What are these forces? How do they collide?

If someone asked you to describe your story in a single sentence, what would you say? Not easy, I know. If you give it some thought, though, you should be able to answer. If you can, your focus is clear. Bravo. If not, or if it takes you several sentences (or more) to respond, you’re not sure of your focus. In that case, you may have to dig a little harder.

Notice how the work is weighted

What part or parts of the piece have you spent the most time developing? Where is your language the most confident? Dynamic? Clear?

Your answers will tell you where your interest lies. This may not clarify the focus of the article, essay or story you’ve written. Sometimes, the idea you were attempting to explore hadn’t fully taken root in your head; you didn’t have the words. Or maybe you were still too raw, too close to an experience to see it clearly. Sometimes, you have to start over.

This happened with the first draft of my post on alleviating writer’s guilt. I meant to say that sometimes life gets in the way of our writing, but I kept writing around the idea. The piece wouldn’t come together. I couldn’t find the center; the words felt pretentious, false. Frustrated, I finally put it aside. Rereading, a few days later, my eye caught on two paragraphs:

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve thought of her advice over the years. There’s a birth, an illness, a wedding, a long-awaited vacation. Life gets in the way. And when it does, naturally the work piles up.

Deadlines loom, networks beg for attention, messages keep popping into the in-box. And you feel torn, caught between what you want to do and what Conscientious You thinks you ought to be doing.

Of the 500 words I’d written, only the 73 in these paragraphs felt honest. Once I realized this – note the emphasis on the word ought, which hinted at a second part to the message: we shouldn’t feel guilty about it – I found my focus, and finished the article in no time.

Look for patterns

Have you repeated words? Images? If so, ask yourself why. Usually, repetition is a signal, your intuition telling you something. What do the words or images mean to you? Literally? Figuratively? What do they mean within the context of the work?

For me, my novel, In Leah’s Wake, is about connection. The first draft helped me find the story, but, aside from the obvious family drama, I wasn’t sure what it meant. The imagery – Justine’s handprint fading on the window, the button bracelets Zoe buys for herself and Leah – struck a repeated emotional nerve (although the images themselves were different, the emotional/psychological tenor was very similar), told me what I was writing about.

The Dostoevsky quote, which I use in the epitaph, kept me on track. In subsequent drafts, I developed and amplified the theme, and, I hope, managed to get the message across.

Check for digressions

This is less straightforward, so trickier than the strategies above.

Sometimes, we’re married to an idea – we’re penning an editorial; although all the evidence points in another direction, we refuse to change our initial opinion – or maybe we’ve grown attached to particular images or words, and we try to force a direction. I don’t know about you, but this never works for me. The harder I fight, the more I digress.

If you find yourself veering off track, maybe you’re fighting your instincts. Look closely. Are your digressions well developed? Interesting? Do they follow a pattern? If so, maybe it’s your subconscious mind ringing the doorbell to your brain, you’ve hit on your focus.

Now that your focus is clear, go through the piece, develop and clarify all the parts or pieces of the story that pertain directly to your focus, and cut unnecessary digressions.

Read the T.S. Eliot poem, “The Hollow Man” (Again, please forgive the mis-interpretation.)

Next: How to focus a fuzzy idea


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