Maintaining Your Focus

To focus your writing, you'll need to know how to narrow your focus, so you don't overwhelm your readers with unnecessary information. Knowing who your readers are and why you are writing will help you stay focused.

A Definition of Focus

Kate Kiefer, English Department, Composition Director 1992 -1995
The focus of the text is also referred to as its thesis, theme, controlling idea, main point. In effect, writers tell readers what territory they plan to cover. That's the focus. A focus can be very narrow--as when a photographer takes a close-up of one mountain flower--or it can be broad --as when the photographer takes a long-range shot of the mountain. In practical writing, the focus is often specified for the writer by the "occasion" for the writing.

In their discussions of focus, writers may use a number of terms: main point, thesis, theme, position statement, and controlling idea. What these terms have in common—and what focus is really all about—is informally known as sticking to the point.

Sticking to the point involves having a clear idea of what you want to write and how you want to write about your topic. While you write, you'll want to keep in mind your supporting details to help your readers better understand your main point.

Coordinating all the aspects of your paper requires you to make each part work with the whole. Imagine your writing is a symphony orchestra in which one out of tune instrument will ruin the sound of the entire performance.

How Audience and Purpose Affect Focus

All readers have expectations. They assume what they read will follow a logical order and support a main idea. For instance, an essay arguing for a second skating rink for hockey players should not present cost figures on how expensive new uniforms have become.

Your audience and writing purpose will help you determine your focus. While it may seem obvious to include certain details, your audience may require specific information. Further, why you are writing will also affect what information you present.

Audience

Michel Muraski, Journalism and Technical Communication
By articulating the problem, you give yourself focus. You must have done your audience analysis to have asked the question, "What kinds of information does the audience need? What are they going to do with it? Are they going to use it to further their research? Are they going to use it to make a decision?" Once you've identified your audience and what they're going to do with your information, you can refine your problem statement and have a focus. It's a necessary outcome.

Different audiences require different ways of focusing. Let's look at a proposal for a second ice rink in town for hockey players only.

Audience One: City Council

This audience will want to know why another ice rink is necessary. They will need to know how practice hours were shortened due to increases in open skate and lesson hours. They will need to know about new hockey teams forming within the community and requiring practice and game time on the ice. They should also be informed of how much money is made from spectators coming to view the games, as well as of any funding raised by existing hockey teams to help support a new rink. Every detail they read should support why city council should consider building a new rink.

Audience Two: Hockey Coaches and Players

This audience should be informed of the need for a new rink to inspire their support, but chances are they already know of the need. Ultimately, they will want to know what is required of them to get a new rink. How much time will they need to donate to fundraising activities and city council meetings? In addition, they will want to know how they will benefit from a new rink. How will practice hours be increased? Every detail they read should inform them of the benefits a new rink would provide.

Purpose

Steve Reid, Composition Director 1973-1977 and 1994-1996
Focus, for me, is a term we borrowed from photography. This means we narrow something down to a very sharp image. First, it's a notion of narrowing to something, but also, it's a notion of sharpness and clarity. Focus is one of the things that clarifies purpose. So once we get a sense of thesis, that helps illuminate the photography image, illuminate what the overall purpose of the paper is.

Your purpose is why you are writing about your topic. Different purposes require different ways of focusing. Let's look at a proposal for a second ice rink in town for hockey players only.

Purpose One: Arguing

Proposing a new ice rink to city council members would require convincing them the rink was necessary and affordable. You would need to acknowledge reasons for and against the rink.

Purpose Two: Informing

Informing fellow hockey coaches and players about a new rink would require telling them of the steps being taken to achieve a new rink. This audience most likely knows most of the issues, so selling them on the idea probably won't be necessary. Give them the facts and let them know what they can do to help.

Targeting

Don Zimmerman, Journalism and Technical Communication Department
Typically, when I'm writing a report for a person out there, I provide them with the information they need to either increase their knowledge or make a decision.

When I talk about focus, I really mean targeting. Here's an example. This comes out of a trade magazine. In Nursing '96, you'll find articles written by nurses for other nurses. They will generally open with essentially two or three paragraphs. They will say, "You know, here is the problem I had as a nurse in this setting." They tend to set them in what I would consider, soap opera-ish kinds of settings. They set up a real life situation with real people. In other words, "I went into Sally's room and discovered she'd thrown all the covers off the bed and she was sweating profusely." the article goes on to describe what it was. Then it will come back and say, "Here's the problem. Now we've had a number of patients who did this kind of activity, and we found they fell out of bed. To minimize those injuries, here are three things we've done." Then they will give you the summary and then they will elaborate those procedures. That's very targeted.

Targeting influences the kind of language used. This means the nurses in the hospital are dealing with "X" kind of patient and "X" kinds of situation. This means a lot of terms and terminology are used. The other nurses reading about this will understand it because of their interest in that topic; it's going to fit them.

Narrowing Your Focus

Writers who cover too much about a topic often overwhelm their readers with information. Take, for example, an essay focused on the tragedies of the Civil War. What tragedies? Readers have no idea what to expect from this focus, not to mention how difficult it would be to write about every tragedy of the Civil War.

After writers choose a topic to write about, they need to make sure they are not covering too much nor too little about a topic. The scope of a focus is partially dictated by the length of the writing. Obviously, a book on the Civil War will cover more than a 500 word essay. Finally, focus is also determined by its significance, that is, its ability to keep readers' interest.

What It Means to be Focused

Donna Lecourt, English Department
What it means to be "focused" changes from discipline to discipline. Say for example, in literature, my "focus" comes through a novel. I want to write about Henry James's Turn of the Screw. On one hand it could come through theory. I want to do a feminist analysis and Henry James's Turn of the Screw just happens to be the text I apply it to, or I might add another text. I might just approach a novel and say, "Okay. Everybody's read it in these ways before. Here's yet another way to read it." I don't have to show that I'm adding to, in some ways, I can show I'm distinguishing or coming up with something new. What my "focus" is, is determined disciplinarily as well as by my purpose.

Another example would be a typical research report where a "focus" is what's been done before because that determined what an experiment was going to be about. And so, in some ways, you're not coming up with your own "focus" the way in English, in some ways, you can. You have to look at "X," "Y," and "Z" studies to see what was done on this topic before you can prove your point. Focus comes out of what was achieved before. You have to link what you're doing to previous research studies which is a requirement of a lot of research reports.

Focus is Too Broad

Michel Muraski, Journalism and Technical Communication
The biggest conceptual shift in most students is having too broad of a statement and literally finding everything they ever knew about this topic and dumping it into a term paper. They need to consider what they write a pro-active document: a document that's going to be used by a specified audience for a specified reason about a specific area of that broader topic.

Kate Kiefer, English Department, Composition Director 1992 -1995
A broad focus looks easier for students, but it turns out that a narrow focus is generally easier. General articles and essays with a broad focus require lots of background information and a pretty clear sense of the readers' goals in reading the piece. Otherwise, writing with a broad focus tends to result in pretty boring prose. Most academic writing requires a narrow focus because it's easier to move from that into the specific supporting detail highly valued in the academic community.

A broad focus covers too much about a topic. It never discusses the fine details necessary to adequately present a topic and keep readers' interest. A good way to narrow a broad topic is to list the subcategories of the topic. For example, two subcategories of Civil War tragedies are:

  • The breakdown of families as a result of divided loyalties.
  • How the small details of battle strategies affected the outcome of the war.

When you list subcategories, be careful not to narrow your topic too much, otherwise you won't have enough to write about it.

Focus is Too Narrow

A narrow focus covers too little about a topic. It gets so close to the topic that the writer cannot possibly say more than a few words. For example, writing about gender interactions in one of your classes is too narrow. You can use your class to make a point about gender interactions, but chances are, you'll find nothing specific in the library about your particular class. Instead, you might look at gender interactions in group settings, and then use your class as an example to either agree or disagree with your research. Be careful not to make your focus too broad as a result.

So What?

As you refine your focus, check to see if you pass the "So What?" test. To do so, you should know who will read what you write. Readers have to care about your topic in order to continue reading, otherwise they may look at what you have written and respond "So what?" You need to determine what readers need to stay interested in your writing. Ask yourself why readers will be interested in your specific topic. Is it significant enough to hold their attention? Why or why not?

Citation Information

Stephen Reid and Dawn Kowalski. (1994-2022). Maintaining Your Focus. The WAC Clearinghouse. Colorado State University. Available at https://wac.colostate.edu/resources/writing/guides/.

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