Focusing in Composition

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In composition, public speaking, and the writing process, focusing refers to the various strategies involved in narrowing a topic, identifying a purpose, defining an audience, choosing a method of organization, and applying revision techniques.

Tom Waldrep describes focusing as "the moment of tunnel vision... Focusing is the mood or mode of fierce concentration that funnels thought from its diffuse matrix into fully discursive form" (Writers on Writing, 1985).

Etymology: from the Latin, "hearth."


"One very important aspect of motivation is the willingness to stop and to look at things that no one else has bothered to look at. This simple process of focusing on things that are normally taken for granted is a powerful source of creativity."

(Edward de Bono, Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step. Harper & Row, 1970)

"We think of focus as a visual effect, a lens we look through to see the world more clearly. But I have come to see it as a knife, a blade I can use to slice the fat out of a story, leaving behind only the strength of muscle and bone... If you think of focus as a sharp knife, you can test every detail in a story, and when you find something that does not fit (no matter how interesting), you can take your blade and cut it, neatly, quickly, no bleeding or suffering involved."

(Roy Peter Clark, Help! for Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces. Little, Brown and Company, 2011)

Narrowing a Topic for an Essay, Speech, or Research Paper

"As you explore possible topics, avoid ones that are too large, too obscure, too emotional, or too complicated for you to work within the allotted time. . . . Although a number of techniques exist for narrowing your topic once you have a general idea of what you want to write about, most approaches encourage you to 'mess around' with the ideas to begin to make them your own (McKowen, 1996). Do some freewriting. Write without stopping for a while just to get some thoughts on paper. Or try brainstorming, in which you write down all of the concepts or ideas that occur to you on the topic. Talk to a friend to stir up ideas. Or try asking these questions about the topic: who, what, when, where, why, and how? Finally, do some reading on the topic to start the focusing process."

(John W. Santrock and Jane S. Halonen, Connections to College Success. Thomson Wadsworth, 2007)

"One way to narrow down your topic is to break it down into categories. Write your general topic at the top of a list, with each successive word a more specific or concrete topic. . . . [For example, you] might begin with the very general topic of cars and trucks and then narrow the topic down a step at a time until you focus on one particular model (the Chevy Tahoe hybrid) and decide to persuade your listeners about the advantages of owning a hybrid vehicle with all of the SUV amenities."

(Dan O'Hair and Mary Wiemann, Real Communication: An Introduction, 2nd ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012)

"The most common criticism of a research paper is that its topic is too broad...Concept maps [or clustering]...can be used to 'visually' narrow a topic. Write your general subject on a blank sheet of paper and circle it. Next, write down subtopics of your general subject, circle each, and connect them with lines to the general subject. Then write and circle subtopics of your subtopics. At this point, you may have a suitably narrow subject. If not, keep adding levels of subtopics until you arrive at one."

(Walter Pauk and Ross J. Q. Owens, How to Study in College, 10th ed. Wadsworth, 2011)

Donald Murray on Ways of Achieving Focus

"Writers have to find a focus, a possible meaning in all the mess that will allow them to explore the subject in a relatively orderly fashion so they can continue through the writing process to find out if they have anything worth saying--and worth a reader's hearing...

"I interview myself, asking questions similar to the ones I asked to find the subject:

- What information have I discovered that surprised me the most?
- What will surprise my reader?
- What one thing does my reader need to know?
- What one thing have I learned that I didn't expect to learn?
- What can I say in one sentence that tells me the meaning of what I have explored?
- What one thing--person, place, event, detail, fact, quotation--have I found that contains the essential meaning of the subject?
- What is the pattern of meaning I have discovered?
- What can't be left out of what I have to write about?
- What one thing do I need to know more about?

There are a number of techniques to focus on a subject. The writer, of course, only uses the techniques that are necessary to achieve a focus."

(Donald N. Murray, Read to Write: A Writing Process Reader, 2nd ed. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1990)

Focusing Strategies of ESL Writers

"[L]ess experienced L1 and L2 writers may focus prematurely--and with less than satisfactory results--on microlevel features such as grammatical, lexical, and mechanical accuracy, as opposed to discourse-level concerns such as audience, purpose, rhetorical structure, coherence, cohesion, and clarity (Cumming, 1989; Jones, 1985; New, 1999)... L2 writers may require targeted instruction aimed at the development of specific linguistic skills, rhetorical expertise, and composing strategies."

(Dana R. Ferris and John S. Hedgcock, Teaching ESL Composition: Purpose, Process, and Practice, 2nd ed. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005)

Focusing on Audience and Purpose

"Audience and purpose are central concerns of experienced writers when they revise, and two research studies examined the effect of directing students' attention to these aspects of composing. In a 1981 study, [J.N.] Hays asked basic and advanced writers to write an essay for high school students about the effects of using marijuana. Based on her analysis of composing protocols and interviews, Hays found that those students, whether basic or advanced writers, who had a strong sense of audience and of purpose wrote better papers than those who lacked a strong sense of purpose and focused on the teacher as the audience or had little awareness of the audience. [D.H.] Roen & [R.J.] Wylie (1988) conducted a study that asked students to focus on audience by considering the knowledge that their readers probably possessed. Students who considered their audience during revision received higher holistic scores than those who did not."

(Irene L. Clark, Concepts in Composition: Theory and Practice in the Teaching of Writing. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003)

Pete Hamill's One Word of Writing Advice

In his memoir A Drinking Life (1994), veteran journalist Pete Hamill recounts his first few days "clumsily disguised as a reporter" at the old New York Post. Unburdened by training or experience, he picked up the fundamentals of newspaper writing from the Post's assistant night city editor, Ed Kosner.

All through the night in the sparsely manned city room, I wrote small stories based on press releases or items clipped from the early editions of the morning papers. I noticed that Kosner had Scotch-taped a single word to his own typewriter: Focus . I appropriated the word as my motto. My nervousness ebbed as I worked, asking myself: What does this story say? What is new? How would I tell it to someone in a saloon? Focus , I said to myself. Focus .

Of course, simply telling ourselves to focus won't magically produce a lead or a thesis. But responding to Hamill's three questions may help us to focus on finding the right words:

It was Samuel Johnson who said that the prospect of hanging "concentrates [the] mind wonderfully." The same might be said of deadlines. But isn't writing hard enough already without having to depend on anxiety to motivate us?

Instead, take a deep breath. Ask a few simple questions. And focus.

  1. What does this story (or report or essay) say?
  2. What is new (or most important)?
  3. How would I tell it to someone in a saloon (or, if you prefer, a coffee shop or cafeteria)?
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Focusing in Composition." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Focusing in Composition. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Focusing in Composition." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).