Tighten your angle
“Know from the beginning
whether you’re writing a sonnet or an epic.”
— Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar, The Poynter Institute
The editor of a travel magazine once asked me to write a story about Kansas City.
“Kansas City,” I said. “Would that be Kansas City barbecue? An insider’s guide to where the bodies are buried? The perfect weekend for lovers? Kansas City on the quick, on the cheap or for the family?”
“Yup,” she said. “Kansas City.”
Well, I know Kansas City. I’ve lived there since before Richard Nixon resigned, and I covered it from my desk as a magazine editor for nearly five years. But I’ve never toiled so hard on a simple piece. And I’ve never been so disappointed in the results.
My problem, of course, was that my copy lacked focus. And a lack of focus makes it difficult for you — and for your reader — to get through your story. But if you find your focus, or tighten the angle on your piece, your story will become easier to read and write.
Here’s how to find your focus:
A topic, obviously, isn’t an idea. “Kansas City” is a topic, not a theme. “PRSA Digital Media Conference” doesn’t make a good brochure headline, because it lacks an angle. Your product name is not an idea.
Build your story on a firmer foundation. What about Kansas City, your conference or your product?
To get to that one, basic idea, summarize your piece in one short sentence: “An insider’s guide to Kansas City: 10 great places you won’t find in a guidebook,” maybe.
3. Make your point.
Once you’ve written your one-sentence story summary, use it. A well-written summary statement can become a headline, deck or theme sentence. That summary communicates your idea clearly to your reader while it keeps you on track.
4. Test for focus.
Finally, make sure every paragraph — indeed, every sentence, every phrase, every word — in your piece works together to support your theme. To test this, reread your copy with your focus in mind.
With each paragraph, don’t just ask, “Does this paragraph work?” Also ask, “Does this paragraph work to further my focus?”
You define your focus more by what you leave out than by what you put into your story. So if a phrase or sentence doesn’t pass the test, take it out.