Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Behind the Books: Finding a Focus

Boy, I really got sidetracked on research, didn’t I? Before I move on to the next step in the process of preparing to write a book (or article), let’s review the list I started a few weeks ago:

1. Get an idea.
2. Do a little market research to see what’s already out there on the topic.
3. If the idea seems viable, do a ton of research.

So what’s the next step?

4. Focus your topic.

Let’s pause here. I know what you’re thinking, but this really is important and, yes, I really will finish the list—eventually. I promise.

Why is it important to spend some time describing how and why to focus a topic? Well, actually, there are two reasons.

(a) It’s not as easy as you might think.

(b) It’s as important for young writers as it is for me.

Writing about a narrow topic—as opposed to a broad one—allows me (and young writers, too) to include more examples and anecdotes, and they make prose more engaging. Details bring the writing to life.

If I tried to cram everything there is to know about weather prediction into a thousand words, I’d have to be vague and general. This approach would turn my readers off. That’s because what kids (and adults) find most appealing is a book or article that is chock full of clear, specific, relevant information.

So rather than writing about weather prediction in general, I might decide to focus on tornadoes. Then I ask myself: What are young readers likely to take away from a piece ion this topic?

They may not remember exactly how a tornado forms, but they probably will remember that storm chasers sometimes track as many as a dozen tornadoes a day. And they’ll remember where Tornado Alley is if their grandmother lives in Oklahoma or their best friend just moved to South Dakota. So those are the kinds of subtopics I’d probably focus on.

Yep, it’s true. Less is more. Here’s another example.

Not long ago, I was working with a class of fourth graders. One boy decided he wanted to write about the Universe. I gently told him he might want to reconsider his topic and I explained why. He was resistant at first, but I could tell he was thinking about my suggestions.

The next time I worked with the class, he told me that first he had narrowed his topic to the solar system and then Jupiter, but even that was too much. Finally, he decided to write about Ganymede—one of Jupiter’s moons.

Ah, success! His rich, informative report included some of the best and most creative comparators I’ve ever seen. By comparing Ganymede to a variety of things in his classmates’ realm of experience, he gave us all a vivid picture of the distant moon. Bravo!

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