• Sarah

4 Ways to Focus Your Writing

Updated: Mar 10


Last week, I finished the final chapter in the first draft of my book project. I started the manuscript last January, put it aside in April, picked it back up in September, and here we are. I began with a vague desire to write a memoir about being single—the struggle and how when I finally did marry, I could see why God’s timeline for my life had been the way it had. I wrote a few chapters, received mixed reviews on the idea from my critique group, and then life circumstances happened.

I put it on the back burner to percolate for a while. In September, I attended a retreat with some fellow writers to plan an upcoming writers conference. One evening, as I settled into the plush couch cushions in a cozy cabin in the mountains, my friend and mentor Susy asked me, “So what are you working on?”

Susy listened patiently to my garbled thought process. Then she simply said, “It sounds to me like you’re writing about waiting.”

And just like that, my confused concept became clear.

I’d been trying to put together puzzle pieces without have the picture to look at. Only with the picture did the pieces make sense. I wasn’t writing a book about being single. I was writing about waiting in multiple aspects of life and everything involved in that—hope, discouragement, trust, disappointment, journey, and identity.

With this new focus and fresh vision, I began writing in earnest. This kind of clear focus—identifying what you’re really writing about—helps any kind of writing. If you’re starting a new piece of writing or struggling with the vision for your current project, try these four tips.

  1. Ask yourself what purpose each sentence or scene serves in the story. Is it necessary? Relevant? Meaningful? Have you ever been watching a movie and there’s a close-up shot of some seemingly unimportant detail? I always pay attention to those. Maybe it’s my love for a good detective story, but usually those details were included for a reason. An hour and a half later, there’s an aha! moment when that cup of coffee or tattoo or missing ring turns out to be the key to the plot twist at the end. It’s the same with books and written stories; everything should be included for a reason. The reason doesn’t always have to be the crux of the storyline. Maybe this description serves to illustrate and develop a character. Maybe these physical details are important to set the scene and pull the reader into the story. Whatever you’re writing, it just needs to have a clear purpose, whether it’s immediately apparent to the reader or not. As a friend of mine likes to say, “make your words do work.” If it’s not contributing to the purpose, cut it out.

  2. Avoid a bait and switch. A lack of focus and purpose translates into your writing and the cohesion of the ideas you’re communicating. Make sure not to pull a bait and switch on the reader. When we flip open a book, it’s often because we’re intrigued by what the back cover says the book is about. Your inclusion of particular anecdotes or details within the book can set the same sort of expectations in the reader’s mind. When it turns out those pieces of information weren’t important or relevant, or your book/article/devotional/whatever turns out to be about something different than you initially suggested, they may feel misled or disappointed because you didn’t deliver on the expectation you created. Keep your writing “on topic.”

  3. Write with your theme in mind. A clear theme serves as a filter to help you choose which anecdotes or scenes to write. Once Susy helped me identify that I was writing about waiting, every scene and every chapter needed to relate to and support this theme. It wasn’t always overt; after all, I didn’t need to bash my reader over the head with it. Sometimes just having the purpose in my head helped to translate it to the page and keep me on track with where I was going in the story.

  4. Find a friend to bounce ideas. Sometimes we are so close to our writing that we need an outside perspective. The insights of others are incredibly valuable. Find someone who will tell you when something isn’t working (and why), help you identify what your focus is, and inspire you with new ideas or angles.

Header photo courtesy of FreePik.


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© 2020 by Sarah Barnum / TrailBlaze Writing & Editing

Grass Valley, CA

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