Information Sheet #28
TO NARROW AND TO FOCUS
Good writing is almost always focused writing. In the standard textbook procedure for writing a paper, the second step is to limit or "narrow and focus." Although the "narrow and focus" technique is important, it has its limitations. There is also another technique, which can be derived from problem solving or from dialectic, for focusing a piece of writing. This technique seems to approximate the behavior of many good writers on those occasions when they choose "broad" topics. Writing students should learn both.
To narrow and focus, as the phrase suggests, actually involves two related but distinct operations. Narrowing limits a writer to a part of the original topic. Thus "The Literary `Crisis'" becomes "The Literacy `Crisis' in New York City's High Schools". Focusing limits a writer to a particular aspect of the original topic. The restriction is determined largely by the writer's purpose and thus by how the writer looks at the topic. Thus "The Literary `Crisis'" becomes "What should be done about the `crisis'?"
The combination of narrowing and focusing results in a working topic like "What should be done about the literary ‘crisis’ in New York City's high schools?"
Good start, says the textbook, now keep narrowing. The final topic for a short paper eventually becomes "One remedy for increasingly poor punctuation among first-year students at Stuyvesant High School." As this example indicates, in actual pedagogical practice the overwhelming emphasis is too often on narrowing rather than on focusing. Unfortunately, narrow topics are in grave danger of becoming trivial. They may also fail to interest readers. It must be remembered that there is a second aspect to narrowing and focusing: one must make certain that one narrows and focuses on a topic which is not only specific but also has broad implications.
The quantitative narrowing of a topic eventually produces a qualitative change. A writer who has something serious to say about education may not be able to do so by writing on "My Difficulties with the Microscope in Biology Laboratory." The same handbook reduces "The Problems of Television" to "My nights with Mary Hartman." Insistence on such narrowing comes close to being muzzling; instead of helping students to sharpen and communicate their ideas, it forces them to focus their attention on more trivial subjects.
Sometimes it may be better to delay trying to focus until the process is a little further along. Perhaps the writing will "find its own focus" after a few freewritings or unfocused drafts. According to the Prentice-Hall Handbook, writers should not determine their purposes until after they have "selected a subject and narrowed it to a manageable size." Logically, however, focus follows from purpose; there is no basis for making the choices implicit in narrowing and focusing unless one has a purpose.
As these problems suggest, narrowing is only sometimes desirable. Another solution has recently been derived from problem-solving. As one gathers material on the chosen topic, one looks for a "problem". Among the various statements one collects, one looks for two or more which seem to contradict each other. Sometimes the "problem" takes the form of an apparent "fact" which seems to contradict an established principle; other times it involves two statements of the same level of generality.
Using this method, one does not look for traditional debating topics like "University Education--For the Many or for the Few?" Rather one looks for statements like these:
An apparent contradiction between two statements may be dissolved by disproving one of the statements. A genuine contradiction is resolved by generating a statement which combines the two originals and demonstrates the extent or sense in which each contains some truth. It is this sort of contradiction which constitutes the sort of "problem" which can focus a piece of writing.
In the real world, it is very often the awareness of such a problem which motivates the writing in the first place. In other cases, writers discover the "problem" as they write. For instance, journalistic feature writers seem to seek a contradiction or apparent paradox because it gives them an "angle" from which to approach the topic. Thus the contradiction provides a purpose which gives focus and, ultimately, structure to the writing. The flow--from purpose to focus to structure--is as one
(This article is a condensed version of Richard M. Coe's "If Not to Narrow, Then to Focus: Two Techniques for Focusing" published in College Composition and Communication.)
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