4 quick steps to Writing Better, Easier & Faster
Back in the day, the editor of an airline magazine asked me to write a piece 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.”
“Know from the beginning whether you’re writing a sonnet or an epic.”
— Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar, The Poynter Institute
Well, I know Kansas City. I’d lived there for 30 years, and I’d covered it from my desk as a magazine editor for five. But I’ve never worked so hard on such a simple piece. And I’d never been so disappointed in the results.
My problem, of course, was that my message lacked focus. A lack of focus makes it difficult for you — and for your reader — to get through your story.
As you work to get more done — with many more distractions — during the pandemic, you might find yourself with a topic that’s too big for the assignment. To Write Better, Easier and Faster, follow these four steps to finding your focus before you write:
1. Focus on a single idea.
You can communicate one idea well, a handful poorly or several not at all.
Think of your piece as a tree. Your story angle is the trunk. The tree can branch out in several directions. But when you find a sapling, yank it out. Don’t tie a rope from the sapling to your tree and call it a branch.
2. Summarize your idea in a single sentence.
As one of my favorite college professors used to say: “If you can’t summarize your story idea on the back of my business card, you don’t have a clear idea.”
Your summary sentence will keep you from getting scattered and from including information that isn’t pertinent to the copy.
3. Make your point.
Use your summary sentence as the basis for your:
- Headline or deck
- Lead or nut paragraph
- Blurb for index or table of contents
4. Test for focus.
Finally, make sure every paragraph, every sentence and every word in your piece work together to support your theme.
To test this, reread your copy with your tight story angle in mind. With each sentence, don’t just ask, “Does this sentence work?” Also ask: “Does this sentence work to further my point?”
Focus has more to do with what you leave out of your piece than with what you put in. So if a section, paragraph or sentence doesn’t pass the test, take it out.