Monday, January 23, 2012

Narrowing Your Focus in Nonfiction

One of the quickest ways to get overwhelmed when writing nonfiction is to try to cover a subject from top to bottom, especially when your word count is only 500 words or less. Let’s face it, you can’t include everything there is to know about pigs in a children’s magazine article or even a book. The subject is just too broad. In fact, most subjects are. And while you can certainly tackle a broad subject, keep in mind that the broader the focus, the less room you have to spend on any one idea. The result is generally either a big, fat book - the kind you don’t see very often in children’s publishing - or one that is merely a list of facts and general information that reads like an encyclopedia entry.

So if pigs are what you want to write about, consider what you already know. Well, they snort, have curly tails and make mighty fine bacon. While bacon is always a tasty topic, we probably don’t want to talk to kids about butchering pigs, and the other two choices are just meh. It’s time to do some research.

As you pore through everything you can find out about pigs, you perhaps learn they are intelligent animals, that they’re used in medical research, and they have a talent for sniffing out truffles. Consider the information you’ve gathered and choose a topic that interests you. If you decide on truffle hunting pigs, that’s your focus. Everything you write should relate to truffles and the pigs who sniff them out. No matter how much cool stuff you come across, if it isn’t about truffle hunting pigs, or can’t be slanted toward truffle hunting pigs, it doesn’t belong in the article. Save the info and put it aside for now.

If your choice was pigs in medical research, you may have to narrow your focus again. Find out what kind of research is done with pigs and choose one area. Maybe you’re interested in experiments on aging or cancer. Maybe it’s on the unethical use of pigs in experimentation. Again, pick the area that interests you most. If that area is still too broad, like cancer research, you may have to narrow your focus once more to a particular kind of cancer. And if you find that something extraordinary came out of one particular experiment, you may want to narrow your focus yet again to just that one experiment.

A narrower focus will give you a more compelling, reader-friendly story every time. It allows the writer to concentrate on just one aspect of a topic instead of five or seven or ten. It allows you to give a topic some depth. Consider The History of Horse Racing vs Seabiscuit, or How Medical Cures are Found vs Lorenzo’s Oil.

The narrower focus also allows readers to come away from the piece with an understanding of what truffles are and how pigs sniff them out, or how this one particular experiment saved millions of lives, whereas in a broader article, the reader may see just that one line - pigs are sometimes used to sniff out truffles, or experiments on pigs have saved many lives. If they want more information, they have to look elsewhere.

Another advantage of the narrow focus is that it can do much more for your writing career than writing broad. Let’s say you write that big fat book, All About Pigs. How long did it take you to research? How long did it take you to organize all that research? How long did it take to write that big fat book and sell it? And in the end, what do you have? One pay check and a dead topic. Now you have to go research something else, and by the time you finish that, the editor you worked with on the first book has moved on, or has no interest in your next topic.

Compare that to a narrowly focused book. Let’s say you write The Truffle Hunting Pig and the research, organization, and writing time takes just as long as the fat book. In the end, you have a book that’s easier to sell, and once you sell it, you can immediately pitch your editor - still there, still interested in pigs, and still remembering who you are - if she’d be interested in another pig book, this one on how a special pig saved millions of lives.

Another book, another paycheck.

And remember all that cool information you had but couldn’t use in the truffle book? It’s all fodder for future pig books. As long as you keep that narrow focus, you can write about pigs as long as you want to. You’ll end up with a nice backlist of books, (hopefully earning you some nice residual income,) and you’ll have carved out a niche for yourself by becoming the woman who writes about pigs, or strange moments in history, or volcanoes, or Hispanic musicians, or whatever it is that you like to write about. You become, in effect, an expert.

So if you’re considering writing nonfiction (and you should, because it’s easier to break into print in nonfiction than it is in fiction) forget about the big picture for awhile. Limit your perspective. Be specific. And think small.


I'm Jet . . . said...

You're such a good writer, Barb. I like the smooth flow of this text, and of course, the content is dead-on.


Andy said...

Terrific as always, Barb.

Mur said...

As always, Barb,you made some wonderful poinks--uh, points.