Where are you taking me?

focus
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Crafting a unique focus for your article, and how it’s different from your lead.

By Diane J. McDougall, McDougall Editorial

Back in the early ’90s, a major airline advertised a weekend special: Fly anywhere in the country for only $69/person!

There was just one catch: The airline picked your destination for you when you arrived at the ticket counter on Friday afternoon.

The promotion flopped.

Is that surprising? Who enjoys packing and planning for an unknown destination?

In the same way, why should readers take a trip through your article if they can’t figure out where you’re headed — if they’re not sure the destination is worth the ride?

This is the importance of creating a focus for your magazine articles.

I define the focus as …

  • a hint
  • a promise
  • the main point you want to unpack

Perhaps think of yourself as a photographer who’s been assigned to turn in one photo only of your subject. You head out to take that photo, and you’re looking for the perfect angle to convey what you want viewers to notice. As you look at your subject, you end up discarding several other options as you narrow down to what you most want to “say.”

This approach mimics that of a writer choosing a focus. Consider your topic: What one angle will you focus on? What do readers most need to know? What are others not saying about this topic?

In other words, you don’t simply pack into your article all of the info you know about a topic. You sift and select. As William Zinsser wrote in the classic On Writing Well: “Every article is strong in proportion to the surplus of details from which you can choose the few that will serve you best.”

In the newspaper world, the focus is called a “nut graph” or “nut graf” — as in the nut or kernel of the story. For newspapers, or for news articles in magazines, the nut graph often contains the essence of what makes this topic timely now. For non-news stories, a time-element might not be as crucial.

As a writer, consider your focus first before even starting to write the article, because the chosen focus will shape what you then choose as your lead, your close, your primary quotes and anecdotes. You will likely tweak the exact wording of that focus as you tighten up your writing overall — creating strong transitions into it and out of it. But the essence will remain.

In the end, your focus might be as short as one sentence or as long as two paragraphs — whatever sets up readers to know the journey ahead, intrigues them to keep going, but doesn’t give away every twist and turn!

Another way to think of the focus is the string that holds together a pearl necklace. You start with the string and slide pearls onto it: your lead, your quotes, examples and anecdotes, and finally your focus. They all align on the string, all supporting the focus you have chosen.

The focus is not the same as the lead. The focus is more of the essence and the promise; the lead is the “flash” you use to grab reader attention and get them to start reading. So you capture attention with the lead and then carry readers into your focus, to let them know where you are taking them on this journey.

Writer’s Digest calls the focus “the hook”:

“If the lead is like bait, a tasty nibble to get the reader’s attention, the copy that comes next must hook readers and have enough barb to keep them from slipping off. The hook is a preview of what’s to come and a promise of a payoff; everything that follows in your article should work to support it.”

Try crafting a focus first for your next magazine article before you write any other words. Again ask yourself: What most stands out to me about this topic? What will my readers want to know? What angle can I take that others are not taking?

Then, take your readers on the journey you’ve promised!

Diane McDougall is a content creator, editor and storyteller. Through her business, McDougall Editorial, she helps create compelling content and offers coaching for writers and editors to strengthen their content-creation. She’s available for private coaching and group instruction.

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