Today’s topic is meant more specifically for nonfiction books, but the principle can be applied to fiction as well. We all know that writing a book and actually getting published takes time and effort, and sometimes I come across authors who feel as if this is their “one shot” to write a book. What I find with these types of authors is that they often want to include every idea they’ve ever had into this one book. They become frustrated and in some cases downright irritable when I suggest cutting out major sections in a desire to “narrow the focus.”
But the truth is that the best and most useful books are not (generally speaking) an all-encompassing overview of a topic. For example, it would be nearly impossible to write a book covering every single aspect of World War II from all angles. Unless we’re talking about history books you use in high school, someone wanting to write a history of WWII is going to choose one specific period of time or geographical area or person to follow through the narrative. This allows a closer focus, a more in-depth look at the motivations and the characterization and the descriptions that make up the larger picture.
Likewise, when writing something like an autobiography, it’s not the best idea to try to include every single event that has ever happened to you. You want to narrow the focus and include only those events that contribute to the larger story, explain your motivation, and how you came to be the person you are today. Authors of autobiographies often want to include anecdotes that have nothing to do with the story they’re telling, and it makes for an uninteresting story that doesn’t take the reader on any kind of journey.
A past coworker and still good friend of mine once used pictures to explain this idea of narrowing the focus. I’ve often used this tactic when explaining this to authors.
Take a look at the following two photographs.
Think about which one is more interesting, more thought provoking. They’re both professional photographs, but the one on the right allows us to see more detail. The one on the left presents so much information that we can’t look at any one element up close. If we were to write about it, we could admire the diversity and beauty of the flowers as a whole, but we are unable see much about any individual flower.
The picture on the right, however, lets us explore the subject in depth. We can see that one single petal has countless shades of orange and cream; we see the delicate shape of the petal. Because we’re only looking at one flower, we appreciate it so much more.
The same is true for books. When you try to tackle a very large topic, readers don’t get to admire the smaller details. To use our WWII example, when you write an overview, yes, we get a picture of the large scale of the war itself, but we do not see individual pieces working to contribute to the bigger story. Readers need something specific they can hang on to in order to become invested.
The field of flowers is beautiful; after a couple of minutes, however, they blend together and become just another field of flowers. But once you’ve taken the time to look closely at one flower, you become connected to the scene in a way that allows you to better appreciate the field.
If you are wondering whether or not you need to narrow the focus, ask yourself: what is the one specific topic you want to get across to readers? Then, take a look at each chapter, anecdote, etc., and determine whether or not it is contributing to that topic. If it is not, perhaps it should be taken out.
Amanda Bumgarner is a freelance editor living in Oklahoma City. Find her at amandabumgarner.com for writing and editing tips.