Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A moment with Jack Hart: Focus

Figured I'd start posting regularly on excerpts from "A Writer's Coach," by Jack Hart of The Oregonian.

The book breaks down the writing method and process as Hart teaches it: that writing is not something that happens when you sit down at the keyboard; it's the result of all the steps you do before you sit down at the keyboard -- getting an idea, doing the reporting, focusing the story, organizing your material before you write, writing a draft, then revising and polishing.

An important point that Hart returns to frequently: Any problem you encounter during that process is likely caused by something you didn't do well enough in the step that came before it. So if you're having a problem in one area, examine what you did in the previous step.

But here's a passage that struck me, on a topic we've talked about a lot in here: focus. (Apologies that this first post kind of starts in the middle of the process ... but I think it's an important thing to remember.

"....focus is the axis on which a piece of writing turns. Everything in any given composition revolves around it. Everything relates to it in some way. Focus emerges in the writing process, a product of the thinking you launch when you cook up your idea, take your hypothesis in hand, and set forth on your information gathering. It's a fully developed theme, the core idea that journalists often refer to as a nut.

"The main thing any writer needs to find focus is a constantly questioning attitude, a thinking process that incessantly reviews the original hypothesis as it bumps up against the real world. That's what keeps the hypothesis from turning into a bias that distorts the evidence. It's what leads to original insights and guides the search through a bewildering array of possibly related facts to find what truly matters."
To me, that last graf is describing the possibility of discovery -- and that's what makes for the best stories. You may set out with an idea of what the story is. Some reporters believe they know the subject so well before they even start that they squeeze out the idea they could learn something new. But if you allow for the possibility of discovery -- of finding something new or different than you thought was there -- that's when your story becomes fresh. And, to me, that's when it's most exciting to write (or to edit one of your pieces). And that, ultimately, is what rewards your reader.

Watch for more from Hart's book in upcoming posts.

Meanwhile ... anybody have a good story of discovery to tell?