My point about having a point

In talking the past few weeks about “The Invisible Child,” I asked you to try to summarize what this series was about in one word. I know that it’s not easy to do, but the goal of that kind of thinking is to get you to focus on the point of the work. When we talked about focus and organization, I talked about having a point and checking back frequently on it as you write and revise your stories. I made the argument that this conscious action will result in a story that is more focused and better organized.

Some of us thought that the one word would be disparity. Or maybe failure, as in the failure of society, or a system, or the parents in the story.

But I think we might all agree that the story is about the long odds a homeless child faces in crossing the gulf between her world of poverty and the one of prosperity she can see all around her in New York city. It explores the forces arrayed against her, as if she were, in fact, the protagonist in that video game the writer uses as a figurative device to get Dasani to tell her own story. It tells her story to make a point, though: that she is one of many caught in a powerful trap because of changes that have taken place in the economy, in the city’s social service net, and the boroughs through real estate development.

The decisions the writer made all contribute to describing Dasani’s world. The writer drills down to the source of the problems she faces in school, the shelter, within her family and out on the street. That’s focus, and the series is organized to contribute to that central point: Dasani’s long odds (her struggle).

In this podcast of a coaching session he did at the Chicago Tribune, Steve Padilla takes a more granular look at focused writing. You reaaaaaally (I’m kinda begging you, here) ought to do yourself a favor and listen to this. He’s good. He makes several key points, including:

  • Let meaning control words, and not the other way around.
  • Focus on the end of sentences and put the best stuff there. It creates emphasis.
  • Be sure description is accurate; that’s what makes it work.
  • Let music and film inspire you as a writer (think, loud-soft; dark-bright; sharply realized scenes; great dialogue).

My favorite bit:

The meaning of life is all in verbs. If you emphasize verbs, you emphasize action. If you emphasize action, you have to emphasize people. If you emphasize people, you will have drama. If you have drama, you’ll have interest. And if you have interest, you’ll have the reader.

He makes the point often in his coaching (his day job is assistant national editor at the L.A. Times) that self editing is possible. It’s not just possible, it’s imperative. Many of my former students tell me that they get less editing than ever in their newsrooms, thanks to staff cuts in many news organizations. If you decide to free lance, or find yourself having to do so for a period of time, you will also need to develop self-editing skills.

Padilla lays out a kind of checklist for looking at your own writing, as described in this blog post, that I think you’ll find very helpful.

Listen to the podcast. And next time you sit down to write, you’ll know what the most important questions are: Do you know what the point of your story is? And have you stuck to it? How does each sentence in your story contribute to that point?

And can you do better?

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