April 27, 2021
It was early spring, and I was thinking about articles for January. As freelancers know, most publications plan issues months ahead, so we need to submit our queries and articles with that in mind. I decided to write something about New Year’s customs and found plenty of information. From the start, I knew I had to choose a specific, narrower aspect of this broad subject. Otherwise, I’d make my task harder and end up with a general, superficial piece of writing, especially since magazines set word limits. I thought about New Year’s festivals, superstitions, traditional meals, or rituals. Still too broad. Time to find a focus and slant…
Focusing is important, whether we are writing articles or books. In Writing and Selling a Nonfiction Book, Max Gunther discusses the role of focusing in a nonfiction book: “A good book idea is sharply focused on a single, well-defined subject. Its boundaries are clearly visible. It is easily grasped as a single idea, rather than a loose collection of facts about this or that.” As an example, Gunther describes how he set out to write a book about people who consistently made money investing in the stock market. He and his editors decided this subject was too big. Besides, similar books had already been “done.” After Gunther heard about investors who used astrology to select stocks, he considered that focus. But while that would be fine for an article, he needed more material for a book. Then Gunther discovered people who used tarot cards and other mystical approaches for investing. By combining that with his astrology material, he had a focus that was broad enough but not too broad, plus an intriguing angle. The resulting book was called Wall Street and Witchcraft.
An engaging slant or angle can attract both editors and readers. Editors receive many queries featuring similar ideas. They want an approach that is fresh, appealing, and well-suited to their audience. Lisa Collier Cool, author of How to Sell Every Magazine Article You Write, says, “Slant is what makes a submission right for one magazine, wrong for another.” For example, we might propose an article on “how to hire a private plane for your next vacation” to a lifestyle or travel magazine with upper-income readers. For less affluent readers, the slant might be how to find great deals when flying on commercial airlines. A holiday article for Town & Country magazine might focus on where to find “gifts for people who have everything,” while a magazine geared for homemakers on a tight budget might like an article on “tasty holiday gifts from your kitchen.”
Lack of focus can derail our writing, while a clear focus and slant can expedite each phase of the process—planning, research, writing, and marketing.
* PLANNING. Do you sometimes come up with a good idea but then find the article/book difficult to plan? A clear focus makes planning easier. You will know where you are heading and why. You can identify topics and subtopics that will help you achieve your purpose, based on the question: What will my readers gain from this?
* RESEARCH. Likewise, focusing nonfiction makes research easier. You can choose research materials that relate directly to your project instead of wandering through piles of books, articles, and websites, or setting up interviews with the wrong people. For instance, instead of reading “all about bats,” you can select materials that show how bats use echolocation to find prey in the dark. Instead of typing “bluegrass music” in your search engine, you can look for a particular musician, bluegrass festival, or musical instrument—whatever you decided to write about. A focused approach saves time and energy we can use for writing.
*WRITING. A well-focused nonfiction project should be easier to write. We have a pathway to follow as we maintain our focus and slant. The beginning, middle, and conclusion take shape more smoothly than they would if we didn’t set boundaries for our subject matter and identify a clear goal. During revisions, we can make sure we stayed on track.
*MARKETABLE. Readers want something beyond the typical facts they can find in reference books or “overview” articles. Focusing enables us to delve into a narrower subject, using interesting quotes, anecdotes, and details that bring nonfiction to life.
Focus and slant also help us write better queries and proposals. We should be able to state the main purpose of our article/book and show how it can entertain, inform, inspire, and/or empower our intended audience in just a few effective sentences. Authors Pat Kubis and Bob Howland note the obvious advantages of a query that tells the editor “The Atlantic Ocean is becoming dangerously polluted with radioactive substances and sealife is threatened” vs. one that says you plan to “write about the ocean.”
An Article Finds Its Focus
So, how might I focus the New Year’s article I mentioned earlier? I could write about the origins of the customary “ball drop” in New York City’s Times Square. Another slant: tips for people who plan to join the throngs on New Year’s Eve to watch this event in person. Or how about a list, such as “The Ten Strangest New Year’s Customs” or “Twelve Tips for a Terrific New Year’s Eve Party.”
What about foods? What do people around the world eat on New Year’s Day? More specifically, what do they eat for good luck? It’s a fun topic I could develop in numerous ways. I might stick with a particular place, such as the United States. I could focus on the origins of certain food customs, or, narrower still, the religious origins of food-related customs. That might work for a magazine from a religious publisher. In the end, I chose to describe “good luck” foods from different parts of the world, picking those I found most interesting. Since the magazine that published my article often published pieces on health and nutrition, I wove that into my conclusion, saying that a year-round diet of foods with vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients are “the luckiest.”
As writers, we have choices: what to write about, how to present our material, what to say, how to say it—and what to leave out. As you pursue your nonfiction writing, remember focus and slant. By reiningin your topics, you might expand your writing opportunities!
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Victoria Sherrow has published short stories,articles, and books (fiction and nonfiction) for readers aged preschool throughadult. Her books have received starred reviews and been honored by the AmericanLibrary Association, Parents Choice Gold Award, National Association for theAdvancement of Science, and NYPL Best Books for the Teenage, among others.Victoria has taught at The Institute of Children’s Literature for more than 25 yearsand has also been an assistant editor and writing contest judge. In recentyears, she has written about women in the Gold Rush, famous immigrants, and surfing,among other subjects. She recently completed a 230,000-word nonfiction book.