Inver Hills Community College


Home & Contents                       Basics                       College Writing             




Click on any  part or section below:

Part I. Basics/Process

  A. Chapters 1-6: Start

  B. Ch. 7-13: Organize

  C. Ch. 14-20: Revise/Edit

Part II. College Writing

   D. Ch. 21-23: What Is It?

   E. Ch. 24-30: Write on Rdgs.

   F. Ch.31-35: Arguments

  G. Ch. 36-42: Research

  H. Ch. 43-48: Literature

   I.  Ch. 49-58: Majors & Work

Part III. Grammar

 Study Questions



Chapter 2: FOCUS

Three Questions about How to Focus in Writing


What is "focusing"?

Three Questions about Focus:

1. How do You focus?

2. How do experienced writers focus?

3. How can you develop your own focus strategy?

Focus Exercises & Activities

See also "Six Student Responses about Starting to Write."


        Welcome to college-level writing!  This chapter, like Chapter 1, is introductory.  It assumes that you are starting a writing class of some kind: specifically, your first or second college writing class, a first-year college English class, or a high school AP/advanced writing class.  This chapter also may be useful to those of you working independently or reviewing what you once learned as a beginning writer, as it provides a different perspective about how you can focus as a writer. 


   What is "focusing"?

        How do you write? How do you actually sit down, take your pen, pencil, or keyboard in hand, and produce writing? In other words, on what do you focus when writing, and how do you establish that focus?

        First I'd like to make it very clear that when you write, every one of you already is focusing in some way. Focusing is what your mind does--what it is centered on--as you write.

        To describe this more accurately, your mind is on quite a few things at one time--on some of them at a fully conscious level and on others at perhaps lesser degrees of consciousness. The same is true, for example, when you walk, swim, or talk--you are aware of controlling parts of the event, but you no longer have to focus on the basic mechanisms of using your muscles to make the event happen.  During writing, usually you are fairly conscious of the subject matter of your writing, and often you are fairly aware of the person to whom you are writing or, perhaps, the purpose for which you are writing. On the other hand, you may be less fully conscious of other elements as you write: much of how you use these less conscious elements is placed on automatic or semiautomatic pilot.

        Imagine, for example, what it is like to write a letter or email to a friend. While you are conscious of the contents of your message and of whom you are writing, you don't worry about other, automatic or semiautomatic tasks. For example, as you write you do not constantly--with every word--need to consciously make choices about what words to use, about the tone or "feel" you are conveying, or about how you use (or don't use) grammar and punctuation, how you organize your letter, how your personal emotional feelings or needs affect the writing, or how a host of other possible elements relate to it.  Generally, you just tell yourself some thought or another like this: "I'm only writing a letter, not a term paper."  You may be careful of some things you do as you write.  Even so, you know that your mind can process most of the unconscious mechanical parts of writing fairly automatically, without your having to worry about them very much.  

        And that is fine. Most of the time, writing should be--as are walking, swimming, or talking--a mostly automatic activity in which you make small adjustments as you engage in the activities.

        However, every time you are required to write something in any way especially new--a school assignment, a letter of application, or perhaps a work document--you find that you must adjust your focus. It is the same as when you must hike a new path, swim in a new river or lake, or talk with a very different person. When a new writing experience comes along, you reexamine your focus, shift it a little or a lot, and possibly add to it in new ways. Again, this is natural: it is how you grow as a writer and how, indeed, you manage with varying degrees of success to write in new ways, for new people, and with new subjects.


   Three Questions about Focus

        This is a writing class, and so you will be learning to make new adjustments of your focus. In doing this adjusting, there are three important questions to ask yourself, both now and throughout the course, in order for you to gain the most from it:

(1) How do you actually focus when you write?

        This first question means, simply, that most people by the time they reach college actually have experienced several ways of focusing as they write. What are some you have experienced? You may find help in understanding how you focus by comparing your experiences in writing with those of your immediate peers in college.

(2) How do practiced writers focus?

        This second question means, in other words, what can you learn about focusing from writers who are experienced with writing--from professionals in various fields who write regularly, and from college writers, usually in upper-division or graduate courses, who have had quite a bit of experience writing certain types of papers required in college or graduate school.  What do they do that will work for you, and what not? And what are some of the differences of writing focus among writers in differing professional fields and academic disciplines?

(3) How can you develop your own plan for focusing effectively when writing?

        The third question's phrase "your own plan" means that there are multiple ways of focusing, and different times for doing it, and some ways will suit you better than they do other people. What suits you best? What kind of "plan," system, method, or set of steps can you develop for yourself? What kinds of alternative focus plans--for different kinds of writing--can you explore now?

        As this course proceeds, both right now and in the future, here are some of the ways you can think about "focus"--what it means in writing--as you learn your own methods of focusing and discover new ones. Keep in mind that this word "focus" is not some kind of abstract concept to describe an abstract event. It is very real: it describes the actual instant that your mind and your body come together to perform writing that communicates something. It is the instant in which you create words with mean on a page or computer screen.

        Next we will look at each of the above three questions in order, starting with the question about the nature of your own focus.


 Question #1:

 "How do YOU focus?"

        In examining your own methods of focusing on writing, you may want to consider two general types of focus: the physical conditions of writing and the mental and emotional conditions.

Physical Conditions of Writing:

        The physical conditions of your focus on writing mean simply your physical environment: what environment do you use to make writing more possible for yourself? The most common physical environment is a standard desk in a room at home or a library, or a computer terminal in a computer lab. However, you may want to experiment. I find myself writing best, often, in friendly, busy cafes and coffee houses (which is where I also do most of my reading of student papers), whether by hand or by my old, secondhand laptop computer. When for some reason I cannot use my laptop, I sometimes still will choose a coffeehouse over writing at home, even if it means writing by longhand. When I do write at home on my desktop computer, I make sure I am facing out a window: though some people I know seem to need blank walls, I need as much of a panoramic view before me as I can find.

        Some people do their best writing with music, loud or soft--rock, country, or classical--in the background. There are some, like my wife, who write better sitting or lying on a couch or in bed and others who actually work well in front of a TV. Some people need to talk about their subject with someone before they can begin writing, some must have a huge cup of coffee before them or a certain kind of pop or snack, and some need to be dressed for warmth and others for cool. A writing course such as this is an opportunity to experiment with the physical conditions of your writing. You might, in fact, want to query yourself about your physical conditions using the five W's of journalism:

    • Who do you want or not want around you?

    • What works best as a writing instrument, a seat, and a desk or table?

    • Where do you best write?

    • When do you best write?

    • Why or how do you best write: what combination of mood, energy level, food and drink (while you write and/or during the few hours before you start), music, light, touch, taste, and smell work best and work worst?

Mental and Emotional Conditions:

        Your mental and emotional conditions of writing are a more subtle matter. They concern the inward or psychological place on which, or way in which, you focus your mind as you write. Mental and emotional focusing means the different thoughts, feelings, images, or other impressions on which you focus in order to make your words come forth as you want them to. A very clear kind of mental and emotional focusing occurs, for example, when you write a letter to a friend. Your focus is on what the friend might want to hear, or on what you want to tell this particular friend. Another clear kind of mental and emotional focus occurs when you write a simple shopping list: you are focused on both the store where you will do the shopping and the items you do not have that can be purchased at this store.

        What do you focus on when you write a paper for a school assignment? Many beginning college writers have different answers. Here are some typical ones:

    • "I focus on an idea I have and just start writing."

    • "I look at all the materials I've researched, and I take some notes, and then I begin connecting the notes."

    • "I don't know: I worry a lot and don't know what to say, and finally when I know I don't have much time left, words start coming out."

    • "I look at the sample papers our teacher gives us and then try to write like that using my ideas."

    • "I just sort of write. Then after I've written a lot, I look at it and see how to organize it and write more."

    • "I need to start with knowing how to organize a paper--the parts of the paper--and then I kind of fill in the parts like a puzzle."

        Each of these focuses for writing is legitimate if it works. The question you need to ask is which types of focuses--these or others--work best for you? How do you operate in your thinking, feeling, image-making, and word-making when you write a paper for a school assignment, and how can you learn to operate better? The answer is not the same for everyone, nor is it the same for every assignment.

        Writing assignments in college span a wide spectrum of purposes and needs. Some assignments may require creative and/or critical thinking that is best expressed in writing by composing open-ended notes or "freewriting"--rough-draft writing done freely with little or no regard at first to organization or editing, which come later. This kind of writing often is said to involve "discovery" in that you discover what you want to say as you write it. In this kind of writing situation, you may not know what you want to say, what conclusion you want to reach, or even what you know about the subject until you start writing, revise it, write some more, and revise it some more. This is, in fact, how I wrote this chapter you now are reading. Freewriting and discovery are common techniques of writing in academic courses when essays showing your thinking are required, especially if you are expected to think creatively or critically.

        Other writing assignments in college require a more structured approach. Science lab writing, technical reports, business proposals, and mathematical problem solutions all are examples of trying to express what you already know within a certain structure required by the course or the teacher. In these writing assignments, freewriting may be helpful if you do not yet know quite how to express what you must say; however, there is not much discovery involved because you already know most or all of the ideas you must express.

        In yet other courses--the social sciences are an example--you may be required to use a certain standard form, but to think critically and creatively within the bounds of that form. Such writing assignments require a mixture of filling out a structure at times and at other times using freewriting and discovery to find out, within parts of the structure, what it is that you know and want to say.

        However, no matter what discipline, course, or teacher for which or for whom you are writing, usually your writing assignments will require some mixture of intelligent or creative thinking on the one hand, and careful organization of this thinking on the other.

        How are you to handle such assignments? Again, much of the key is knowing how you focus, and how you might change your focus. As I've discussed, the physical conditions of your focus on writing involve your place and time of writing, your energy level, etc. And the mental and emotional conditions--the inward focus--involve identifying how you best tend to focus within yourself as you write: do you write better by starting with or without a structure; with a word, an idea, or an image; with or without some kind of emotional or intuitive feeling or attitude; with or without the pressure of a deadline; and/or by freewriting or by planning carefully? If you're not sure, experiment. And if you wonder whether you have several different ways of focusing, the answer probably is yes. Many people have multiple methods of focusing, depending on the assignment, their present conditions, and their abilities at the time. So experiment and consider new possibilities. It is very much possible to keep changing your conditions of writing, both outwardly and inwardly, so that you may evolve as a writer.


 Question #2:

 "How do experienced writers focus?"

        As part of questioning how your own focus works, it also is legitimate to wonder how experienced writers may or may not work differently than do you. What are these well-practiced writers' physical, mental, and emotional conditions of writing? And what is perhaps the single most important focus for each such writer that inexperienced writers have not yet learned?

Experienced Writers' Focuses

        I'd like to discuss this subject in terms of going on a voyage. To start, please imagine that the whole world of writing is a great sea upon which countless individual writers travel as various sizes of boats, some small, some large. The larger and faster ships are experienced writers, often working in various professional disciplines (studies show that the average professional person spends one-third to one-half of his or her work time involved in some kind of writing). However, there are many medium-sized ships, too, designed for special runs between closer ports of call: these are graduate--and many junior and senior--college students who have learned to write certain kinds of papers in their disciplines quite well. If you would like to join the ranks of these medium and large ships in the higher levels of academic work and of the professional worlds, you need to understand how these more advanced writers work.

        Furthermore, many people who write in other ways--not for a typical school assignment--also have a variety of answers. Here are some typical composites of different types of writers:

    • Journalist--"I don't have time to revise anything because of deadlines, so I sit down and write a quick draft on my computer using the formula my newspaper editor wants, check it quickly for minor errors, and then print it out. If it's a really fast-breaking story, I make notes, use numbers to give them an order, and then call the story in by phone, writing it over the phone as I tell it."

    • Creative Story Writer--"Sometimes I have a clear idea, an image, or a feeling I want to express, or maybe a character. Other times, I just start writing. Either way, I write, trying to dig deeper and deeper into what I am saying, feeling, or seeing, and try to reach some kind of resolution."

    • College Graduate Student--"At the beginning, I like to play with ideas before choosing one--let them bounce around in the back of my head a day or two.  Then I need music, food, and the lights just right.  Once I've got a draft on paper, I ignore it at least overnight; the next day I can revise it better.  Before I do the final version, I get someone to look at it."

    • Regularly Published Novelist--"Like most story writers, I often start with an image, a feeling, or a particular character--maybe someone I know. But if you want to get published, there are certain story lines you must follow, like having the right kind of opening scene, having the turning point at the right place in the novel, and having the right kinds of scenes from beginning to end. I write much, if not all, of my stories to fit the necessary story line the public expects."

    • Liberal Arts Professor--"I usually have a strong sense of my main idea, but not necessarily how to explain it fully or even how to organize the explanation. I begin commenting on everything that seems important, and gradually a pattern begins to appear, and within this pattern, the proper ways to phrase it come to my mind."

    • Technical or Business Employee--"I didn't have any special training in college in writing, but we do a lot of writing around here. If it's email, there isn't any particular way, but unless you're just talking with the people on your team, it's better if you at least check your email for spelling and punctuation before you send it. When I'm writing official letters to customers or writing reports, I simply follow the pattern the boss expects, with topic sentences and lists and graphics, and I edit it very, very carefully by having friends at work look it over."

    • Teacher Preparing a Textbook or Class Materials--"I know what I want to say, but the way I say it is shaped largely by my audience, the students. I organize it, style it, and make it look attractive, largely according to what students need."

The Special Focus of Experienced Writers--Audience:

        I'd like to continue the metaphor comparing writing to a great sea, and individual writers to the boats and ships on this sea. When you are young and first start writing, you are a canoe or a rowboat, sometimes receiving directions in how to paddle and at other times just paddling everywhere and nowhere for the sheer practice or pleasure of it. However, gradually you get a sense of purpose. You learn to aim your boat in a certain direction. At the very first, this direction usually is the teacher, your parents, or sometimes a friend. These people form our audience. As you become older, you learn to change your writing subject, your writing style, and your organization or structure according to the person or people for whom you are writing. You learn to write not only personal letters to friends, but also formal business letters, perhaps editorials and news articles, and, of course, different essay styles for different teachers. Still, most of the writing you do probably is essay writing with some personal writing thrown in for good measure. The audience is simple: teachers or friends. You don't have to think about it too much.

        When you are hired to a professional position and have to write, all that unthinking writing to an audience changes. Suddenly you are asked--required--to become very aware of your audience. After all, whether your audience is clients, your peers at work, people higher or lower than you at work, or students or trainees of your own, your entire purpose in writing no longer is to get a good grade or share yourself with a friend. Your purpose suddenly is to make sense to this group of people, to explain something important to them, and to communicate well enough that they will want you to remain in your position. Your job itself, not to mention your ethical and practical concerns for how well you do it, is dependent upon paying careful attention to your audience.

        Herein lies another secret: most college teachers who are NOT writing teachers expect you to write for an audience that they--the college teachers--already have imagined quite clearly. The audiences they imagine are professionals in their particular academic or professional disciplines who expect certain kinds of writing. Literature teachers, for example, expect you to critique literature like literary critics. Social science or physical science teachers expect you to use the conventions of social or physical science writing. Technical teachers expect writing that is developed like that of technical writers.

        The secret is this: if you want to be successful in college writing outside of first-year composition courses, you need to learn what audiences your teachers expect you to write. This is important in any course with writing assignments, but it becomes especially important as you learn to write in your major.

        How do you determine the audience of a particular assignment? There are several ways. Ask the teacher. Study all samples to see how they are written. Listen to any lectures or discussions the teacher offers on how to write your paper. As you take aim at the audience--whether it is the teacher, the imaginary readers, or both--here are elements that you already have learned to use in your writing. However, the more conscious you are of these, the more easily you can learn to focus on them sufficiently to make your writing travel in the direction you want it to: to aim the ship, if you will, to get to port more quickly, or more completely, or if you wish, more elegantly or efficiently. The following are actual mental focuses that you can place before your inward writer's eye as surely as a ship's captain can aim for a star at night and a certain part of the horizon during the day. As you read each, try to imagine a situation in which you may have used such a focus to some small or great degree.

  • tone--"Tone" means the "sound" or "feel" of the phrases: e.g., should your final document have an academic tone, a newspaper-reporting tone, a businesslike tone, etc.; should it sound serious, friendly, formal, or casual, etc.; should it feel argumentative, fairly balanced, or factual, etc.? In short, what mood or feeling do you want your audience to have as it reads your writing. Many creative writers work this way, diving ever deeper into a feeling or mood and letting the feeling or mood shape their words, their descriptions, and even the people about whom they are writing.

  • structure--Almost all writing for an audience has some kind of structure--an introduction, a conclusion, and, between them, certain types of body sections. Some writers find they write more easily if they view the different body sections separately and then fill in the sections one by one. A very common structural focus is, for example, a "key words" structure: you are asked to write an essay response about a subject with several questions or statements to which you must respond. You then pick out key words and phrases, and write a new paragraph or two for each key word or phrase, even starting that paragraph with the key word. Another example is that of a professional proposal, which may have several sections: a background or need section, another for the proposal or plan, one or more sections suggesting a budget, materials, a schedule, and personnel, and an outcomes or results section. In either example, you can write one section at a time, perhaps not even in order but rather according to what you most easily can first discuss.

  • purpose--"Purpose" is a special or important meaning you want to convey, an impression or belief of the audience that you may want to change, or a strong calling or need to explain or describe something. Experienced writers use purpose, when it is intense or meaningful enough, to be like a hook pulling them along or, perhaps, like a strong wind pushing them along. For example, you may be asked to argue something about which you feel very strongly, or to describe a very intense and meaningful experience in your life. If you focus on your purpose, then the tone and structure sometimes take care of themselves, at least sufficient for a first draft, sometimes more. Many experienced writers using this focus wait until later drafts to more fully focus on other elements such as structure or tone in order to complete the writing to professional standards.

  • image--Another way of using a focus is to place an image before your mind and to write from that image or for it. Many experienced writers consciously or unconsciously hold images of people in their heads, for example, when they write to them or for them, whether the writings are personal letters, memos, email, or professional reports. Such image-focused writing makes it possible to speak on paper more directly to the person whose image is in one's mind. Other writers see an image of some kind of thing they want to describe, whether that image is an event, a group of people, an outcome or result happy or not, or perhaps a process. Such writers write their way to the image until they have adequately presented it to their readers. Yet a third type of image writing occurs when writers visualize a final written product that emphasizes graphics (e.g., illustrations, tables, borders, listing, color, design, and spacing). Such imaging is common in technical writing, and is becoming increasingly common as more people write or edit computer web pages. If you wish to try writing this way, simply start with an image, then keep it at the front of your mind as you write.

  • sample--Many experienced writers--students and professionals alike--find that a sample or example of the type of writing expected of them is very helpful. This is why most writing teachers encourage students to look at samples, and why most professionals, when faced with a new writing task, search for an example to use as a guide. If you use decide to use a sample writing as primary focus, you can start in whatever way you like by focusing on a particular aspect of the sample (e.g., structure or tone) and then move on in later rewriting stages to other sub-focuses (e.g., tone or structure, image, purpose, etc.).

  • culture--Focusing on "culture" means a writer develops a better appreciation of his or her own and/or other cultures, or a sense of the differences among them. Experienced writers who use culture as a focus explore a variety of cultural groupings, which may include not only those of country, region, race, gender, and age, but also those of urban-suburban-rural settings, politics, major beliefs, and any other major trait that clearly defines and sets aside one group of people from another. Experienced writers focusing on culture learn to explore the meanings of their culture and of others, often, by exploring within themselves and within others: recalling or examining the feelings, experiences, and deepest parts of self and identity, both their own and others', to discover the deeper meanings of culture. If you are asked to explore cultural issues, you may be asked to open yourself to--and write about--new ideas, others' perceptions, and a deeper, often more intimate examination of your own self and identity in relation to one or more cultures around you, or in relation to the cultures from which you come.

  • literature--When experienced writers focus on literature, they analyze the elements of one or more literary works in order to discover and explain important meanings contained within those works. A focus of this kind requires careful, critical reading first, and then a thoughtful, logical discussion organized in one of several different ways, depending on the assignment. Some writing about literature, for example, asks you simply to state and analyze the literary elements of a work and their effectiveness. Other assignments may ask you to compare and contrast the elements of two or more works. Yet another and quite common assignment may ask you to use the elements that exist in a literary work to argue effectively about an interpretation of what the work might mean. In such writing, the first focus is on a work of literature, and only afterward is the focus on the writing assignment.

        Thus the answer to the question "How do experienced writers focus?" has moved from detailing the perceptions of individual experienced writers to discussing the special focus of most experienced writers--audience, and finally to mentioning advanced focuses that experienced writers use such as tone, structure, purpose, and others.

        How, though, can you take advantage of these different methods of focusing?


 Question #3:

"How can you develop your own focus strategy?"

        What is a "focus strategy"? It is a system, method, process, or series of steps or stages for using focus. Very few people can simply sit down at a computer and type out a whole, complete paper--from perfect word to perfect word--in one sitting, and turn it in for an A or, if on the job, for a pat on the back from the boss or a coordinating committee. Certainly people write emails and sometimes even simple finished work in one sitting, not to mention letters to friends and family. However, for most important writing events, the great majority of people make a process of it--something that happens as a series of events or a series of focuses. If you plan that process rather than allow it to just happen, then your planning is a "strategy."

        The most common strategy in college for writing a paper, according to surveys and research, uses two simple steps: (1) write the paper, and then (2) edit it. This may not be true in a composition course in which the teacher expects more steps, and it usually is not true of papers requiring substantial research. Sometimes, if the assignment is difficult, you might amend this strategy to include three steps: (1) figure out a subject or topic you actually can write about, (2) do some thinking and writing, and then (3) edit it.

        If the assignment involves research, and if you also must choose a subject yourself, then your strategy may become even more complex. Still, the most commonly used strategy for researching and writing by college students looks as simple as this:

    1. choose a subject

2. research it and, if necessary, think about it

3. write about it

4. edit it

        This seems on the surface of things reasonable enough. However, professionals at work and more successful college-level writers usually make this strategy a little more complex than this, either by adding to the steps or by creating sub-steps that they practice and practice until the sub-steps become almost automatic. The differences between using the simple strategy above, 1-4, and a more personal and richer strategy often are the differences between average and excellent grades, average and excellent thinking, and average and excellent professional jobs.

        How can you go about creating your own, personalized strategy? That is, how can you add several specific focuses to the commonly recognized steps above?

        To create your own strategy, you might first ask, "Who is the audience (the audience the teacher is imagining and wants you to imagine)?" You might also ask, "Does the teacher expect a certain structure or pattern that is particular to the teacher's discipline or profession, and if so, what is it?" You might also ask, "Do I work best by researching first and then choosing a subject, or the reverse?" and "Do I work best by writing before, during, or after the time I research?" Other questions might include those of tone and word choice, and of your weaknesses in grammatical usage, punctuation, or spelling on which you may need to focus in more than one step. If you consider some of these many variables of focus, then you can develop a personalized strategy. Here are just three examples (from many that are possible) of differing personal strategies:    

Sample Personal Strategies Chart

Person #1
1. Imagine the audience
2. Organize the structure
3. Research
4. Choose a subject  
5. Research more
6. Write
7. Revise and edit  
8. Place it on a web site 

Person #2
1. Choose the structure
2. Choose a subject
3. Research
4. Write
5. Revise for audience 
6. Edit for sentence flow
7. Edit for spelling   
8. Edit for commas

Person #3
1. Write
2. Research
3. Write more
4. Choose a structure
5. Research and write more
6. Make intro. and concl.
7. Make topic sentences
8. Edit all punctuation

        What are some significant differences among these three personal strategies? Where does actual writing happen in each of them? How much time seems to be devoted in each to final editing? Where does writing with structure start and end in each? Which of these three personal strategies might work best for an overall focus on literature or culture, which one for a highly structured professional report such as a proposal, and which strategy involves a large amount of visual image focusing?

        Which of these strategies remind you of you: which comes closest to how you focus as a research writer? Which is closest to how you would like to learn to focus? Why? Try making your own strategy. Now try another--either simpler or more complex--for a different kind of writing that you must perform. Think of each step as a focus: in focusing well on writing, there are many different focuses that happen over a period of time, one focus at a time.

        The more you understand consciously what focuses you do use and what you need to add, the more consciously you can learn them. And once you learn them well, they are yours for many years to come: if you use them even occasionally, you will retain them in automatic or semiautomatic form. The more you practice them, the more they will become a part of one or more of your natural writing styles.

Conclusion--What Can You Accomplish?

        I'd like to promise you perfect health, perfect wisdom, great wealth, a wide array of close friends, a great future as President of the United States (or at least as a senator), and perfect romance just by learning to write better. However, the more realistic outcome of learning to write better is somewhat better grades in college, a beginning at having a better understanding of yourself and others, a slightly better position and/or more salary when you first become a professional, and somewhat higher pay levels throughout life and/or a faster climb up the career ladder. When you become a better writer, the research indicates, you also are more likely to think better, participate more meaningfully in a multicultural democracy, and create more happiness for yourself through better self-expression--all of these if you actually use the new writing focuses you have learned. At the very least, most of you you will need to learn useful writing focuses in order to survive and thrive in your professions.

        What happens as you learn to use new writing focuses is that you become increasingly, if you will, a master of the sea of writing. You learn not only to pilot canoes and rowboats, but also speedboats and sailboats. As a professional in the world of work, you'll learn to use at least one or two kinds of yachts for your job, even if you only captain it around your local river, lake, or ocean bay. You might learn to sail a large ship now and then, sometimes more often. No matter what you pilot, though, you will better know how --with your eyes focusing on the stars above to establish a general direction, with your body sensing the waves below so that you may make minor corrections, and with your sight watching the horizon for your specific port of call where your audiences await you.

        The key to improving your writing is to examine your current methods of focus and to learn new ones. Pay attention to that instant when your fingers, eyes, and mind all meet on the paper or computer screen: in the intersection of those elements lies your hand on the tiller of your boat, your direction, and your sea. As the pilot, you can learn to control them as you wish.


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  Exercises & Activities

Focus Exercises to do Individually or in Small Groups:

  1. Use the five W's of journalism (Who?, What?, Where?, When?, and Why/How?) to write about the physical environment(s) in which you write best and worst.

  2. Describe in detail your own present focus when you write college papers: i.e., on what is your mind as you start writing and as you continue writing. (See the typical descriptions of college students, above--early in this chapter--as examples.)

  3. Describe some unusual focuses that help you write, or have helped you write something in the past, such as a strong emotion(s), an image of someone or something, or a particular tone or audience with which you chose to experiment or have fun. What kind of writing did you produce doing this? What did it feel like to write it? How did people who read it respond?

  4. Answer the questions that are in the paragraph immediately following the "Sample Personal Strategies Chart."

  5. Make a list of the steps (and/or the sub-steps) of writing you'd like to try out--new focuses and new methods. Describe why you think each new focus might be helpful or useful. If you wish, you may make this new list by imagining you are in an advanced college course or in a professional work situation.


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1. How I Learned

2. Focus

3. First Drafts

4. Self & Others

5. Modes

6. Thinking



Activities Page

Six Student Responses

UNO Universal Organizer


 Related Links in

  2. Process & Focus 

  3. Thinking & Reading


14. Free Readings




Updated 1 Aug. 2013

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Previous editions: Writing for School & Work, 1984-1998;, 1998-2012
6th Edition: 8-1-12, rev. 8-1-13.  Text, design, and photos copyright 2002-12 by R. Jewell or as noted
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