Focus, Part 1

Learning to write isn’t complicated: you learn a few basic principles, and you practice them. That’s not to say that learning to write is easy, especially if you’ve developed some bad habits that must be broken. One of the most common of these is the habit of generalization.


What does that mean? Here’s an example:

The thing I like best about my friend Sarah is that she’s so warm and understanding. I feel that I can tell her anything and she wouldn’t get mad. When I call her on the phone she always sounds like she’s glad to hear from me. I’m lucky to have a friend like that.

We should all have a friend like Sarah, and I’m sure she’s not nearly as boring as this paragraph makes her sound. She’s probably not boring in real life, but this paragraph sure is. It’s all true, but truth isn’t the problem. Truth itself is exciting, interesting, and challenging, and Sarah as an individual is all those things as well. The problem is the writer’s generalization, or a failure to focus.


Describing people you know well is especially difficult because you’ve seen them in many situations and moods, and your tendency is to boil all that experience down into an overall impression. That’s fine for relating, but not for describing. From the paragraph above, I get how the writer feels about Sarah, but I don’t get Sarah. Compare with this paragraph:

The phone rings twice, then I hear Sarah’s voice saying, “Hello?” Her voice sounds bright and interested even before she knows it’s me, but when I speak the warmth triples. “Hi! How’re you doing?” “Okay, I guess.” I’m not trying to sound depressed, but she seems to have a mood-sensing radar. “Really? You don’t sound like everything’s okay.” I have to sigh. “Well . . .” Her voice switches from pleasure to concern with no phoniness at all. “Did you hear from your dad?” Bingo, I thought . . .

Here we don’t even see Sarah; we just hear her voice over the phone. But she’s there. She’s a real person, not a collection of qualities. In fact, without listing any qualities at all we gather that she’s sensitive, caring; a people person. Words like “sensitive” and “caring” put us to sleep, Sarah herself doesn’t. The writer shows what she is like by what she does and says.


This is much easier if you capture the person at a particular, character-revealing moment: on the phone, looking for a parking space at the mall, trying to get the baby to sleep, working on the car. Character qualities don’t stay hidden; even shy, quiet people get around to revealing who they are. They reveal it by facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, hand gestures, word choices, etc. The key to writing an effective description is to find those revealing moments and pick out those details that reveal. That’s what we mean by focus.


Try this exercise. Think of a person who regularly appears on TV as himself or herself: a talk-show host, a news broadcaster, a used-car salesman. Everyone who appears on a public platform is interested in getting a particular impression across. The talk show host wants to appear witty and free-wheeling. The news broadcaster: serious and trustworthy. The car salesman: mentally unbalanced. Watch the person carefully and decide what impression he or she is trying to project. Then (this is harder) pinpoint two, or at the most, three, characteristics that create that impression. What does the person do with eyebrows, hands, shoulders? How is he or she sitting or standing? What tone of voice do you hear? Write a one-paragraph description focusing on those particular mannerisms, including some dialogue or direct quotes.


Now write a similar, one-paragraph description of someone you know well. This will probably be harder than describing a TV personality, because a) you know the person’s many moods and personality traits, and may have trouble concentrating on just one, and b) he or she may not be trying to create an impression. The key, again, is to focus on the person at a particular moment. Think about an incident that occurred recently and try to capture your subject at that moment. Again, recall the details of voice, expression and posture that reveal character, and include two or three of them in your description. Physical characteristics can be included, but don’t spend a lot of time describing blue eyes or curly hair unless they contribute to the character, as in “His icy blue eyes narrowed suspiciously,” or “Her curly blonde hair quivers like little springs as she bounces on the sofa cushions.”


It takes practice–generalizing is the easy way out, which makes it a tough habit to break. But it’s an effort well worth making!