One of the most important steps in writing happens before one word is written: focusing the lens.
Just like a photographer who frames a shot before taking a picture, a writer has to decide the scope of an article and set up the focus accordingly. A photograph with a wide focus captures an expanse of a subject, just like an article or post giving a broad overview of a topic does. A little bit can be seen on all of the aspects, but the view is of the whole.
On the other hand, if a photographer wants people to focus on an individual aspect of something, they’ll zoom in so that the individual subject is the focal point. This enables the photographer to convey a specific idea with a great deal of power, just like when a writer zooms in on a specific angle of a broader subject. In both cases, you’ll likely still see the broader subject in the background, but your eye is drawn to one particular point.
Why does this matter? Narrowing the focus can be one of the most effective ways to write in a way that resonates with your readers.
Zooming In Versus Zooming Out
Let’s look at some photographic examples. The following three pictures are zoomed out and enable you to see the broad expanse of their subjects.
Although these photos are beautiful — striking even — they can only convey an idea with broad brush strokes.
The writing equivalent of this would be an article that covers a topic from a birds-eye point of view. This is common in educational and short-tail SEO content. I’m given this type of assignment often in my freelance work.
What it does is enables me to give a summary of a topic to the reader the same way the above picture of Paris gives you a high-level idea of the architecture of the city. It’s useful; it can even be beautiful. But it’s not particularly powerful.
Now let’s take a look at some photos that are zoomed in:
These pictures provide an entirely different type of experience. Because they’re so intently focused on a specific subject, they draw you in. You almost can’t help but look where the photographer wants you to look, and the effect can be powerful. Even if you and I feel different things from looking at these photos, we still both feel something.
Now think about articles or blog posts you’ve read that started from a specific viewpoint. Maybe the writer talked about something they experienced before, or painted a scenario to illustrate a larger subject. Even if you’ve never been through exactly what the writer outlined, chances are that some piece of the narrative resonated with you. When that happens, you start to picture yourself in the scenario or think of a time when you felt similarly.
The point in that case wasn’t for the writer to explain something you’ve experienced exactly; it was to get you feeling and experiencing instead of passively reading. Whatever followed likely stuck with you a lot more than articles written from a high-level point of view.
Specificity Connects More Than It Divides
The problem with the idea of writing from a narrow focus is that many writers fear it will alienate their readers. In their mind, if the reader hasn’t experienced a similar thing, then their specific focus won’t mean anything to them. Then there’s the fear of looking like they’re narcissistically talking about themselves — and the question of whether the reader will even care about their story or angle.
I understand where these fears come from, but after spending years writing both ways, I’ve found that starting from specificity connects far more often than it divides. Not only that, the connection is more powerful than when writing from a broader focus that everyone basically agrees on. By writing from a specific angle, I can tap into the reader’s deepest emotions and speak to those, basically helping the reader feel seen and heard in a way that many other writers don’t do.
Let’s take an article on debt payoff, for example. I could start it with the typical four-line, two-paragraph introduction and get the job done. I can then write the rest of the article from a high-level point of view and cover the basics of debt payoff.
On the other hand, I could write an introduction that illustrates my own painful experience with debt. I could start by talking about the time I was fearful of spending any money when I had debt — to the point where even paying two dollars for a slice of pizza would send me into a deep panic.
You might not have ever stressed out over spending two dollars or buying a slice of pizza. But if you’ve ever had debt, you probably have experienced feeling guilty for spending on anything other than paying it off. In that case, you’ll likely read my story nodding your head the whole time, with your own fears and anxieties about debt rising to the surface and your desire to hear how I solved my problem growing by the paragraph.
After that introduction (which doesn’t have to extend beyond a few paragraphs) I have the choice to then go into a broader focus on the topic or go deep on one specific angle of debt payoff. If I do the latter, you’d likely walk away feeling armed with this new knowledge and excited to try it out (versus the feeling of forgetfulness we all tend to get after scanning a listicle).
A Moment on Ethics
I’ll admit there were times when I questioned the ethics of writing this way. By activating deeper emotions that aren’t always positive, I feared that I might make people feel worse about the topic than they already do. But then I remembered that we can’t solve a problem until we admit it’s a problem. And the more passionately we want to solve it, perhaps the more likely we are to take steps to do so. I realized I could be more helpful to readers by telling the detailed, sometimes even painful, truth about whatever subject I was writing on.
What’s more, I never make up a story or dramatize my own feelings. When I need to focus the lens, I examine the core of the topic and look for memories of a time when I felt the emotions that core can create. Usually, like the pizza example, I don’t have to look too far.
There’s not a subject in the world that doesn’t stem from a core emotion we’ve all felt before, and you don’t have to start with an exact replica of a problem to focus the lens on what you’re writing about. In fact, you don’t even have to start with a personal narrative if you don’t want to.
Instead, you can zoom in on the specific characteristics of the subject, describing them in such detail that anyone can see and feel those characteristics. Then you can expand on those details to tell the whole story and wrap the whole thing up by going back to the specifics you started with, only this time attaching the lesson or action items.
That latter point is an important one: When you start with specificity, zoom out to tell the whole story and then zoom back in again to drive the larger point home. It’s like weaving the core of the story throughout so the reader never forgets what’s most important about the subject. This can leave the reader feeling complete on the topic, so to speak, and enable them to feel truly impacted by your article or blog post.
Be Brave Enough to Be Specific
It can be difficult to write with a narrow focus. In fact, giving a high-level overview is one of the easiest things a content writer can do — just like setting up a camera on a tripod for a panorama could be seen as a relatively easy thing for a photographer to do. But as straightforward as it is to write with a wide focus, it’s just as simple for the reader to scan. There’s little effort happening on both sides of that equation.
Yes, it’ll take more time to narrow the focus, and you might feel more vulnerable in the process. But the effect will also be far more impactful to your readers.
This is the difference between writing something that gets the job done and writing something that people will remember for a long time to come. Be brave enough to be specific.