The Focusing Process

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Innis College Courses
Roger Riendeau

1 The first step in writing an essay is to find something to write about. Deciding what to write about is often at the root of the problem known as writer's block. It is not so much that the writer cannot think of anything to write about, but rather that the writer has too much to writer about and needs to be more focused. The decision about what to write is the product of a process called focusing, which (as the above diagram illustrates) involves the progressively narrowing movement from subject to topic to thesis. In academic writing, focusing is a dynamic process that requires constant thinking and rethinking, research, and writing and rewriting. The focusing process evolves through two key stages: moving from subject to topic by choosing and defining a viable topic; and formulating a thesis that represents the specific purpose or main idea of the 2 essay. The fate of an academic essay, at least its degree of success, is significantly shaped by the focusing process. Choosing and Defining a Topic Moving from Subject to Topic The first challenge in focusing is to distinguish between "subject" and "topic." A subject is a vast and general body of knowledge. For example, Media Studies is clearly recognizable as a subject that is too broad be the focus of an academic essay. Television commercials, as a specific aspect of media studies, could be referred to as a topic. A topic is the main organizing principle of a discussion, either verbal or written. Topics offer an occasion for writing and a framework that governs the writing. The ability to place boundaries on the subject by presenting a clearly and specifically defined and well-developed topic determines the effectiveness of the written presentation, for both the writer and the audience. The depth of analysis required in an academic essay demands extraordinary precision in the narrowing down of a subject into a topic. Therefore, a topic such as television commercials is too broad for an academic essay and, in effect remains within the realm of subject more than topic. Because a consideration of television commercials in childrens' programming is even more specific, this topic is moving further away from the concept of subject and thereby becoming increasingly suitable for an academic essay. But does it represent a sufficient focus? Answering this question requires attention to the following concerns: • Consider the wording, purpose, and expectations of the topic (whether assigned or self- directed) • Become more informed about the topic (usually through internet and/or library research • Narrow down to one (usually microscopic) aspect of the topic 3 • Determine the relevance of the topic for both writer and reader The Nature of Assigned Topics Often, the course instructor will assist in the focusing process by assigning a selection of topics for the student to choose. In most instances, even assigned topics tend to be too general or open-ended in nature, and thus require further definition and development in order to produce a well-focused essay. In a course on Media and Society, for example, the instructor may assign a topic that is a straightforward question: What is the impact of television commercials on modern society? Because such a question tends to invite a list of the many effects that a broad range of television commercials have on society as a whole, the instructor is more likely to "prompt" a consideration of this topic in a more complex way by phrasing it as a command: Discuss the impact of television commercials on modern society. "Discuss" (the prompt used most frequently by instructors) generally means (1) analyze the topic, (2) examine its constituent parts, (3) evaluate their relative importance, (4) and formulate a thesis persuasively supported by the findings. Sometimes, the instructor will endeavor to render the topic even more complex and open-ended by prefacing it with a thought-provoking statement, observation, or proposition: Andy Warhol has labeled television commercials as "the basic art form of the late twentieth century." Accordingly, discuss the impact of television commercials on modern society. Clearly the instructor is prompting the student to consider the cultural or aesthetic merits of television commercials in the process of determining their impact on society. To be successful in 4 focusing an academic essay topic, writers need to consider carefully their purpose for writing and the audience expectations. In an assigned topic, the audience expectations tend to be defined by the course instructor through the wording of the topic, thereby requiring the student to analyze the key words, such as "explain," "describe," or "evaluate." Students who ignore such prompts and audience expectations do so at their peril (see and The other challenge posed by the above topic is that it is too vast to be covered in an essay of 1,000 to 3,000 words. Too many questions remain to be answered before the topic is appropriately focused: How many television commercials can the essay analyze? Which television commercials are most suitable to be analyzed? What is meant by modern society? How many impacts of television commercials are sufficient to discuss? What did Andy Warhol mean by "art form"? The student needs to make many decisions to shape this topic with the degree of precision required in an academic essay. And, these decisions will vary greatly from one writer to the other; several different writers could take several different approaches to this topic. Narrowing Self-Directed Topics The instructor may further complicate students' focusing challenge by allowing them to choose and define their own topics without any suggestions. Students may find that the more freedom they have to pursue their own interests, the more intimidated they are by this challenge, and the less certain they are of what really is interesting to them. But writing assignments with open topic options represents an excellent opportunity either to explore and research issues that are existing personal concerns or to examine new interests. A well-chosen writing topic can lead 5 to the types of research questions that will fuel the writer's academic interests for years to come. At the very least, self-directed topics can be seen as occasions for making one's writing relevant and meaningful to one's own personal and academic concerns. Whether working from a list of assigned topics or selecting their own topic, students should consider four basic criteria for choosing topics. Interest: Something that sparks the writer's interest is bound to make working on the assignment more stimulating, and thus to enhance the writer's commitment to producing a more convincing   essay. Professional writers generate topics from their expertise, their understanding of the issues, questions, or problems in their respective disciplines, and their familiarity with the research and writing that has gone before them. While students do not necessarily have these assets at their disposal to the same degree, they have already made decisions about what they find interesting and worth their time to study in their choice of university programs and courses. Clearly, an economics specialist or major would be more interested in issues related to business, commerce, and finance. In conceiving writing topics, the logical first step is to consider issues, questions, or problems that have been past concerns, either on the basis of life experience or prior writing and research. Significant aspects of one's life experience and environment, such as problems in the workplace, family issues, matters having to do with university or campus life, or current events, may evoke strong feelings and responses that stimulate essay topics. Like professional writers, students should not be reluctant to consider topics that they have worked on for other writing assignments or for other classes. Although it is obviously not acceptable (indeed, an academic offence comparable to plagiarism) to recycle old essays from previous courses, it is more than acceptable (even advisable) to return to and to extend topics that have been written about in the past. Returning to the issues that have been an ongoing concern is common in scholarly writing. 6 Some preliminary reading may help to determine how deep one's interest goes and what kind of material  will be available to write the essay. Knowledge: It is not enough to write an essay on a topic like television commercials on the basis of the fact that one has viewed many of them and perhaps finds them interesting. It helps to know something about the subject already and to desire to know even more about it. The stronger the base of knowledge, the more solid the potential for building upon it. One valuable source of topic ideas is a subject search through an internet search engine, such as Yahoo or Google, or a database such as Wikipedia. Many sites can provide insight into current issues and perspectives on a subject and can lead to other relevant sites and printed sources. But such a subject search is merely a starting point in the process of narrowing down to a specific topic. Accordingly, library research will offer access either to a wealth of resources such as journals, reference books, and online resources related to a specific topic area(s) or to a reference librarian who has the expertise to discuss various topic ideas or to point out more resources. Even though personal experience and prior knowledge are good places to start when choosing topics for writing, it is important not to rule out those topics about which one knows very little but wishes to know more. A writing assignment can be an excellent opportunity to explore a topic about which one has a stronger motivation to learn than an existing knowledge base. This type of topic would, of course, require more research and investigation initially, but it would also have the benefit of being compelling by virtue of its "newness." Still, the evaluative reality of an academic essay renders learning "from scratch" a challenging, indeed precarious, opportunity. Above all, the reality is that research will often carry writers in different directions than they intended to go; so, they must be flexible enough to acknowledge that their research questions and topics must sometimes be adjusted or abandoned. 7 Relevance: Why is it important to resolve the issue, question, or problem raised by the topic? In addition to prior knowledge and a thirst for more, the writer must be driven by a sense of the purpose and relevance of the topic and, ultimately, the point of view adopted in response to it. To narrow the scope of a topic, writers often resort to asking themselves the "w" questions so familiar to journalists: Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? (included even if it does not start with "w"). Asking these questions can help to locate specific points of interest within a
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