Monday, December 1, 2014

Keep Your Eye on the Ball: One Sentence that Can Elevate Your Writing to New Heights

I'm a football fan. Are you? For this analogy, pretty much any sport will do. I love to watch professional and college football in the fall and winter. My husband is a big baseball fan. One thing I've notice over and over again is that if a ball player does not keep his or her eye on the ball (or puck or whatever), they are not going to catch that pass or hit that ball out of the park.

You've got to keep your eye on the ball. Look it all the way in – to your arms to catch that pass, or to your mitt to catch that ball, or to your bat to get that hit.

When a player misses a catch or swings and misses, watch the replay. Watch his or her eyes. Most of the time, their eyes leave the ball before it gets there. They are already thinking about what they are going to do once they get the ball and their eyes betray that thought. They begin to take that action, but… They don't actually have the ball yet. And so they drop the ball, or don't catch it, or don't make contact. Consequently they never get to make the move they had planned out in their head.

It's all about focus.

How do you fix it? Sometimes it's a great idea to go back to basics. In fact, I don't think we get back to basics nearly often enough. If we could remind ourselves of lessons learned in the past more often, we'd probably do much better in the now.

All of this applies to writing. One of the best things I learned about writing very early in my career in a writing class I took was about "Thesis Statements." (Tweet that!) I don't hear much about thesis statements any more. But they have not lost their importance, so let's talk about a good thesis sentence.

It might be a common thought (I'm not sure. You can check me on this one.) that thesis statements are most often thought of for nonfiction writing, especially, for example, the essay. But I think writers who create a thesis statement for whatever they are writing, whether it's for a nonfiction book, or even if it's for fiction whether short stories, books, or screenplays, come out with a much stronger piece of writing. (Tweet that!)

Because the term "thesis statement" often causes people's eyes to glaze over, I sometimes call them "focus statements." More recently the term "a one-sentence" has cropped up with the advent of "one-pages." (Tweet that!)

What is a Thesis Statement?

A thesis or focus statement is stating the single main idea that you want to communicate through your nonfiction article, book, or fictional story in one sentence.

It is a specific sentence, not a vague one. It is a complete sentence, not a word or phrase.

Not: We should all create a thesis statement.

But: When writers created a thesis statement or focus sentence, their writing becomes more focused, better communicates what they set out to say, and leaves concrete thoughts for their audience.

A good thesis statement limits your content to communicating only what is relevant in this piece of writing. A thesis statement not only gives the idea of what you're going to write about, but also hints at your position on the topic as well as your purpose in writing.

Nailing Down a Thesis Statement

Sometimes a writer knows exactly what he or she wants to say and can state it right off the bat (pun intended). I think this is a talent, and for writers who have that talent I think it is one many writers don't know they possess.

For me, more often than not I have to write and rewrite and brainstorm and toss out and re-do a thesis or focus statement before I find it. This, for me, is pure agony. (Tweet that!) But when I finally find it, it's that sweet feeling just like you get when you hit the ball with the sweet spot on the bat and you know you just knocked it out of the park. (Tweet that!)

For some of you reading this I suspect you think that's crazy. What do you mean you don't know what your thesis statement is? Don't you know what you want to write about?!

I know. It sounds crazy to me too. Writing a thesis statement has always been a bit of a mystery for me. (Tweet that!) I should know what I want to write about, shouldn't I? I should know what I want to say. I guess the way I'd try to explain it would be to say that ideas are vague. They float around in the air and refuse to be captured. They are elusive. And so I can't capture a solid idea until I nail it down. And I can't nail it down until I get it on paper.

It's a struggle for me. So if this comes easy to you, you're one of the lucky ones.

What To Do With a Thesis Statement 

Thesis Statements for Nonfiction Writers

When I'm writing nonfiction, especially a short piece like an article, most of the time the thesis statement will fit into the article somewhere close to the beginning. It's part of introducing the idea of the article.

It's possible for a thesis statement to come more toward the end of an article, probably as part of the wrap-up, but that's rare. I can't think of a time that worked for me.

For nonfiction book writers, the thesis of the book most probably fits at the beginning of the book as the subject is introduced. But the nonfiction book writer then has much more work to do, because there would also be a thesis statement for each chapter in the book. That's one thesis statement for the overall book and a separate thesis statement for each chapter.

Even though I've been writing for over twenty-five years now, I have to confess that to this day at times I still forget to write a thesis statement. I blame part of this on the fact that it is not a natural thing for me to do. That's because I still think I should know what I'm writing about and what I want to say when I start writing, right? So for me to have to stop and figure out what it is I really want to say or what I'm really trying to say still feel crazy to me. But I can tell you this: If I will remember, and stop, and go back to basics, and write a thesis statement, then my writing becomes much easier! Then I know what I'm trying to say. I've nailed it down. And I can say it. In words. On paper.

After that agonizing exercise, I can then spend my time writing and fleshing out and explaining to the reader why that statement is important and relevant to them.

So what do you do with your thesis statement? After figuring it out, after writing it down, then print it out and tape it to your computer monitor so it is right there in front of you all the time. Keep your eye on your thesis. This will help you focus. It will help you stay on track. You'll instinctively know when you're headed down a rabbit trail and you can get back on track. This will save you writing time, effort, and many unusable words. (Tweet that!)

When the time and place is appropriate, you can stick your thesis statement into your writing so that your reader will know exactly what you're saying, what you're doing, and where you're going. That's a great place to be, and after that you'll most likely knock it out of the park!

Thesis Statements for Fiction Writers

Most of the time I've heard thesis statements discussed (which is pretty rare, actually), the discussion has been for or about nonfiction writers. But I believe this same principal applies to fictions writers also, whether you're writing a short story, a novel, or a screenplay.

Every story has a thesis. (Or it should.) Even though it's fiction, it's still going somewhere. It still has a message. A story without a message is just a bunch of happenings with no meaning.

And if you try to put too much into your story, then you're trying to cover too much and the true meaning of what you want to communicate gets muddled and lost.

So if you're a fiction writer, I would still encourage you to perform this exercise of writing a thesis or focus statement for your story. (Unlike for nonfiction writers, I don't believe you need a separate thesis statement for every chapter because your story is one cohesive whole, unlike a nonfiction book where each chapter speaks to a different aspect of the whole.)

Here, I think we can take a lesson from screenwriters. When writing a screenplay, screenwriters are often required to also write a "logline." In my mind, this is pretty much the same thing as a thesis or focus statement.

A logline is a one-sentence summary of the story. It's what you see on your TV guide that describes the movie or episode.

It is a complete sentence. It doesn't need to name your characters but it does need to give an idea of who the main character is, the journey she is on, the story problem that needs solved, and hint at the resolution. (That's probably not a comprehensive idea of how to write a logline. But it's a start.) Here's my attempt at an example. See if you can figure out what story it is for:

A lonely Kansas farm girl is whisked away by a twister to a fantasy land and must find her way back home.

Again, for you fiction writers, write your focus statement out and tape it to your monitor as your work. Unlike nonfiction writers who would include it in their written piece, your focus statement may never actually appear in words. However it will keep you on track to tell your story. It will keep you from chasing rabbits. It will help you focus on the story you're trying to tell and will keep all other thoughts from creeping in and muddling your main, focused idea. You'll come out with a much more cohesive story.

Thesis Statements are Different from Topics, Themes, and Tag Lines

To help define a thesis statement, it's helpful to know it is not a "topic," a "theme," or a "tag line."

A topic and a theme are most often a single word or a simple phrase.

These are topics:
  • Homelessness
  • Domestic Abuse

These are themes:
  • Love conquers all.
  • Hope never dies.

A tag line for screenwriters is not the same as a logline. A logline is the term used for a one-sentence summary of the story that an employee at a production company used to log in a script when it arrived in the mail. (Not sure that's done much anymore because we don't mail scripts much anymore, but that's where the term came from.) A "tag line" is what goes on the movie poster.

This is a tag line:
  • Every man dies. Not every man truly lives. (Braveheart)

Again, a thesis statement or a focus sentence, like a logline, is always a complete sentence.

What To Do With Those Rabbit Trails

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking about all those wonderful thoughts, ideas, story threads, characters, etc. that you discover along the way of writing that don't fit within your thesis statement. What about those? What should we do with those? Surely we don't just take all those wonderful ideas and throw them away! No, of course not.

You are likely to have many "left overs" (post Thanksgiving Day pun intended). Don't dismiss or throw those away. They are so wonderful and useful. Just because they don't fit (according to your thesis statement) into what you're currently writing doesn't mean you can't use them.

Here are some ideas of what you can do with what doesn't fit:

For nonfiction writers: 
  • Use them for a sidebar to accompany your main article. 
  • Use them for an additional article. 
  • Possibly make a series of related articles.

For fiction writers: 
  • Use those ideas for a sequel* or a prequel.* 
  • Use them for another story in a series.* 
  • Or use them in another story all together. As I was developing one story I want to write, I had one scene in my head that I loved but it just didn't seem to fit. I lifted that scene out of my story and guess what? I built a completely different, unrelated story out of that scene.

*A sequel follows a story. A prequel predates a story. A series is the same related story with the same characters but doesn't require following the first story; stories in a series can be read in any order.

More Help

If you're able to write what you believe is your thesis statement right off the bat, that's great. But don't be afraid to work with it, massage it, refine it. You might come out with a deeper thesis that takes your writing to another level.

If you're like me and struggle to nail down that thesis statement, then understand that often it emerges with the writing, thinking, and brainstorming. This means I might be constantly rewriting and refining my thesis statement well into the writing process. Still, I push to nail my thesis as early as possible because having that statement clearly expressed in concrete terms guides everything else. So having my statement nailed down can save me a lot of wasted work of writing what is not on target.

As with your larger writing of articles, chapters, books, and screenplays, when it comes to your thesis statement: Rewrite. Revise. Repeat.

When you finally hit that thesis statement that is what you're really trying to say, you'll know it when you nail it.

Now, if I could just remember to write a thesis statement or focus sentence every time I begin developing an article, book, or story. I'd rather forget about it and avoid it, because for me it's such hard work. But when I do it, everything after is so much easier. I guess I need to type out "Write a Thesis Statement!" and tape that to my monitor. Or perhaps tattoo it on my forehead.


Another Helpful Back-To-Basics Technique

I'm very excited to let you know that I have a new e-book coming out on Kindle! It is titled Cutting the Passive Voice: How to Convert Passive Voice to Active Voice to Improve and Add Power to Your Writing.

Cutting the Passive Voice: How to Convert Passive Voice to Active Voice to Improve and Add Power to Your Writing
Book 2 in the
"Getting Published" series
If you remember my article “Cutting the Passive Voice,” which was originally published in 1996 and was reprinted several times and that I used as a handout in some of my workshops, that is the basis for this little e-book. I added to it and fleshed it about a bit more. I added a few more exercises.

I wanted to make this information accessible to many more people, so I'm making it into a small e-book that costs only $ .99. I can reach a much larger audience and get this helpful information to many more writers with an e-book on platforms like However I'm keeping it inexpensive so there will be absolutely no barrier for anyone who needs it to get it.

As we're talking about "back to basics," this is a great technique to use as you edit, revise, and refine your writing (both fiction and nonfiction). I go through my manuscripts searching out the passive voice as one of my final revisions. I can't tell you how much this will improve your writing.

Using passive voice is a natural way most writers write. I see it over and over again in beginning and advanced writers. If you don't recognize passive voice, you won't know how to change it. But I can testify from personal experience that if you cut most of the passive voice in your writing, people will notice! They won't know what you have done, but they will notice your writing is more lively, fun, and exciting.

Cutting the Passive Voice e-book is not for English majors who already know what passive voice is and what to do about it. This is a guide for the rest of us.

This little e-book not only explains in easy-to-understand layman's terms what passive voice is, it gives you several easy ways to change it into active voice that brings your writing alive.

Trust me. This will be the best .99 cents you every spent on your writing.

Cutting the Passive Voice is scheduled to release on December 17, 2014, but you can pre-order it right now. It will then be delivered to your Kindle device (or computer with the free Kindle reader) as soon as it releases. So order now! And please invite your writing friends to check it out as well. (Tweet that!)

"Getting Published" series: