Keeping your story focused is a lot like taking an eye exam

image Welcome to another edition of Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing, a weekly feature offering writing tips that Publisher’s Digest has called “…Required reading for anyone serious about a career writing ingredients labels…” and what The Master of Horror® Stephen King heralded as “…The first thing I read each Friday before calling my attorney…”

But enough accolades!

My NWOW is when I share the writing wisdom gained from 15 years as a newspaper columnist — knowledge which, until now, was only available by reading the yellow Post-It on my desk. And while all of you are certainly welcome to visit my desk at any time, I think we know that isn’t very practical. Especially since most of you probably couldn’t read my handwriting. In fact, I have a hard time reading my own writing. For example, today’s tip was almost about how finding your story’s focus is a lot like taking a colorectal exam. How I got “colorectal” from “eye” tells you just how bad my handwriting truly is.

Because I’m sure none of us wants to delve any deeper into this than we already have, I suggest we get to this week’s writing tip. Agreed? Yep, just as I figured; everyone except for the proctologist in the back row.

As for the rest of us, let’s talk about how the same steps taken in an eye exam can also help bring your writing into focus.

Ummmm… You three? Over here.

Alrighty. After this blog post, I want the three of you of you to promise me you will go directly to the nearest optometrist for an actual eye exam. You know who you are. If you aren’t sure, reach straight ahead. Feel that? It’s a microwave, not a computer monitor. I only point this out because, aside from the fact that I care, trying to shove a microwavable burrito into your monitor could be frustrating and potentially dangerous.

At this point I think it’s safe to assume some of you have probably forgotten why you’re here. I know I have. Ironically, this is the same feeling a writer gets when they realize they have lost focus with their story — or in some cases even a blog post. That’s when it’s time to stop and regain focus by giving yourself a simple, three-step “eye exam” in order maintain your story’s true vision.

Step one: Test your visual acuity.
We’re all familiar with the Snellen chart, which is the chart you stand 20 feet from while trying to decipher a series of letters which, as they get smaller, begin to resemble the ingredients listed on a bag of Cheetos. The objective is to determine how far a person can get from a particular point before losing focus. The same goes for writers. In the same way a person may not realize how bad their vision has become until they are using a urinal that’s actually a display refrigerator on the main floor at Sears, writers can slowly lose their story’s focus until it has become blurred by extemporaneous passages of description, too many characters, sub plots or dialogue that doesn’t advance the story.

How can you test to make sure your story’s vision is still clear?

Stand 20 feet away from your monitor. If you can still read it without squinting so hard it appears you’re having a stroke, forget writing and become a sharpshooter. In leu of that, follow the “20/20” rule of writing: If after reading every 20th paragraph in your story (or in the case of a short story, every 20th sentence) you still have a clear idea of what’s happening, who the central characters are and the major plot points, you’re writing’s vision is “normal.” If after several of these 20/20 paragraphs you begin to lose focus, stop and go back to where you lost sight; chances are your story began to blur somewhere between the first line and those Cheetos ingredients.

Step two: Test your peripheral vision. This is the part of the exam where your optometrist tells you to keep looking ahead while he moves an object from behind you toward the front of your head, at which point you’re supposed to acknowledge when you see it in your peripheral vision. Keep in mind that this is also when your optometrist stands behind you and makes faces or plays air guitar without you knowing it. Regardless, having good peripheral vision is important for writers, too. Your “writing peripherals” are those things that run parallel to the main action and include expendable characters, foreshadowing and some unanticipated secondary themes that develop through character interaction and plot development. This is all good stuff because, if done well, can add a sense of immediacy, spontaneity and unpredictability that keep readers invested in the story.

However, just like that optometrist playing air guitar behind your back, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s going on if you don’t keep your peripherals in check. In optometry, the ideal measurement is at least 70 degrees of vision in the horizontal meridian. From a writing standpoint, this means the peripheral elements of your story shouldn’t account for more than about 30 percent of your story development. Put another way: If you’ve written 70 pages and more than 30 of them revolve around the actions of secondary characters, themes or developments not directly related to your main characters, they are just playing air guitar. It’s time to re-evaluate the focus of your story, and whether the secondary characters/themes are becoming blurred with the main plot and characters.

Step three: Check for depth perception. Optometrists often check for this by tossing something at the patient, such as a Nerf ball, to determine binocular (two-eye) vision, which allows us to see in three dimensions. As a kid, I thought I had monocular vision because of how horrible I was at dodgeball. After a visit to my optometrist I was relieved to find out I was just really uncoordinated. In terms of writing, a 3D world is also important, although not having it won’t lead to bruising. Unfortunately, unlike the previous steps, there is no real “formula” to determine if you have created a three-dimensional world in your writing; you either do or you don’t. What I can tell you as that, as writers, we tend to fill in the blanks ourselves and, as a result, it’s easy to envision more on the page than is actually there.

So how can you see if your writing vision has depth? Take a chapter and eliminate all the dialogue. Then read it or, better yet, read it to someone. The objective has nothing to do with plot or character, it’s about whether or not your descriptive vision has made it onto the page. When you’re done, have the person describe what they saw. If it resembles what you envisioned, chances are you’re writing in three dimensions. If they can’t describe things clearly, then throw something at them. Ha! Just kidding! Get your optometrist to do it.

Then go figure out how to make your vision clear…

Just a reminder: This Friday’s NWOW (May 2) will be a stop along the #mywritingprocess Blog Tour. Joining me will be Nic DiDomizio of The Nicolas Blog and Bill Pearse of Pinklightsabre’s Blog who, along with me, were backhanded hand-picked by Ross Murray at Drinking Tips for Teens to join the tour (Although, being the oldest, I’m more like the designated driver.) As I mentioned on Monday, the #mywritingprocess Blog Tour asks four poignant questions posed very poignantly to each poignant blogger (such as “Do you think vocabulary is important?), along with four other questions about each blogger’s writing process.

I’d like to thank Ross for inviting me to participate. If you haven’t already, visit his #mywritingprocess post which is insightful, entertaining and, as Nic would say, “will make your day less shitty.”

(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)

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36 thoughts on “Keeping your story focused is a lot like taking an eye exam

  1. There’s “this guy I know” who sometimes has a few beers while he’s writing, which seems to cause focus and vision problems, and also inappropriate late night phone calls. What can I do to help him?

  2. In addition to your experience with eye exams and proctology are you also a mind reader?

    I’ve been working on a guest post (due next week) and keep getting distracted by shiny objects. That would be fine, except the remnants are ending up in my story. I even put a picture of a wrecked car after the first paragraph because the focus and theme were so muddled and resembled an accident more so than a piece of literature.

    I’ve spent quite a bit of time cleaning it up, bringing the themes together and now, with your help…I can put it to the “eye test.”
    Is it cheating if I already know that the first letter is a really big E?

    • Michelle, I do have experience in proctology, eye exams and mind reading — not necessarily in that order — but more importantly I always wash my hands between sessions. That said, I’m glad today’s post was timely for helping you finish off what sounds to be a great post. As for the big “E,” it’s only cheating if you’re asked to spell it.

  3. This is all excellent advice, Ned and I love the vision simile. The third step is new to me so I will certainly give it a try, especially as I know I have a propensity to write more dialogue than is at times required: this has been the main area I’ve been cutting back on throughout revision, but it will be good to re-check just in case.

    • Thanks so much, Vickie. Glad this was helpful. The funny thing? I’m the only one in our family who doesn’t actually wear glasses 😉

      And you’re not alone about the dialogue. A lot of writers unconsciously flesh out their ideas through their characters’ dialogue — and one of the reasons for the old adages about “Don’t explain, just do.”

  4. I have so much to learn. When I started my first blog is was primarily to post research and advocacy info. Starting my second, more personal blog felt intimidating. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing — and never started it to learn how to write — but I got the bug. It’s more like an annoying gnat, but posts like your are so helpful. In all honestly, I can feel a little overwhelmed when I read writing tips. Sometimes it seems like it goes over my head. I’m certain it’s the way my brain is wired. Lol I spend a lot of time reading academic papers. ‘Nuff said.

    I’ll have to come back and read this again in the AM when I’ve had coffee. 😉 Thank you, Ned. I am grateful for your advise, your expertise and your time.

    • I have to say, Victoria, that I have enjoyed both your blogs for different reasons. The information on the first is always explained well enough that even someone like myself with a limited academic background (high school education) can understand it without feeling talked down to; and your personal blog is always very brave and thoughtful.

      One of the reasons I try to keep my tips infused with humor is because, in other writing tips I’ve read, I always feel talked “at” instead of “with.” I think being able to laugh as you learn makes it feel more like a conversation then a lecture.

      Thanks for the kind words, for reading and for writing 😉

  5. Thank you for clarifying the writing process for me. I believe I have a book in me somewhere, the writing process helps, but I am still at a loss on how to start? One day…

    I enjoyed your reading last writing blog tour, the only one I have seen so far, being that I am a new reader of yours. It would be great to be part of the series one day, so on to the bucket list it goes.

  6. Step 4: Do not leave your math skills at the door. When the bill comes in at $70 and the optometrist agrees that you can only need to pay 30% right away, make sure you only leave $21!

  7. Great post Ned – a lot of really good, meaty advice to chomp on. Can you tell I’m hungry as I write this? It’s helpful to see a concise post on focussing a written piece. It is rare to come across someone like yourself who has an emotional/intuitive as well as an intellectual grasp of a topic (i.e. some can do well and some can teach well but very few can do and teach well simultaneously). It’s enlighteneing on a much higher level. I truly believe that the really big picture in any endeavor, contains common concepts with all other topics. I had the pleasure of working under a billionaire retailer some years ago. He established and built a family oriented value brand retail chain store empire in Canada from scratch. I knew him when he was in his 60’s and 70’s and he was an amazing man. When I look at your three rules of successful writing, it became clear to me that he used exactly the same rules in building his retail company. Step#1: Focus – decide what you are going to be good at and do it well. Consider tangential products and offerings as far as it benefits your focus, but don’t get distracted. Step#2: Peripherals -Add products and lines insofar as they add to your focus, do not allow sidelines to become the focus- they are like the sides of a funnel, they should always bring customers back to the center where the profit and focus is. Step#3 – 3D structure is critical. Stand back and see if there are any gaps in your offering. If you’re a family discount store, what does a family NEED that you don’t have? If your high profit areas are family fashion, why are there no belts? Will a customer go to another store to buy a belt and then leave there with their shorts, pants, coats and shoes too? Are you missing items or categories that could increase customer participation in your focus areas?

    Anyway, the focus in this comment is that your rules are the first time I’ve seen the topic discussed with such clarity and meaning. And it is obvious to me that you’ve nailed a process that is very real and applicable across many fields. Thank you Ned for sharing this with us..

    • He sounded like the kind of person you meet once in a lifetime, like a mentor sent by fate. Judging from your story, he truly was an amazing person. I’m flattered by the comparison. Thank you for sharing that story, Paul.

  8. If I didn’t know better, Ned, I’d say you were a gifted, generous writer who cares about guiding others’ work as much as his own.
    But I do know better, don’t I, schmuck?

  9. I’m trying to figure out if I ever really had a focus… I guess I post to avoid writing… Well writing 100 emails a day to my subjects teachers, doctors and entourage of “helpers” that have to know what’s happening. So I use it as a way to track progress, data, and answer potential questions about what he eats, likes, moods etc. I’m not sure how to change it. I do bring in “fluff” or distractions mostly for entertainment and to tell the whole story about the adventures with this kid.
    Nice blog. Got me thinking…

  10. I’m particularly fond of blog posts that legitimize my procrastination. I had to stop and read this instead of working on my book revisions because, if I didn’t, my book would be crap! Making appointments for both an eye exam and a colonoscopy ought to give me another 6 minutes’ worth of perfectly defensible writing avoidance, so thank you!

  11. Pingback: Dude, where’s my blog tour? Oh, right — it’s at #mywritingprocess | Ned's Blog

  12. I didn’t know you were so wise! What if you have bi-focal vision? I can only see close up with my left eye (think end of nose) & can only see far away with my right eye (think I cannot see the end of my nose). This is a result of 5 eye operations as a child. My eyes work independently of each other & I don’t have the same depth perception as someone who sees through binocular eyes (hence the severe vertigo). Any advice?

    • Yikes. Well, you may consider finding work as a sharpshooter since you can use your right eye to aim. And maybe just a pair of dark sun glasses with lenses that can be flipped up independently (One side up for reading, the other side up for taking out an enemy target at 800 yards.)

      I’m just spitballing here…

  13. Pingback: This week’s writing advice would’ve gotten me punched by Eddie Rabbitt | Ned's Blog

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