Focus refers to what is being written about. It involves choosing and maintaining an appropriate topic and degree of detail for a particular purpose and audience. Lack of focus is a common complaint of instructors regarding student writing. If you have assigned writing in the past, you have probably encountered papers that stray from one idea to another without focusing on a single issue or claim. To help students establish focus, consider using an illustration from photography: In focusing a camera, the idea is to obtain a picture of something in particular, with sharp details and perhaps a little background or context. You might encourage students to imagine representing their writing in a photograph—or summarizing it in a single sentence. Remind them that since problems with focus often originate during the planning stage, they might begin the writing process by outlining or taking notes.
A caveat here is that many students entering college are quite familiar with the five-paragraph essay and will interpret focus as an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. Emphasize to students that focus should be informed by purpose and audience and is not achieved through a formula. Remember that our purpose as instructors is to foster better writers, not to produce better papers or students who are proficient at reproducing only certain kinds of texts.
Even as students begin to consider purpose and audience, thereâ€™s no guarantee theyâ€™ll immediately achieve focused writing. In fact, they may initially lose focus as they depart from familiar blueprints. The suggestions in Making Rhetorical Context Work for You will help you help students through this process.