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Planning your story: Focus, why it's needed and how to formulate it

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Media Tips

What for?

Do not think in terms of what your text will be about. Think — what is it going to be created for? More precisely, why will your audience be reading it? These are examples of poorly-written planning pitches, “I will write about a press conference on snow removal problems” and “I will write about snow removal problems”. However “The city has just one snow-removing machine in working condition, so only the central street will be cleaned in the upcoming week” — is already better. Or this example wouldn't be bad either: “If it is going to snow hard, central street will be the only one to drive through.”


It is easy to test if you are clear about your story's focus. Imagine that you talk to a friend or relative and you have to tell him or her the story, starting with “imagine..”. So, everything after that “imagine..” will be the focus.

For example, “imagine, a press conference” or “imagine, problems with snow removal” — these bland phrases do not work. A much better version would be “imagine, if tomorrow it snows really hard, there will be no one to clean our streets”.

Lead and first paragraph

The focus of the story has to be clear from the first paragraph. Because this is when the reader decides whether to keep reading and they will if it is clear what for. And even if s/he leaves the text at that point, the minimum essence of your message will have been received.

Don't be literal

A focus has to be clear from the first few paragraphs, though this is not the same as a lead. A focus is what must be understood from the lead. When a teenager asks a parent “Are you really not going to come back before 10 on Sunday night?”, what s/he is really interested in is if the family flat is indeed going to be parent-free all weekend. It’s the same thing with a focus.

“There is only one snow-removal machine in working condition in the city”. If tomorrow it snows a lot, our equipment will only be enough to clear Communist Avenue, and for the rest — sorry,” said so-and-so.” “The day after tomorrow they’re forecasting a snowstorm.”

This is a lead. And a focus within this lead could be: “All the snow-removal equipment in the city is out of order, and if there is a snowstorm the day after tomorrow, as forecast, you can only drive in the centre.”

Focus and structure

A clearly-formulated focus will help structure the text correctly without any unnecessary work. For example, the focus stated above suggests that you need to gather the following information for the record:

Equipment. What equipment are we talking about, how many machines are normally needed, how many are broken, when, why and how serious are the breakdowns? Can road sweepers do the job instead? Can the equipment be fixed in time? If yes, when?

The snowstorm. When is the snowstorm going to start? What does it mean exactly? How serious is it? How accurate is this forecast? Who are the forecasters? Can they be trusted? Why?

Transportation problems. What does “only in the centre” mean? What does “drive through” or “drive around” mean? What parts are going to be cleaned in any event? Why those exactly? What roads are busiest with traffic? Where will the biggest problems arise? At what time? Will public transport be working? How?

You don’t need the rest of the information for this story. Transcribe only those parts of the interview that contain the facts and quotes that you need, take only those quotes that are within the scope of your story. You won’t need the rest or you can keep them for other stories.

One text — one focus.

This is true, although you could write several stories on the same topic. This is called coverage. For example, you could first go with a story with the focus mentioned above and the following day a story with the focus “City will be filled with traffic jams, because the money for equipment repair went instead to the Christmas tree installation”. And after that, if the topic is still alive and being discussed, something else can be written.

No focus — no story

If you are not able to formulate your focus in one sentence, you are not ready to write the story, even if you have gigabytes of audio files and hundreds of documents. You just won't know what to write. Sometimes this is hard to admit, as you have invested a lot of work into it. However, on the whole, this work has no use. That is why before you start gathering large amounts of data and facts, try asking yourself what for.

Focus changes

The focus you initially formulated yourself, before collecting the main information, is more likely a hypothesis. You may have several hypotheses, and in the process of working on the story these can be proved true or not. They can also be specified. Or you can decide that the most interesting thing lies in something else entirely. This is a normal process. However, your hypothesis must finally turn into a statement, which you must be able to confirm with testimonies, examination, facts and illustrations. And this will actually be your story.

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