Narrow and Deep Writing
My professor pulled up his chair in front of the class. He waved his hand at us. “Anyone need help preparing their term papers? Now’s the time to ask.”
Fifteen adults sat silently.
He urged us again.
Finally, one student raised his hand. “I’m struggling with my topic. I want to cover the impact of Cone’s theology on the Catholic church, sexuality and justice in America.”
I immediately thought to myself, “That’s not a paper, that’s a book!”
My professor agreed. “Whoa! Slow down. The best term papers are narrow and deep. You want to pick one tiny aspect of the whole and zero in on that. Then you will go as deeply as you can within that narrowly defined topic.”
I loved how he put this. The Topic Funnel (Chapter 6 of The Writer’s Jungle) is all about narrowing the scope of the writing topic so that you can investigate it deeply.
A narrow topic comes from a larger subject that the writer knows lots about. Many kids are expected to write generally about the Civil War or the solar system. They only have superficial knowledge of these huge topics and then can only repeat those cliched bits of information in dry paragraph form. Their writing neither reveals insight nor expertise. And your kids know it. So generally, they don’t enjoy this kind of writing.
However, when a fan is asked to write about the Redwall book series, the opposite problem can occur. The child is overwhelmed by the volume of information she knows about the topic and can’t write due to the paralysis of not knowing where to start.
To avoid these twin pitfalls, go narrow and deep.
Narrow a topic by identifying the most interesting aspect of the topic to the writer.
- Don’t write about gardening. Write about composting.
- Don’t write about soccer. Write about playing goalie during a losing season.
- Don’t write about the solar system. Write about the rover excursion on Mars.
- Don’t write about Redwall generally. Write about Martin the Warrior’s sword.
Deep writing means that you probe a question related to the narrow topic of writing. Younger kids may simply report or describe the process of composting, playing goalie, the rover’s trip to Mars or how Martin got his sword. For older kids, get in the habit of asking a provocative question about the narrow topic in order to go deep.
- Ask what method works best for composting when living in the suburbs with limited land.
- Ask about whether or not the goalie was responsible for the losing season.
- Ask about the cost effectiveness of the Mars Rover based on what NASA is learning there.
- Ask how Martin the Warrior’s sword plays an important role in the book, Loamhedge.
Next time your kids get ready to write, think narrow and deep.