Our fourth technique is called focus questions, questions that help you look at a topic from a bunch of different angles. When you have no idea what to say, try one of our sets of focus questions. For example, ask yourself and answer the journalist’s “five W’s”: Who? What? When? Where? Why or how? Another set of focus questions comes from Dr. Elizabeth Neeld. She calls it cubing since it involves examining your subject from six sides. Try this one now. Think of a subject you need to or want to write about. For this exercise, nonfiction ideas work best. Then jot down answers to each of the following six focus questions about your topic:
- Describe it. What are its physical characteristics?
- Define it. What are its essential qualities?
- Compare it. What is it similar to, different from?
- Analyze it. What are its parts?
- Associate from it. What does it remind you of?
- Argue for and against. What are its pros and cons?
In case you missed some of the “cubes,” I’ll repeat them. Many people find that focus questions help them be systematic. In fact, if you have to write the same kinds of letters, proposals, or reports often, you can save time by drawing up your own customized list of focus questions. For example, who is the audience? What do they already know? What do they need to know? What else do they need to know? And so on.
Like all the other techniques we’ve discussed so far, focus questions help you discover what you want to say and possible ways to say it. Here as with the previous methods, first, you create the raw material for your piece of writing; then you shape it into a final product.
In the next lesson, we’ll turn to my favorite writing exercise, called Q&A.