Columns > Published on June 30th, 2015

Better Writing Through Focus Words

There's a great book on writing called Horror 101: The Way Forward, a solid collection of anecdotes, advice and quotes from some big names in the genre, including Richard Thomas, with whom I'm sure you're all familiar. Even if horror isn't your game, this book offers excellent advice for any writer, and a piece by Michael Arnzen titled "The Five Laws of Arnzen" is no exception (This essay originated in the author's book Instigation: Creative Prompts on the Dark Side). Concerning these "laws," Arnzen states:

They're actually more like traffic signs than laws. Treat them like abstract ideas, defined by whatever the context might be—as you read these, think broadly about how they might pertain (if at all) to your career...

This summation of rules most aptly fits number three on Arnzen's list, "Use Focus Words," in which the author advises embracing "simplicity, minimalism, and brevity" to manage the "complicated and hectic" life of a writer.

Whether as a motto for your life, or a slogan for your current novel, it helps if you carefully choose just a few keywords to keep you grounded. I call them 'focus words.' Let these words 'focus' your work and help you navigate the chaos.

Arnzen suggests determining these keywords on New Year's Day in lieu of setting hard and fast resolutions. This is perhaps one of the best pieces of advice a writer can take to heart. As LitReactor's own Peter Derk can attest, deciding to write a certain number of words every single day, or to complete X number of stories in a month, or resolving oneself to "get published" are all terrible impositions to hang over a writer's head, because external factors threaten your ability to obtain them. This isn't to say you should be completely carefree with your daily output, or you shouldn't worry about how many stories you're completing in a given year (see Richard Thomas's Storyville column "10 Ways To Evaluate Your Writing Career" for a broader discussion of this topic). It does mean, however, that your goals should be realistic and tuned to your personal writing methods, and I think focus words are especially important in this context.

Let me get a bit more specific here so you better understand what I mean. When I first read Horror 101 back in mid- to late-2014, I created a list in my Reminders app called "Focus." The first two items I added were "Diversify" and "Outreach," with the first aimed toward my reading habits (branching out from my horror/dark fiction safe zone), and the second to prod me into more social interaction or communication with fellow writers, particularly those I view as "above" me (I'm a huge introvert).

Admittedly, I chose this list format with the intention of checking off the words once I'd successfully "embodied" them. But of course, the notion I could "max out" the use of a particular word was pure folly on my part. As Arnzen writes,

The job of a word is to contain meaning, so use focus words to control and shape the meaning of things. You'll begin to see that the meanings a word holds are deep ones, and over time more meanings will 'unfold' for you. Inquire into these deeper meanings: look them up, study the word's origin, think about its synonyms and near rhymes and muse deeply over its significance.

As soon as I'd chosen my focus words for the remainder of 2014, I began to see their significance beyond the initial weight I placed on them. So, where diversification was concerned, I not only began reading outside my comfort zone, I began writing outside of it too, crafting more fantasy and even sci-fi-oriented tales, and challenging myself to avoid my crutches in fiction (like killing characters, for instance). With the second focus word, outreach, I not only sought connections with other writers, but publishers and editors as well; and not only did I seek connections, I began asking, without fear, for critiques and advice. Needless to say, I have learned a lot from these interactions and I've grown not only as a writer, but also as a person.

When 2015 rolled around, I recognized that while I had made serious accomplishments with my focus words the previous year, it's basically impossible to say you've "mastered" the art of self-improvement, even within specific parameters. Given this, I decided not to check off "Diversify" and "Outreach" from the list, but also add two new focus words for the New Year ("Reading" and "Education"), so as to allow the previous two words to apply meaning to the new ones. I'd already diversified my reading, but the main focus of "Reading" for 2015 was to read WAY more than I'd ever read in a given year. To do this, I had to diversify my reading methods, including keeping eBooks loaded on my iPhone so as to sneak in a few pages here and there whenever the opportunity arose.

Likewise, "Outreach" had already proven itself effective for education (as did "Diversify" for that matter), but in order to ramp up my knowledge surrounding the craft and business of writing without going back to school, I had to rely both on diversification and outreach to make the most of the resources at my disposal. This included making a point to journal more about the books I read or the films I watch and actively analyze them—something I've always done mentally, but have rarely written down on the page—as well as making brief entries about particularly engaging conversations I've had with my fiancé and my friends, much the same way I'd have done with a professor's lecture back in college. This also entailed seeking out more sources for critical essays and deconstructions of film and literature—again, much like a college student might do.

Whether or not Arnzen scraps his old focus words for new ones every year, he doesn't say. Personally, I prefer to keep the list of my yearly words ongoing, because again, if a goal toward self-improvement is pertinent at one point in my life, I believe it always will be. Even if I check in on a particular word or phrase years down the line and find I'm doing a fine job of embodying its meaning, the point is, I've checked in, and thus, checked myself. As the years go on, I may find I'm focusing more on the newer words rather than the old ones, but even still I think it's important to keep those old areas of focus on the list, just to keep me on my toes, to ensure I'm not getting too comfortable in any one area of my life.

But I suppose the ultimate question is, how productive have these focus words been on my present day life? Well, in a broad sense, I simply feel better as a writer, having these keywords to guide and direct me. In concrete terms, I've noticed my work getting better and better. I'm getting consistently more positive responses from my beta readers, and I even made my very first story sale back in February (to an ezine called Grievous Angel; the story is called "Our Black Shuck," and you can read it here)(end shameless plug). It's been nothing but rejections since then, but at least they've been positive rejections, in which several of the editors encouraged me to send more of my work.

I'd definitely say I'm moving in the right direction, and Arnzen's focus words are a big part of that.

Any one else familiar with the concept of focus words? What kind of impact have they had on your writing life? If you weren't familiar with focus words before, will you begin using them now? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

About the author

Christopher Shultz writes plays and fiction. His works have appeared at The Inkwell Theatre's Playwrights' Night, and in Pseudopod, Unnerving Magazine, Apex Magazine, freeze frame flash fiction and Grievous Angel, among other places. He has also contributed columns on books and film at LitReactor, The Cinematropolis, and Christopher currently lives in Oklahoma City. More info at

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