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Find the Center of Gravity

How Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers helped me find the focus of my writing.

David Gane
David Gane
2 min read

In my post How to write a funeral speech, I mentioned finding the focus of the writing by what pulls you in. This idea isn’t original, but something I’ve appreciated since reading it in Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers:

Think back or read over what you have written and try to see what important things emerged. What does it add up to? What was the most important or central thing in it? Make it add up to something, try to guess what it’s trying to add up to; try to figure out what it would add up to if the missing parts were there. Sum up this main point, this incipient center of gravity, in a sentence. Write it down It’s got to stick its neck out, not just hedge or wonder. Something that can be quarreled with. (If you are writing a story or poem stress the term “center of gravity”: it may be an assertion, but it could also be a mood, an image, a central detail or event or object-as long as it somehow sums up everything.) This summing-up process should be difficult: it should tell you more than you already know.

Lately, as I’ve been working on my daily blog posts, I’ll often write more than will ever make it into the final version.

The goal is to create something that amounts to 250 words, more or less. However, it may take 1000 words to identify what it is about.

As I work on it, I look for the core idea. The one that catches my interest and pulls me in.

Once I’ve identified the center of gravity, I refine the words. I’ll add pieces to clarify the idea or strip away anything that distracts or diffuses it.

I’d suggest saving your initial draft before chopping it up. You may return to a particular phrasing or build an entirely new piece of writing with an idea.

And Peter Elbow suggests that if you’re struggling to find the focal point of your writing, repeat this process multiple times.

For example, if you have four hours to do the work, break it into four chunks. Spend the first 45 minutes writing as much as you can about your topic, then spend the final 15 minutes summing it up.

Once that first hour is complete:

Start writing again. Start from your previous summing up assertion. That doesn't mean you must stick to it—you probably consider it false. Merely write your next version "in the light of" or "from the perspective of" your fifteen-minute standing back and surveying of the terrain.

For some, this may be the solution to writer's block. Sometimes it is easier—and quicker—to write multiple drafts than to waste time over-thinking.  

The act of writing brings clarity to our thoughts, as well as gives us something physical to work with. Although some people can build the entire story in their head, I find it is much easier to have my thoughts on the page in order to make sense of them.

I hope this helps.

David Gane Twitter

Co-writer of the Shepherd and Wolfe young adult mysteries, the internationally award-winning series, and teacher of storytelling and screenwriting.