You’ve probably heard of the “5 Ws” journalism students learn early on: “Who? What? When? Where? Why?” Often an “H” is added for “How?”. These questions help keep the writer focused on telling the story in a concise, straightforward way.
I have an additional set of “W” questions for writers, bloggers, and others who want or need to reach and influence readers. The first “W” in the sequence is: What’s your theme?
It sounds really basic, but I believe it’s a helpful practice to, as Steven Covey used to say, “Keep the end in mind.” What is your goal in sharing this story? Is it to inspire someone to take action, like giving a donation, signing up to volunteer, or write a letter to an elected official? Is it to sway your audience’s opinion? Is it to motivate someone to buy something, or click on a link?
In the same way we are encouraged in our professional lives to come up with elevator pitches to hook someone’s attention and explain what we’re about in just a couple of minute’s time, I encourage people with stories to tell to come up with their own one- or two-sentence theme (or goal, if you prefer) before they start to write.
Once you have your brief theme statement, keep referring to it while you work, and as you review the completed story. Write it temporarily at the top of your page if it helps.
Earlier this year I attended author Donald Miller’s Storyline Conference, where we were encouraged to come up with a life’s theme. Miller shows attendees how to go through a series of exercises to look back on their lives and develop a theme statement. He suggested we write that statement into or on our schedules every day, or post it up on the wall where we can see it.
The beauty of that theme, Miller told us, is that whatever doesn’t fit into that theme can be tossed out, or pruned away. If someone comes to you with a great business or volunteer opportunity, but it doesn’t fit into the theme you’ve chosen for your life, you can decline graciously with no (or little) guilt. Or, as you’re making decisions about how to spend your time, you can ask yourself if that task or appointment fits in that theme, and plan accordingly. The result is you remain focused on what’s most important to you.
It works for writing, as well. Is all the information you are including in that story staying within the theme? If not, cut it out. Stick to your main point throughout the story.
If you’re a blogger, consider coming up with a brief theme statement for your blog and then keep asking yourself, does this post fit in my blog’s theme? If not, find somewhere else to post it. You may confuse your readers if you go off topic.
Next post I’ll explain another “W” question I recommend asking before writing: Who’s your audience?
Challenge: Come up with a one- or two-sentence theme for a current or next project, and post it somewhere you can see it as you work.
For Further Exploration: “A Simple, Sure-fire Way to Create Great Content – The 5 W’s and the H”, from wpmu.org.
Adapted from my talk, “Good Neighbor Stories – How to Tell Yours”.