In tenth grade, I was assigned a research paper. I immediately knew my topic — Lady Jane Grey. What? You’ve never heard of the fifteen-year-old nine-day queen of England who was ordered beheaded by her jealous cousin Mary? Isn’t there a Facebook page about her? (What do you know — turns out there is!)
Writing research papers was not my idea of a good time when I was sixteen, or any teen, for that matter. But because it was such a large part of my English grade, I figured I’d better make the best of it. I chose a topic I was passionate about. Jane and I went way back. Well, we only went back about a year or s0; I developed a fascination with her when I watched the movie based on her life starring Helena Bonham Carter of Alice in Wonderland fame and Cary Elwes from The Princess Bride. For some reason, that movie tugged at my curiosity and refused to let go. I was determined to learn everything I could about the legendary nine-day teen queen. And learn I did. Before I knew it, I had a whole plastic index card container full of facts about her.
I furiously worked on that research paper like my life depended on it. I spent hours poring over books (you know, those things the library had before the Internet caught on) and scribbling down every factoid I could find about Jane. I couldn’t get enough. I discovered something very surprising along the way — I loved the research process (and a good thing too, as I would use it a lot in college). Yep, the “A” was the ace in the hole, as they say. (My fourth-grade daughter and I just talked about idioms tonight — seems fitting to use that one here!)
A few weeks later, I got back my paper. C+. (Can you just hear Ralphie’s teacher cackling in the background as he laments his C+ on his Red Ryder theme?) It turns out my paper was too long — about three times too long. You see, the paper was supposed to be no more than seven pages, and mine was, well… twenty-one. In hindsight, I should be glad that she didn’t fail me for such blatant disregard of the assignment requirements. Still, I blew it. And all for being too interested in my topic. Ralphie and I have a lot in common, come to think of it. I may not have shot my eye out, but my confidence was plenty shot.
So what fatal writing mistake did I make? I forgot to focus.
Not only did I not follow one course, I veered right off the road and into a ditch. I failed to focus my topic, and as a result, my research paper was one big confusing mess of facts with no discernible direction. Instead of talking about Jane’s nine days as queen, or her love of learning, or her devotion to her beliefs, I talked about everything I ever learned about her and then some. I might have even mentioned her shoe size, but who’s keeping track, really?
I will be the first to encourage writers to choose topics they’re passionate about. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, at least as far as writing is concerned. The ability to focus a topic is the mark of a mature writer. Of course, I wish I knew that then. Hmm… I wonder if Mrs. Edwards could have been bribed with a fruit basket?