“What?” I said out loud to nobody, then laughed. “An F? Moi? Can’t be. She must have me mixed up with one of her students who can’t write.”
“I’m your straight-A, remember?” I said to the email, which I had finally received (years ago) from my undergraduate writing teacher on my essay proposal. (We had to send in a proposal of the topic about which we intended to write, before starting our term paper for the class.)
For the perfectionist that I have been since kindergarten, to be threatened with an F was a blow to the chest that took my breath away. She must have made a mistake (though I took an F years later in graduate school for refusing to edit pornography…but that’s another story).
I sat down, ready to write the teacher back and complain that she had the wrong student, but then took a moment to read further into her email, and that’s when I saw the reason for her indictment.
Her reason for giving a straight-A writing student an F for a term-paper topic was explainable in one word. You might say she gave me the F for Focus (or the lack thereof).
Keep Your Eye on the Ball
What was the topic I proposed that she said would bring me an F? Introversion—being an introvert in an extraverted world. She said it was too broad.
She said if I were planning a book-length work on the topic, it might have been acceptable because each chapter could address a different aspect of the issue, but for an article it was much too broad.
So after hours of deliberation I came up with a subject more specific: Being an introvert in the typically extravert world of the workplace. I sent it back to her, confident, even smug, satisfied that I’d given her what she wanted, and ready to start on my term paper – until I received her prompt reply: “You’ll still get an F.”
“What? Are you kidding me!” I yelled at the computer. As I read through her email I saw that word again: “Focus. Bring it down to something much more specific,” she wrote. “A specific problem with at least one specific solution.”
I had thought being an introvert in an extraverted world was specific. In my mind, I was zooming in on introverts versus the rest of the world of categories out there into which you can slip almost all the people you encounter, such as being short in a world of tall people, being blond, being overweight, being a vegetarian among carnivores (or vice versa). The list is endless.
Just a Little Bit Closer
So I wrote down my key word: Introverts. Okay, so what’s their problem? Being one myself, I had no shortage of a list of problems, such as: malls, busy restaurants or other public places; parties; networking events; the workplace!
And that’s where I landed. For me, the workplace has always been an office of one type or another or a classroom, with coworkers, office politics, fellow teachers and admin with whom to mix in the break and conference rooms, whether one wanted to or not.
But the more I looked at it, the more I saw that others will have workplaces such as various outdoor settings, factories, and so many other different kinds of backdrops. Widening my thinking and realizing this fact showed me why “introverts in the workplace” was still too general.
After going over the initial research I had done for my introvert proposal, and writing different versions of topics in order to find one that clicked, the title at which I arrived and that she accepted as being focused enough was “How Introverts Can Survive and Thrive in the Office”.
V Is for Vortex
When I think about it now, I view it as an upside-down triangle, an inverted vortex or V, to represent the situation.
At the top of the vortex is the topic at its most general, introversion versus extraversion.
At the bottom is the specific application on which I finally landed, the introvert surviving and thriving the extravert office.
In the middle somewhere is the introvert in the more generalized “workplace”, and so many other aspects of introversion.
1. Introvert versus extravert world: Too broad.
2. Introvert in workplace: Still too broad.
3. How an introvert not only gets by, but thrives, in what is considered to be a hostile environment to most introverts—the office, with all its implications: Specific.
Not to Put Too Fine a Point on It…
Other similar approaches might have been: How an introvert spouse survives and thrives an extravert husband or wife, or the best ways to nurture your introverted child in an extraverted school environment.
There are many possibilities along the spectrum, but the narrow point of focus at the bottom of the vortex is the goal. However it gets narrowed on the way down, in the end it reaches as fine an application as possible.
It should be obvious that this idea of focus and the inverted vortex is not just for college papers or grades. This should guide all writers whenever we sit down to approach any given topic.
The Enemy: Generalization
Beware generalization in all its manifestations in writing—not just regarding subject but with every word you commit to paper or screen, within any sentence, paragraph, chapter, book—generalization is always a danger by which to be enticed. I say enticed, because to generalize is to take the easy route.
I will say, I do disagree with my undergrad writing instructor back then on her comment that my general topic might have been okay for a book-length work, though she could have been saying that to lessen the blow of pointing out my bad choice for the proposal. But, depending on the kind of book a writer was proposing, I’d normally tell a student the same thing she told me: Book-length or not, it’s too broad.
One More Thing
In case you were wondering, I wrote the paper using citations from articles and books on the subject, and she must have been happy with my approach and conclusions, because when it was all over, I got an A on the finished paper. (I also learned a few things from my research, being an introvert myself.)
And I thanked the nice lady for her guidance and warnings, instead of just letting me go ahead with my too-general topic and getting the F, breaking my (almost) perfect record.