HOW TO WRITE SPECIAL FEATURE ARTICLES
A HANDBOOK FOR REPORTERS, CORRESPONDENTS AND FREE-LANCE WRITERS WHO DESIRE TO CONTRIBUTE TO POPULAR MAGAZINES AND MAGAZINE SECTIONS OF NEWSPAPERS
WILLARD GROSVENOR BLEYER, PH.D.
Author of "Newspaper Writing and Editing," and "Types of News Writing"; Director of the Course in Journalism in the University of Wisconsin
BOSTON, NEW YORK, CHICAGO, SAN FRANCISCO
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY
The Riverside Press Cambridge
The Riverside Press CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS PRINTED IN THE U.S.A.
This book is the result of twelve years' experience in teaching university students to write special feature articles for newspapers and popular magazines. By applying the methods outlined in the following pages, young men and women have been able to prepare articles that have been accepted by many newspaper and magazine editors. The success that these students have achieved leads the author to believe that others who desire to write special articles may be aided by the suggestions given in this book.
Although innumerable books on short-story writing have been published, no attempt has hitherto been made to discuss in detail the writing of special feature articles. In the absence of any generally accepted method of approach to the subject, it has been necessary to work out a systematic classification of the various types of articles and of the different kinds of titles, beginnings, and similar details, as well as to supply names by which to identify them.
A careful analysis of current practice in the writing of special feature stories and popular magazine articles is the basis of the methods presented. In this analysis an effort has been made to show the application of the principles of composition to the writing of articles. Examples taken from representative newspapers and magazines are freely used to illustrate the methods discussed. To encourage students to analyze typical articles, the second part of the book is devoted to a collection of newspaper and magazine articles of various types, with an outline for the analysis of them.
Particular emphasis is placed on methods of popularizing such knowledge as is not available to the general reader. This has been done in the belief that it is important for the average person to know of the progress that is being made in every field of human endeavor, in order that he may, if possible, apply the results to his own affairs. The problem, therefore, is to show aspiring writers how to present discoveries, inventions, new methods, and every significant advance in knowledge, in an accurate and attractive form.
To train students to write articles for newspapers and popular magazines may, perhaps, be regarded by some college instructors in composition as an undertaking scarcely worth their while. They would doubtless prefer to encourage their students to write what is commonly called "literature." The fact remains, nevertheless, that the average undergraduate cannot write anything that approximates literature, whereas experience has shown that many students can write acceptable popular articles. Moreover, since the overwhelming majority of Americans read only newspapers and magazines, it is by no means an unimportant task for our universities to train writers to supply the steady demand for well-written articles. The late Walter Hines Page, founder of the World's Work and former editor of the Atlantic Monthly, presented the whole situation effectively in an article on "The Writer and the University," when he wrote:
The journeymen writers write almost all that almost all Americans read. This is a fact that we love to fool ourselves about. We talk about "literature" and we talk about "hack writers," implying that the reading that we do is of literature. The truth all the while is, we read little else than the writing of the hacks—living hacks, that is, men and women who write for pay. We may hug the notion that our life and thought are not really affected by current literature, that we read the living writers only for utilitarian reasons, and that our real intellectual life is fed by the great dead writers. But hugging this delusion does not change the fact that the intellectual life even of most educated persons, and certainly of the mass of the population, is fed chiefly by the writers of our own time....
Every editor of a magazine, every editor of an earnest and worthy newspaper, every publisher of books, has dozens or hundreds of important tasks for which he cannot find capable men; tasks that require scholarship, knowledge of science, or of politics, or of industry, or of literature, along with experience in writing accurately in the language of the people.
Special feature stories and popular magazine articles constitute a type of writing particularly adapted to the ability of the novice, who has developed some facility in writing, but who may not have sufficient maturity or talent to undertake successful short-story writing or other distinctly literary work. Most special articles cannot be regarded as literature. Nevertheless, they afford the young writer an opportunity to develop whatever ability he possesses. Such writing teaches him four things that are invaluable to any one who aspires to do literary work. It trains him to observe what is going on about him, to select what will interest the average reader, to organize material effectively, and to present it attractively. If this book helps the inexperienced writer, whether he is in or out of college, to acquire these four essential qualifications for success, it will have accomplished its purpose.
For permission to reprint complete articles, the author is indebted to the editors of the Boston Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, the Boston Evening Transcript, the New York Evening Post, the Detroit News, the Milwaukee Journal, the Kansas City Star, the New York Sun, the Providence Journal, the Ohio State Journal, the New York World, the Saturday Evening Post, the Independent, the Country Gentleman, the Outlook, McClure's Magazine, Everybody's Magazine, the Delineator, the Pictorial Review, Munsey's Magazine, the American Magazine, System, Farm and Fireside, the Woman's Home Companion, the Designer, and the Newspaper Enterprise Association. The author is also under obligation to the many newspapers and magazines from which excerpts, titles, and other material have been quoted.
At every stage in the preparation of this book the author has had the advantage of the cooeperation and assistance of his wife, Alice Haskell Bleyer.
University of Wisconsin Madison, August, 1919
I. THE FIELD FOR SPECIAL ARTICLES 3
II. PREPARATION FOR SPECIAL FEATURE WRITING 14
III. FINDING SUBJECTS AND MATERIAL 25
IV. APPEAL AND PURPOSE 39
V. TYPES OF ARTICLES 52
VI. WRITING THE ARTICLE 99
VII. HOW TO BEGIN 131
VIII. STYLE 160
IX. TITLES AND HEADLINES 170
X. PREPARING AND SELLING THE MANUSCRIPT 182
XI. PHOTOGRAPHS AND OTHER ILLUSTRATIONS 193
AN OUTLINE FOR THE ANALYSIS OF SPECIAL FEATURE ARTICLES 201
TEACH CHILDREN LOVE OF ART THROUGH STORY-TELLING 204 (Boston Herald)
WHERE GIRLS LEARN TO WIELD SPADE AND HOE 206 (Christian Science Monitor)
BOYS IN SEARCH OF JOBS (Boston Transcript) 209
GIRLS AND A CAMP (New York Evening Post) 213
YOUR PORTER (Saturday Evening Post) 218
THE GENTLE ART OF BLOWING BOTTLES (Independent) 233
THE NEIGHBORHOOD PLAYHOUSE (New York World) 240
THE SINGULAR STORY OF THE MOSQUITO MAN 242 (New York Evening Post)
A COUNTY SERVICE STATION (Country Gentleman) 248
GUARDING A CITY'S WATER SUPPLY (Detroit News) 260
THE OCCUPATION AND EXERCISE CURE (Outlook) 264
THE BRENNAN MONO-RAIL CAR (McClure's Magazine) 274
A NEW POLITICAL WEDGE (Everybody's Magazine) 281
THE JOB LADY (Delineator) 293
MARK TWAIN'S FIRST SWEETHEART (Kansas City Star) 299
FOUR MEN OF HUMBLE BIRTH HOLD WORLD DESTINY IN 305 THEIR HANDS (Milwaukee Journal)
THE CONFESSIONS OF A COLLEGE PROFESSOR'S WIFE 307 (Saturday Evening Post)
A PARADISE FOR A PENNY (Boston Transcript) 326
WANTED: A HOME ASSISTANT (Pictorial Review) 331
SIX YEARS OF TEA ROOMS (New York Sun) 336
BY PARCEL POST (Country Gentleman) 341
SALES WITHOUT SALESMANSHIP (Saturday Evening Post) 349
THE ACCIDENT THAT GAVE US WOOD-PULP PAPER 356 (Munsey's Magazine)
CENTENNIAL OF THE FIRST STEAMSHIP TO CROSS THE ATLANTIC 360 (Providence Journal)
SEARCHING FOR THE LOST ATLANTIS 364 (Syndicate Sunday Magazine Section)
HOW TO WRITE SPECIAL FEATURE ARTICLES
THE FIELD FOR SPECIAL ARTICLES
ORIGIN OF SPECIAL ARTICLES. The rise of popular magazines and of magazine sections of daily newspapers during the last thirty years has resulted in a type of writing known as the "special feature article." Such articles, presenting interesting and timely subjects in popular form, are designed to attract a class of readers that were not reached by the older literary periodicals. Editors of newspapers and magazines a generation ago began to realize that there was no lack of interest on the part of the general public in scientific discoveries and inventions, in significant political and social movements, in important persons and events. Magazine articles on these themes, however, had usually been written by specialists who, as a rule, did not attempt to appeal to the "man in the street," but were satisfied to reach a limited circle of well-educated readers.
To create a larger magazine-reading public, editors undertook to develop a popular form and style that would furnish information as attractively as possible. The perennial appeal of fiction gave them a suggestion for the popularization of facts. The methods of the short story, of the drama, and even of the melodrama, applied to the presentation of general information, provided a means for catching the attention of the casual reader.
Daily newspapers had already discovered the advantage of giving the day's news in a form that could be read rapidly with the maximum degree of interest by the average man and woman. Certain so-called sensational papers had gone a step further in these attempts to give added attractiveness to news and had emphasized its melodramatic aspects. Other papers had seen the value of the "human interest" phases of the day's happenings. It was not surprising, therefore, that Sunday editors of newspapers should undertake to apply to special articles the same methods that had proved successful in the treatment of news.
The product of these efforts at popularization was the special feature article, with its story-like form, its touches of description, its "human interest," its dramatic situations, its character portrayal—all effectively used to furnish information and entertainment for that rapid reader, the "average American."
DEFINITION OF A SPECIAL ARTICLE. A special feature article may be defined as a detailed presentation of facts in an interesting form adapted to rapid reading, for the purpose of entertaining or informing the average person. It usually deals with (1) recent news that is of sufficient importance to warrant elaboration; (2) timely or seasonal topics not directly connected with news; or (3) subjects of general interest that have no immediate connection with current events.
Although frequently concerned with news, the special feature article is more than a mere news story. It aims to supplement the bare facts of the news report by giving more detailed information regarding the persons, places, and circumstances that appear in the news columns. News must be published as fast as it develops, with only enough explanatory material to make it intelligible. The special article, written with the perspective afforded by an interval of a few days or weeks, fills in the bare outlines of the hurried news sketch with the life and color that make the picture complete.
The special feature article must not be confused with the type of news story called the "feature," or "human interest," story. The latter undertakes to present minor incidents of the day's news in an entertaining form. Like the important news story, it is published immediately after the incident occurs. Its purpose is to appeal to newspaper readers by bringing out the humorous and pathetic phases of events that have little real news value. It exemplifies, therefore, merely one distinctive form of news report.
The special feature article differs from the older type of magazine article, not so much in subject as in form and style. The most marked difference lies in the fact that it supplements the recognized methods of literary and scientific exposition with the more striking devices of narrative, descriptive, and dramatic writing.
SCOPE OF FEATURE ARTICLES. The range of subjects for special articles is as wide as human knowledge and experience. Any theme is suitable that can be made interesting to a considerable number of persons. A given topic may make either a local or a general appeal. If interest in it is likely to be limited to persons in the immediate vicinity of the place with which the subject is connected, the article is best adapted to publication in a local newspaper. If the theme is one that appeals to a larger public, the article is adapted to a periodical of general circulation. Often local material has interest for persons in many other communities, and hence is suitable either for newspapers or for magazines.
Some subjects have a peculiar appeal to persons engaged in a particular occupation or devoted to a particular avocation or amusement. Special articles on these subjects of limited appeal are adapted to agricultural, trade, or other class publications, particularly to such of these periodicals as present their material in a popular rather than a technical manner.
THE NEWSPAPER FIELD. Because of their number and their local character, daily newspapers afford a ready medium for the publication of special articles, or "special feature stories," as they are generally called in newspaper offices. Some newspapers publish these articles from day to day on the editorial page or in other parts of the paper. Many more papers have magazine sections on Saturday or Sunday made up largely of such "stories." Some of these special sections closely resemble regular magazines in form, cover, and general make-up.
The articles published in newspapers come from three sources: (1) syndicates that furnish a number of newspapers in different cities with special articles, illustrations, and other matter, for simultaneous publication; (2) members of the newspaper's staff; that is, reporters, correspondents, editors, or special writers employed for the purpose; (3) so-called "free-lance" writers, professional or amateur, who submit their "stories" to the editor of the magazine section.
Reporters, correspondents, and other regular members of the staff may be assigned to write special feature stories, or may prepare such stories on their own initiative for submission to the editor of the magazine section. In many offices regular members of the staff are paid for special feature stories in addition to their salaries, especially when the subjects are not assigned to them and when the stories are prepared in the writer's own leisure time. Other papers expect their regular staff members to furnish the paper with whatever articles they may write, as a part of the work covered by their salary. If a paper has one or more special feature writers on its staff, it may pay them a fixed salary or may employ them "on space"; that is, pay them at a fixed "space rate" for the number of columns that an article fills when printed.
Newspaper correspondents, who are usually paid at space rates for news stories, may add to their monthly "string," or amount of space, by submitting special feature articles in addition to news. They may also submit articles to other papers that do not compete with their own paper. Ordinarily a newspaper expects a correspondent to give it the opportunity of printing any special feature stories that he may write.
Free-lance writers, who are not regularly employed by newspapers or magazines as staff members, submit articles for the editor's consideration and are paid at space rates. Sometimes a free lance will outline an article in a letter or in personal conference with an editor in order to get his approval before writing it, but, unless the editor knows the writer's work, he is not likely to promise to accept the completed article. To the writer there is an obvious advantage in knowing that the subject as he outlines it is or is not an acceptable one. If an editor likes the work of a free lance, he may suggest subjects for articles, or may even ask him to prepare an article on a given subject. Freelance writers, by selling their work at space rates, can often make more money than they would receive as regular members of a newspaper staff.
For the amateur the newspaper offers an excellent field. First, in every city of any size there is at least one daily newspaper, and almost all these papers publish special feature stories. Second, feature articles on local topics, the material for which is right at the amateur's hand, are sought by most newspapers. Third, newspaper editors are generally less critical of form and style than are magazine editors. With some practice an inexperienced writer may acquire sufficient skill to prepare an acceptable special feature story for publication in a local paper, and even if he is paid little or nothing for it, he will gain experience from seeing his work in print.
The space rate paid for feature articles is usually proportionate to the size of the city in which the newspaper is published. In small cities papers seldom pay more than $1 a column; in larger places the rate is about $3 a column; in still larger ones, $5; and in the largest, from $8 to $10. In general the column rate for special feature stories is the same as that paid for news stories.
WHAT NEWSPAPERS WANT. Since timeliness is the keynote of the newspaper, current topics, either growing out of the news of the week or anticipating coming events, furnish the subjects for most special feature stories. The news columns from day to day provide room for only concise announcements of such news as a scientific discovery, an invention, the death of an interesting person, a report on social or industrial conditions, proposed legislation, the razing of a landmark, or the dedication of a new building. Such news often arouses the reader's curiosity to know more of the persons, places, and circumstances mentioned. In an effort to satisfy this curiosity, editors of magazine sections print special feature stories based on news.
By anticipating approaching events, an editor is able to supply articles that are timely for a particular issue of his paper. Two classes of subjects that he usually looks forward to in this way are: first, those concerned with local, state, and national anniversaries; and second, those growing out of seasonal occasions, such as holidays, vacations, the opening of schools and colleges, moving days, commencements, the opening of hunting and fishing seasons.
The general policy of a newspaper with regard to special feature stories is the same as its policy concerning news. Both are determined by the character of its circulation. A paper that is read largely by business and professional men provides news and special articles that satisfy such readers. A paper that aims to reach the so-called masses naturally selects news and features that will appeal to them. If a newspaper has a considerable circulation outside the city where it is published, the editors, in framing their policy, cannot afford to overlook their suburban and rural readers. The character of its readers, in a word, determines the character of a paper's special feature stories.
The newspaper is primarily local in character. A city, a state, or at most a comparatively small section of the whole country, is its particular field. Besides the news of its locality, it must, of course, give significant news of the world at large. So, too, in addition to local feature articles, it should furnish special feature stories of a broader scope. This distinctively local character of newspapers differentiates them from magazines of national circulation in the matter of acceptable subjects for special articles.
The frequency of publication of newspapers, as well as their ephemeral character, leads, in many instances, to the choice of comparatively trivial topics for some articles. Merely to give readers entertaining matter with which to occupy their leisure at the end of a day's work or on Sunday, some papers print special feature stories on topics of little or no importance, often written in a light vein. Articles with no more serious purpose than that of helping readers to while away a few spare moments are obviously better adapted to newspapers, which are read rapidly and immediately cast aside, than to periodicals.
The sensationalism that characterizes the policy of some newspapers affects alike their news columns and their magazine sections. Gossip, scandal, and crime lend themselves to melodramatic treatment as readily in special feature articles as in news stories. On the other hand, the relatively few magazines that undertake to attract readers by sensationalism, usually do so by means of short stories and serials rather than by special articles.
All newspapers, in short, use special feature stories on local topics, some papers print trivial ones, and others "play up" sensational material; whereas practically no magazine publishes articles of these types.
SUNDAY MAGAZINE SECTIONS. The character and scope of special articles for the Sunday magazine section of newspapers have been well summarized by two well-known editors of such sections. Mr. John O'Hara Cosgrove, editor of the New York Sunday World Magazine, and formerly editor of Everybody's Magazine, gives this as his conception of the ideal Sunday magazine section:
The real function of the Sunday Magazine, to my thinking, is to present the color and romance of the news, the most authoritative opinions on the issues and events of the day, and to chronicle promptly the developments of science as applied to daily life. In the grind of human intercourse all manner of curious, heroic, delightful things turn up, and for the most part, are dismissed in a passing note. Behind every such episode are human beings and a story, and these, if fairly and artfully explained, are the very stuff of romance. Into every great city men are drifting daily from the strange and remote places of the world where they have survived perilous hazards and seen rare spectacles. Such adventures are the treasure troves of the skilful reporter. The cross currents and reactions that lead up to any explosion of greed or passion that we call crime are often worth following, not only for their plots, but as proofs of the pain and terror of transgression. Brave deeds or heroic resistances are all too seldom presented in full length in the news, and generously portrayed prove the nobility inherent in every-day life.
The broad domain of the Sunday magazine editor covers all that may be rare and curious or novel in the arts and sciences, in music and verse, in religion and the occult, on the stage and in sport. Achievements and controversies are ever culminating in these diverse fields, and the men and women actors therein make admirable subjects for his pages. Provided the editor has at his disposal skilled writers who have the fine arts of vivid and simple exposition and of the brief personal sketch, there is nothing of human interest that may not be presented.
The ideal Sunday magazine, as Mr. Frederick Boyd Stevenson, Sunday editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, sees it, he describes thus:
The new Sunday magazine of the newspaper bids fair to be a crisp, sensible review and critique of the live world. It has developed a special line of writers who have learned that a character sketch and interview of a man makes you "see" the man face to face and talk with him yourself. If he has done anything that gives him a place in the news of to-day, he is presented to you. You know the man.
It seems to me that the leading feature of the Sunday magazine should be the biggest topic that will be before the public on the Sunday that the newspaper is printed. It should be written by one who thoroughly knows his subject, who is forceful in style and fluent in words, who can make a picture that his readers can see, and seeing, realize. So every other feature of the Sunday magazine should have points of human interest, either by contact with the news of the day or with men and women who are doing something besides getting divorces and creating scandals.
I firmly believe that the coming Sunday magazine will contain articles of information without being dull or encyclopaedic, articles of adventure that are real and timely, articles of scientific discoveries that are authentic, interviews with men and women who have messages, and interpretations of news and analyses of every-day themes, together with sketches, poems, and essays that are not tedious, but have a reason for being printed.
THE MAGAZINE FIELD. The great majority of magazines differ from all newspapers in one important respect—extent of circulation. Popular magazines have a nation-wide distribution. It is only among agricultural and trade journals that we find a distinctly sectional circulation. Some of these publications serve subscribers in only one state or section, and others issue separate state or sectional editions. The best basis of differentiation among magazines, then, is not the extent of circulation but the class of readers appealed to, regardless of the part of the country in which the readers live. The popular general magazine, monthly or weekly, aims to attract readers of all classes in all parts of the United States.
HOW MAGAZINES GET MATERIAL. Magazine articles come from (1) regular members of the magazine's staff, (2) professional or amateur free-lance writers, (3) specialists who write as an avocation, and (4) readers of the periodical who send in material based on their own experience.
The so-called "staff system" of magazine editing, in accordance with which practically all the articles are prepared by writers regularly employed by the publication, has been adopted by a few general magazines and by a number of class periodicals. The staff is recruited from writers and editors on newspapers and other magazines. Its members often perform various editorial duties in addition to writing articles. Publications edited in this way buy few if any articles from outsiders.
Magazines that do not follow the staff system depend largely or entirely on contributors. Every editor daily receives many manuscripts submitted by writers on their own initiative. From these he selects the material best adapted to his publication. Experienced writers often submit an outline of an article to a magazine editor for his approval before preparing the material for publication. Free-lance writers of reputation may be asked by magazine editors to prepare articles on given subjects.
In addition to material obtained in these ways, articles may be secured from specialists who write as an avocation. An editor generally decides on the subject that he thinks will interest his readers at a given time and then selects the authority best fitted to treat it in a popular way. To induce well-known men to prepare such articles, an editor generally offers them more than he normally pays.
A periodical may encourage its readers to send in short articles giving their own experiences and explaining how to do something in which they have become skilled. These personal experience articles have a reality and "human interest" that make them eminently readable. To obtain them magazines sometimes offer prizes for the best, reserving the privilege of publishing acceptable articles that do not win an award. Aspiring writers should take advantage of these prize contests as a possible means of getting both publication and money for their work.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR UNKNOWN WRITERS. The belief is common among novices that because they are unknown their work is likely to receive little or no consideration from editors. As a matter of fact, in the majority of newspaper and magazine offices all unsolicited manuscripts are considered strictly on their merits. The unknown writer has as good a chance as anybody of having his manuscript accepted, provided that his work has merit comparable with that of more experienced writers.
With the exception of certain newspapers that depend entirely on syndicates for their special features, and of a few popular magazines that have the staff system or that desire only the work of well-known writers, every publication welcomes special articles and short stories by novices. Moreover, editors take pride in the fact that from time to time they "discover" writers whose work later proves popular. They not infrequently tell how they accepted a short story, an article, or some verse by an author of whom they had never before heard, because they were impressed with the quality of it, and how the verdict of their readers confirmed their own judgment.
The relatively small number of amateurs who undertake special articles, compared with the hundreds of thousands who try their hand at short stories, makes the opportunities for special feature writers all the greater. Then, too, the number of professional writers of special articles is comparatively small. This is particularly true of writers who are able effectively to popularize scientific and technical material, as well as of those who can present in popular form the results of social and economic investigations.
It is not too much to say, therefore, that any writer who is willing (1) to study the interests and the needs of newspaper and magazine readers, (2) to gather carefully the material for his articles, and (3) to present it accurately and attractively, may be sure that his work will receive the fullest consideration in almost every newspaper and magazine office in the country, and will be accepted whenever it is found to merit publication.
WOMEN AS FEATURE WRITERS. Since the essential qualifications just enumerated are not limited to men, women are quite as well fitted to write special feature and magazine articles as are their brothers in the craft. In fact, woman's quicker sympathies and readier emotional response to many phases of life give her a distinct advantage. Her insight into the lives of others, and her intuitive understanding of them, especially fit her to write good "human interest" articles. Both the delicacy of touch and the chatty, personal tone that characterize the work of many young women, are well suited to numerous topics.
In some fields, such as cooking, sewing, teaching, the care of children, and household management, woman's greater knowledge and understanding of conditions furnish her with topics that are vital to other women and often not uninteresting to men. The entry of women into occupations hitherto open only to men is bringing new experiences to many women, and is furnishing women writers with additional fields from which to draw subjects and material. Ever since the beginning of popular magazines and of special feature writing for newspapers, women writers have proved their ability, but at no time have the opportunities for them been greater than at present.
PREPARATION FOR SPECIAL FEATURE WRITING
QUALIFICATIONS FOR FEATURE WRITING. To attain success as a writer of special feature articles a person must possess at least four qualifications: (1) ability to find subjects that will interest the average man and woman, and to see the picturesque, romantic, and significant phases of these subjects; (2) a sympathetic understanding of the lives and interests of the persons about whom and for whom he writes; (3) thoroughness and accuracy in gathering material; (4) skill to portray and to explain clearly, accurately, and attractively.
The much vaunted sense of news values commonly called a "nose for news," whether innate or acquired, is a prime requisite. Like the newspaper reporter, the writer of special articles must be able to recognize what at a given moment will interest the average reader. Like the reporter, also, he must know how much it will interest him. An alert, responsive attitude of mind toward everything that is going on in the world, and especially in that part of the world immediately around him, will reveal a host of subjects. By reading newspapers, magazines, and books, as well as by intercourse with persons of various classes, a writer keeps in contact with what people are thinking and talking about, in the world at large and in his own community. In this way he finds subjects and also learns how to connect his subjects with events and movements of interest the country over.
Not only should he be quick to recognize a good subject; he must be able to see the attractive and significant aspects of it. He must understand which of its phases touch most closely the life and the interests of the average person for whom he is writing. He must look at things from "the other fellow's" point of view. A sympathetic insight into the lives of his readers is necessary for every writer who hopes to quicken his subject with vital interest.
The alert mental attitude that constantly focuses the writer's attention on the men and women around him has been called "human curiosity," which Arnold Bennett says "counts among the highest social virtues (as indifference counts among the basest defects), because it leads to the disclosure of the causes of character and temperament and thereby to a better understanding of the springs of human conduct." The importance of curiosity and of a keen sense of wonder has been emphasized as follows by Mr. John M. Siddall, editor of the American Magazine, who directed his advice to college students interested in the opportunities afforded by writing as a profession:
A journalist or writer must have consuming curiosity about other human beings—the most intense interest in their doings and motives and thoughts. It comes pretty near being the truth to say that a great journalist is a super-gossip—not about trivial things but about important things. Unless a man has a ceaseless desire to learn what is going on in the heads of others, he won't be much of a journalist—for how can you write about others unless you know about others?
In journalism men are needed who have a natural sense of wonder.... You must wonder at man's achievements, at man's stupidity, at his honesty, crookedness, courage, cowardice—at everything that is remarkable about him wherever and whenever it appears. If you haven't this sense of wonder, you will never write a novel or become a great reporter, because you simply won't see anything to write about. Men will be doing amazing things under your very eyes—and you won't even know it.
Ability to investigate a subject thoroughly, and to gather material accurately, is absolutely necessary for any writer who aims to do acceptable work. Careless, inaccurate writers are the bane of the magazine editor's life. Whenever mistakes appear in an article, readers are sure to write to the editor calling his attention to them. Moreover, the discovery of incorrect statements impairs the confidence of readers in the magazine. If there is reason to doubt the correctness of any data in an article, the editor takes pains to check over the facts carefully before publication. He is not inclined to accept work a second time from a writer who has once proved unreliable.
To interpret correctly the essential significance of data is as important as to record them accurately. Readers want to know the meaning of facts and figures, and it is the writer's mission to bring out this meaning. A sympathetic understanding of the persons who figure in his article is essential, not only to portray them accurately, but to give his story the necessary "human interest." To observe accurately, to feel keenly, and to interpret sympathetically and correctly whatever he undertakes to write about, should be a writer's constant aim.
Ability to write well enough to make the average person see as clearly, feel as keenly, and understand as well as he does himself the persons and things that he is portraying and explaining, is obviously the sine qua non of success. Ease, fluency, and originality of diction, either natural or acquired, the writer must possess if his work is to have distinction.
TRAINING FOR FEATURE WRITING. The ideal preparation for a writer of special articles would include a four-year college course, at least a year's work as a newspaper reporter, and practical experience in some other occupation or profession in which the writer intends to specialize in his writing. Although not all persons who desire to do special feature work will be able to prepare themselves in this way, most of them can obtain some part of this preliminary training.
A college course, although not absolutely essential for success, is generally recognized to be of great value as a preparation for writing. College training aims to develop the student's ability to observe accurately, to think logically, and to express his ideas clearly and effectively—all of which is vital to good special feature writing. In addition, such a course gives a student a knowledge of many subjects that he will find useful for his articles. A liberal education furnishes a background that is invaluable for all kinds of literary work. Universities also offer excellent opportunities for specialization. Intensive study in some one field of knowledge, such as agriculture, banking and finance, home economics, public health, social service, government and politics, or one of the physical sciences, makes it possible for a writer to specialize in his articles. In choosing a department in which to do special work in college, a student may be guided by his own tastes and interests, or he may select some field in which there is considerable demand for well trained writers. The man or woman with a specialty has a superior equipment for writing.
With the development of courses in journalism in many colleges and universities has come the opportunity to obtain instruction and practice, not only in the writing of special feature and magazine articles, but also in newspaper reporting, editing, and short story writing. To write constantly under guidance and criticism, such as it is impossible to secure in newspaper and magazine offices, will develop whatever ability a student possesses.
Experience as a newspaper reporter supplements college training in journalism and is the best substitute for college work generally available to persons who cannot go to college. For any one who aspires to write, reporting has several distinct advantages and some dangers.
The requirement that news be printed at the earliest possible moment teaches newspaper workers to collect facts and opinions quickly and to write them up rapidly under pressure. Newspaper work also develops a writer's appreciation of what constitutes news and what determines news values; that is, it helps him to recognize at once, not only what interests the average reader, but how much it interests him. Then, too, in the course of his round of news gathering a reporter sees more of human life under a variety of circumstances than do workers in any other occupation. Such experience not only supplies him with an abundance of material, but gives him a better understanding and a more sympathetic appreciation of the life of all classes.
To get the most out of his reporting, a writer must guard against two dangers. One is the temptation to be satisfied with superficial work hastily done. The necessity of writing rapidly under pressure and of constantly handling similar material, encourages neglect of the niceties of structure and of style. In the rush of rapid writing, the importance of care in the choice of words and in the arrangement of phrases and clauses is easily forgotten. Even though well-edited newspapers insist on the highest possible degree of accuracy in presenting news, the exigencies of newspaper publishing often make it impossible to verify facts or to attain absolute accuracy. Consequently a reporter may drop into the habit of being satisfied with less thorough methods of collecting and presenting his material than are demanded by the higher standards of magazine writing.
The second danger is that he may unconsciously permit a more or less cynical attitude to replace the healthy, optimistic outlook with which he began his work. With the seamy side of life constantly before him, he may find that his faith in human nature is being undermined. If, however, he loses his idealism, he cannot hope to give his articles that sincerity, hopefulness, and constructive spirit demanded by the average reader, who, on the whole, retains his belief that truth and righteousness prevail.
Of the relation of newspaper reporting to the writing of magazine articles and to magazine editing, Mr. Howard Wheeler, editor of Everybody's Magazine, has said:
It is the trained newspaper men that the big periodical publishers are reaching out for. The man who has been through the newspaper mill seems to have a distinct edge on the man who enters the field without any newspaper training.
The nose for news, the ability to select and play up leads, the feel of what is of immediate public interest is just as important in magazine work as in newspaper work.
Fundamentally the purpose of a magazine article is the same as the purpose of a newspaper story—to tell a tale, to tell it directly, convincingly, and interestingly.
Practical experience in the field of his specialty is of advantage in familiarizing a writer with the actual conditions about which he is preparing himself to write. To engage for some time in farming, railroading, household management, or any other occupation, equips a person to write more intelligently about it. Such practical experience either supplements college training in a special field, or serves as the best substitute for such specialized education.
WHAT EDITORS WANT. All the requirements for success in special feature writing may be reduced to the trite dictum that editors want what they believe their readers want. Although a commonplace, it expresses a point of view that aspiring writers are apt to forget. From a purely commercial standpoint, editors are middlemen who buy from producers what they believe they can sell to their customers. Unless an editor satisfies his readers with his articles, they will cease to buy his publication. If his literary wares are not what his readers want, he finds on the newsstands unsold piles of his publication, just as a grocer finds on his shelves faded packages of an unpopular breakfast food. Both editor and grocer undertake to buy from the producers what will have a ready sale and will satisfy their customers.
The writer, then, as the producer, must furnish wares that will attract and satisfy the readers of the periodical to which he desires to sell his product. It is the ultimate consumer, not merely the editor, that he must keep in mind in selecting his material and in writing his article. "Will the reader like this?" is the question that he must ask himself at every stage of his work. Unless he can convince himself that the average person who reads the periodical to which he proposes to submit his article will like what he is writing, he cannot hope to sell it to the editor.
UNDERSTANDING THE READER. Instead of thinking of readers as a more or less indefinite mass, the writer will find it advantageous to picture to himself real persons who may be taken as typical readers. It is very easy for an author to think that what interests him and his immediate circle will appeal equally to people in general. To write successfully, however, for the Sunday magazine of a newspaper, it is necessary to keep in mind the butcher, the baker, and—if not the candlestick-maker, at least the stenographer and the department store clerk—as well as the doctor, lawyer, merchant, and chief. What is true of the Sunday newspaper is true of the popular magazine.
The most successful publisher in this country attributes the success of his periodical to the fact that he kept before his mind's eye, as a type, a family of his acquaintance in a Middle-Western town of fifteen hundred inhabitants, and shaped the policy of his publication to meet the needs and interests of all its members. An editor who desired to reach such a family would be immeasurably helped in selecting his material by trying constantly to judge from their point of view whatever passed through his hands. It is equally true that a writer desiring to gain admittance to that magazine, or to others making the same appeal, would greatly profit by visualizing as vividly as possible a similar family. Every successful writer, consciously or unconsciously, thus pictures his readers to himself.
If, for example, an author is preparing an article for an agricultural journal, he must have in his mind's eye an average farmer and this farmer's family. Not only must he see them in their surroundings; he must try to see life from their point of view. The attitude of the typical city man toward the farm and country life is very different from that of the countryman. Lack of sympathy and insight is a fatal defect in many an article intended by the writer for farm readers.
Whatever the publication to which an author desires to contribute, he should consider first, last, and all the time, its readers—their surroundings, their education, their income, their ambitions, their amusements, their prejudices—in short, he must see them as they really are.
The necessity of understanding the reader and his point of view has been well brought out by Mr. John M. Siddall, editor of the American Magazine, in the following excerpt from an editorial in that periodical:
The man who refuses to use his imagination to enable him to look at things from the other fellow's point of view simply cannot exercise wide influence. He cannot reach people.
Underneath it, somehow, lies a great law, the law of service. You can't expect to attract people unless you do something for them. The business man who has something to sell must have something useful to sell, and he must talk about it from the point of view of the people to whom he wants to sell his goods. In the same way, the journalist, the preacher, and the politician must look at things from the point of view of those they would reach. They must feel the needs of others and then reach out and meet those needs. They can never have a large following unless they give something. The same law runs into the human relation. How we abhor the man who talks only about himself—the man who never inquires about our troubles, our problems; the man who never puts himself in our place, but unimaginatively and unsympathetically goes on and on, egotistically hammering away on the only subject that interests him—namely himself.
STUDYING NEWSPAPERS AND MAGAZINES. Since every successful publication may be assumed to be satisfying its readers to a considerable degree, the best way to determine what kind of readers it has, and what they are interested in, is to study the contents carefully. No writer should send an article to a publication before he has examined critically several of its latest issues. In fact, no writer should prepare an article before deciding to just what periodical he wishes to submit it. The more familiar he is with the periodical the better are his chances of having his contribution accepted.
In analyzing a newspaper or magazine in order to determine the type of reader to which it appeals, the writer should consider the character of the subjects in its recent issues, and the point of view from which these subjects are presented. Every successful periodical has a distinct individuality, which may be regarded as an expression of the editor's idea of what his readers expect of his publication. To become a successful contributor to a periodical, a writer must catch the spirit that pervades its fiction and its editorials, as well as its special articles.
In his effort to determine the kind of topics preferred by a given publication, a writer may at first glance decide that timeliness is the one element that dominates their choice, but a closer examination of the articles in one or more issues will reveal a more specific basis of selection. Thus, one Sunday paper will be found to contain articles on the latest political, sociological, and literary topics, while another deals almost exclusively with society leaders, actors and actresses, and other men and women whose recent experiences or adventures have brought them into prominence.
It is of even greater value to find out by careful reading of the entire contents of several numbers of a periodical, the exact point of view from which the material is treated. Every editor aims to present the contents of his publication in the way that will make the strongest appeal to his readers. This point of view it is the writer's business to discover and adopt.
ANALYSIS OF SPECIAL ARTICLES. An inexperienced writer who desires to submit special feature stories to newspapers should begin by analyzing thoroughly the stories of this type in the daily papers published in his own section of the country. Usually in the Saturday or Sunday issues he will find typical articles on topics connected with the city and with the state or states in which the paper circulates. The advantage of beginning his study of newspaper stories with those published in papers near his home lies in the fact that he is familiar with the interests of the readers of these papers and can readily understand their point of view. By noting the subjects, the point of view, the form, the style, the length, and the illustrations, he will soon discover what these papers want, or rather, what the readers of these papers want. The "Outline for the Analysis of Special Articles" in Part II will indicate the points to keep in mind in studying these articles.
In order to get a broader knowledge of the scope and character of special feature stories, a writer may well extend his studies to the magazine sections of the leading papers of the country. From the work of the most experienced and original of the feature writers, which is generally to be found in these metropolitan papers, the novice will derive no little inspiration as well as a valuable knowledge of technique.
The methods suggested for analyzing special feature stories in newspapers are applicable also to the study of magazine articles. Magazines afford a better opportunity than do newspapers for an analysis of the different types of articles discussed in Chapter V. Since magazine articles are usually signed, it is possible to seek out and study the work of various successful authors in order to determine wherein lies the effectiveness of their writing. Beginning with the popular weekly and monthly magazines, a writer may well extend his study to those periodicals that appeal to particular classes, such as women's magazines, agricultural journals, and trade publications.
IDEALS IN FEATURE WRITING. After thoughtful analysis of special articles in all kinds of newspapers and magazines, the young writer with a critical sense developed by reading English literature may come to feel that much of the writing in periodicals falls far short of the standards of excellence established by the best authors. Because he finds that the average uncritical reader not only accepts commonplace work but is apparently attracted by meretricious devices in writing, he may conclude that high literary standards are not essential to popular success. The temptation undoubtedly is great both for editors and writers to supply articles that are no better than the average reader demands, especially in such ephemeral publications as newspapers and popular magazines. Nevertheless, the writer who yields to this temptation is sure to produce only mediocre work. If he is satisfied to write articles that will be characterized merely as "acceptable," he will never attain distinction.
The special feature writer owes it both to himself and to his readers to do the best work of which he is capable. It is his privilege not only to inform and to entertain the public, but to create better taste and a keener appreciation of good writing. That readers do not demand better writing in their newspapers and magazines does not mean that they are unappreciative of good work. Nor do originality and precision in style necessarily "go over the heads" of the average person. Whenever writers and editors give the public something no better than it is willing to accept, they neglect a great opportunity to aid in the development of better literary taste, particularly on the part of the public whose reading is largely confined to newspapers and periodicals.
Because of the commercial value of satisfying his readers, an editor occasionally assumes that he must give all of them whatever some of them crave. "We are only giving the public what it wants," is his excuse for printing fiction and articles that are obviously demoralizing in their effect. A heterogeneous public inevitably includes a considerable number of individuals who are attracted by a suggestive treatment of morbid phases of life. To cater to the low desires of some readers, on the ground of "giving the public what it wants," will always be regarded by self-respecting editors and authors as indefensible.
The writer's opportunity to influence the mental, moral, and aesthetic ideals of hundreds of thousands of readers is much greater than he often realizes. When he considers the extent to which most men and women are unconsciously guided in their ideas and aspirations by what they read in newspapers and magazines, he cannot fail to appreciate his responsibility. Grasping the full significance of his special feature writing, he will no longer be content to write just well enough to sell his product, but will determine to devote his effort to producing articles that are the best of which he is capable.
FINDING SUBJECTS AND MATERIAL
SOURCES OF SUBJECTS. "What shall I write about?" is the first question that inexperienced writers ask their literary advisers. "If you haven't anything to write about, why write at all?" might be an easy answer. Most persons, as a matter of fact, have plenty to write about but do not realize it. Not lack of subjects, but inability to recognize the possibilities of what lies at hand, is their real difficulty.
The best method of finding subjects is to look at every person, every event, every experience—in short, at everything—with a view to seeing whether or not it has possibilities for a special feature article. Even in the apparently prosaic round of everyday life will be found a variety of themes. A circular letter from a business firm announcing a new policy, a classified advertisement in a newspaper, the complaint of a scrub-woman, a new variety of fruit in the grocer's window, an increase in the price of laundry work, a hurried luncheon at a cafeteria—any of the hundred and one daily experiences may suggest a "live" topic for an article.
"Every foot of ground is five feet deep with subjects; all you have to do is to scratch the surface for one," declared the editor of a popular magazine who is also a successful writer of special articles. This statement may be taken as literally true. Within the narrow confines of one's house and yard, for instance, are many topics. A year's experience with the family budget, a home-made device, an attempt to solve the servant problem, a method of making pin-money, a practical means of economizing in household management, are forms of personal experience that may be made interesting to newspaper and magazine readers. A garden on a city lot, a poultry house in a back yard, a novel form of garage, a new use for a gasoline engine, a labor-saving device on the farm, may afford equally good topics. One's own experience, always a rich field, may be supplemented by experiences of neighbors and friends.
A second source of subjects is the daily newspaper. Local news will give the writer clues that he can follow up by visiting the places mentioned, interviewing the persons concerned, and gathering other relevant material. When news comes from a distance, he can write to the persons most likely to have the desired information. In neither case can he be sure, until he has investigated, that an item of news will prove to contain sufficient available material for an article. Many pieces of news, however, are worth running down carefully, for the day's events are rich in possibilities.
Pieces of news as diverse as the following may suggest excellent subjects for special articles: the death of an interesting person, the sale of a building that has historic associations, the meeting of an uncommon group or organization, the approach of the anniversary of an event, the election or appointment of a person to a position, an unusual occupation, an odd accident, an auction, a proposed municipal improvement, the arrival of a well-known person, an official report, a legal decision, an epidemic, the arrest of a noted criminal, the passing of an old custom, the publication of the city directory, a railroad accident, a marked change in fashion in dress.
A third source of both subjects and material is the report of special studies in some field, the form of the report ranging from a paper read at a meeting to a treatise in several volumes. These reports of experiments, surveys, investigations, and other forms of research, are to be found in printed bulletins, monographs, proceedings of organizations, scientific periodicals, and new books. Government publications—federal, state, and local—giving results of investigative work done by bureaus, commissions, and committees, are public documents that may usually be had free of charge. Technical and scientific periodicals and printed proceedings of important organizations are generally available at public libraries.
As Mr. Waldemar Kaempffert, editor of Popular Science Monthly, has said:
There is hardly a paper read before the Royal Institution or the French Academy or our American engineering and chemical societies that cannot be made dramatically interesting from a human standpoint and that does not chronicle real news.
"If you want to publish something where it will never be read," a wit has observed, "print it in an official document." Government reports are filled with valuable information that remains quite unknown to the average reader unless newspapers and magazines unearth it and present it in popular form. The popularization of the contents of all kinds of scientific and technical publications affords great opportunities for the writer who can present such subjects effectively.
In addressing students of journalism on "Science and Journalism," Dr. Edwin E. Slosson, literary editor of the Independent, who was formerly a professor of chemistry, has said:
The most radical ideas of our day are not apt to be found in the popular newspaper or in queer little insurrectionary, heretical and propaganda sheets that we occasionally see, but in the technical journals and proceedings of learned societies. The real revolutions are hatched in the laboratory and study. The papers read before the annual meetings of the scientific societies, and for the most part unnoticed by the press, contain more dynamite than was ever discovered in any anarchist's shop. Political revolutions merely change the form of government or the name of the party in power. Scientific revolutions really turn the world over, and it never settles back into its former position.
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The beauty and meaning of scientific discoveries can be revealed to the general reader if there is an intermediary who can understand equally the language of the laboratory and of the street. The modern journalist knows that anything can be made interesting to anybody, if he takes pains enough with the writing of it. It is not necessary, either, to pervert scientific truths in the process of translation into the vernacular. The facts are sensational enough without any picturesque exaggeration.
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The field is not an unprofitable one even in the mercenary sense. To higher motives the task of popularizing science makes a still stronger appeal. Ignorance is the source of most of our ills. Ignorant we must always be of much that we need to know, but there is no excuse for remaining ignorant of what somebody on earth knows or has known. Rich treasure lies hidden in what President Gilman called "the bibliothecal cairn" of scientific monographs which piles up about a university. The journalist might well exchange the muckrake for the pick and dig it out.
Nothing could accelerate human progress more than to reduce the time between the discovery of a new truth and its application to the needs of mankind.... It is regarded as a great journalistic achievement when the time of transmission of a cablegram is shortened. But how much more important it is to gain a few years in learning what the men who are in advance of their age are doing than to gain a few seconds in learning what the people of Europe are doing? This lag in intellectual progress ... is something which it is the especial duty of the journalist to remove. He likes to score a beat of a few hours. Very well, if he will turn his attention to science, he can often score a beat of ten years.
The three main sources, therefore, of subjects and material for special feature and magazine articles are (1) personal observation and experience, (2) newspapers, (3) scientific and technical publications and official reports.
PERSONAL OBSERVATION. How a writer may discover subjects for newspaper feature articles in the course of his daily routine by being alive to the possibilities around him can best be shown by concrete examples.
A "community sing" in a public park gave a woman writer a good subject for a special article published in the Philadelphia North American.
In the publication of a city directory was found a timely subject for an article on the task of getting out the annual directory in a large city; the story was printed in a Sunday issue of the Boston Herald.
A glimpse of some children dressed like Arctic explorers in an outdoor school in Kansas City was evidently the origin of a special feature story on that institution, which was published in the Kansas City Star.
A woman standing guard one evening over a partially completed school building in Seattle suggested a special feature in the Seattle Post Intelligencer on the unusual occupation of night "watchman" for a woman.
While making a purchase in a drug store, a writer overheard a clerk make a request for a deposit from a woman who desired to have a prescription filled, an incident which led him to write a special feature for the New York Times on this method of discouraging persons from adding to the drug store's "morgue" of unclaimed prescriptions.
From a visit to the Children's Museum in Brooklyn was developed a feature article for the New York Herald, and from a story-telling hour at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts was evolved a feature story for the Boston Herald on the telling of stories as a means of interesting children in pictures.
Magazine articles also may originate in the writer's observation of what is going on about him. The specific instances given below, like those already mentioned, will indicate to the inexperienced writer where to look for inspiration.
A newspaper reporter who covered the criminal courts compiled the various methods of burglars and sneak thieves in gaining entrance to houses and apartments, as he heard them related in trials, and wrote a helpful article for Good Housekeeping on how to protect one's house against robbery.
The exhibition of a novel type of rack for curing seed corn gave a writer a subject for an article on this "corn tree," which was published in the Illustrated World.
During a short stop at a farm while on an automobile trip, a woman writer noticed a concrete storage cellar for vegetables, and from an interview with the farmer obtained enough material for an article, which she sold to a farm journal.
While a woman writer was making a purchase in a plumber's shop, the plumber was called to the telephone. On returning to his customer, he remarked that the call was from a woman on a farm five miles from town, who could easily have made the slight repairs herself if she had known a little about the water-supply system on her farm. From the material which the writer obtained from the plumber, she wrote an article for an agricultural paper on how plumber's bills can be avoided.
A display of canned goods in a grocer's window, with special prices for dozen and case lots, suggested an article, afterwards published in the Merchants Trade Journal, on this grocer's method of fighting mail-order competition.
PERSONAL EXPERIENCE. What we actually do ourselves, as well as what we see others do, may be turned to good use in writing articles. Personal experiences not only afford good subjects and plenty of material but are more easily handled than most other subjects, because, being very real and vital to the writer, they can the more readily be made real and vital to the reader. Many inexperienced writers overlook the possibilities of what they themselves have done and are doing.
To gain experience and impressions for their articles, special writers on newspapers even assume temporarily the roles of persons whose lives and experiences they desire to portray. One Chicago paper featured every Sunday for many weeks articles by a reporter who, in order to get material, did a variety of things just for one day, from playing in a strolling street band to impersonating a convict in the state penitentiary. Thirty years ago, when women first entered the newspaper field as special feature writers, they were sometimes sent out on "freak" assignments for special features, such as feigning injury or insanity in order to gain entrance to hospitals in the guise of patients. Recently one woman writer posed as an applicant for a position as moving-picture actress; another applied for a place as housemaid; a third donned overalls and sorted scrap-iron all day in the yard of a factory; and still another accompanied a store detective on his rounds in order to discover the methods of shop-lifting with which department stores have to contend.
It is not necessary, however, to go so far afield to obtain personal experiences, as is shown by the following newspaper and magazine articles based on what the writers found in the course of their everyday pursuits.
The results obtained from cultivating a quarter-acre lot in the residence district of a city of 100,000 population were told by a writer in the Country Gentleman.
A woman's experience with bees was related in Good Housekeeping under the title, "What I Did with Bees."
Experience in screening a large porch on his house furnished a writer with the necessary information for a practical story in Popular Mechanics.
Some tests that he made on the power of automobiles gave a young engineer the suggestion for an article on the term "horse power" as applied to motor-cars; the article was published in the Illustrated World.
"Building a Business on Confidence" was the title of a personal experience article published in System.
The evils of tenant farming, as illustrated by the experiences of a farmer's wife in moving during the very early spring, were vividly depicted in an article in Farm and Fireside.
The diary of an automobile trip from Chicago to Buffalo was embodied in an article by a woman writer, which she sold to the Woman's Home Companion.
Both usual and unusual means employed to earn their college expenses have served as subjects for many special articles written by undergraduates and graduates.
Innumerable articles of the "how-to-do-something" type are accepted every year from inexperienced writers by publications that print such useful information. Results of experiments in solving various problems of household management are so constantly in demand by women's magazines and women's departments in newspapers, that housewives who like to write find a ready market for articles based on their own experience.
CONFESSION ARTICLES. One particular type of personal experience article that enjoys great popularity is the so-called "confession story." Told in the first person, often anonymously, a well-written confession article is one of the most effective forms in which to present facts and experiences.
Personal experiences of others, as well as the writer's own, may be given in confession form if the writer is able to secure sufficiently detailed information from some one else to make the story probable.
A few examples will illustrate the kind of subjects that have been presented successfully in the confession form.
Some criticisms of a typical college and of college life were given anonymously in the Outlook under the title, "The Confessions of an Undergraduate."
"The Story of a Summer Hotel Waitress," published in the Independent, and characterized by the editor as "a frank exposure of real life below stairs in the average summer hotel," told how a student in a normal school tried to earn her school expenses by serving as a waitress during the summer vacation.
In Farm and Fireside was published "The Confession of a Timber Buyer," an article exposing the methods employed by some unscrupulous lumber companies in buying timber from farmers.
"How I Cured Myself of Being Too Sensitive," with the sub-title, "The Autobiography of a Young Business Man Who Nearly Went to Smash through Jealousy," was the subject of a confession article in the American Magazine.
An exposure of the impositions practiced by an itinerant quack was made in a series of three confession articles, in Sunday issues of the Kansas City Star, written by a young man whom the doctor had employed to drive him through the country districts.
To secure confession features from readers, magazines have offered prizes for the best short articles on such topics as, "The Best Thing Experience has Taught Me," "How I Overcame My Greatest Fault," "The Day of My Great Temptation," "What Will Power Did for Me."
SUBJECTS FROM THE DAY'S NEWS. In his search for subjects a writer will find numberless clues in newspapers. Since the first information concerning all new things is usually given to the world through the columns of the daily press, these columns are scanned carefully by writers in search of suggestions. Any part of the paper, from the "want ads" to the death notices or the real estate transfers, may be the starting point of a special article. The diversity of topics suggested by newspapers is shown by the following examples.
The death of a well-known clown in New York was followed by a special feature story about him in the Sunday magazine section of a Chicago paper.
A newspaper report of the discovery in Wisconsin of a method of eliminating printing ink from pulp made from old newspapers, so that white print paper might be produced from it, led a young writer to send for information to the discoverer of the process, and with these additional details he wrote an article that was published in the Boston Transcript.
A news story about a clever swindler in Boston, who obtained possession of negotiable securities by means of a forged certified check, was made the basis of a special feature story in the Providence Journal on the precautions to be taken against losses from forged checks.
News of the energetic manner in which a New Jersey sheriff handled a strike suggested a personality sketch of him that appeared in the American Magazine.
The publication, in a newspaper, of some results of a survey of rural school conditions in a Middle Western state, led to two articles on why the little red schoolhouse fails, one of which was published in the Country Gentleman, and the other in the Independent.
From a brief news item about the success of a farmer's widow and her daughter, in taking summer boarders in their old farmhouse, was developed a practical article telling how to secure and provide for these boarders on the ordinary farm. The article appeared in Farm and Fireside.
OFFICIAL DOCUMENTS. Bulletins and reports of government officials are a mine for both subjects and material. For new developments in agriculture one may consult the bulletins of the United States Department of Agriculture and those of state agricultural experiment stations. Reports on new and better methods of preparing food, and other phases of home economics, are also printed in these bulletins. State industrial commissions publish reports that furnish valuable material on industrial accidents, working-men's insurance, sanitary conditions in factories, and the health of workers. Child welfare is treated in reports of federal, state, and city child-welfare boards. The reports of the Interstate Commerce Commission, like those of state railroad commissions, contain interesting material on various phases of transportation. State and federal census reports often furnish good subjects and material. In short, nearly every official report of any kind may be a fruitful source of ideas for special articles.
The few examples given below suggest various possibilities for the use of these sources.
Investigations made by a commission of American medical experts constituting the Committee on Resuscitation from Mine Gases, under the direction of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, supplied a writer in the Boston Transcript with material for a special feature story on the dangers involved in the use of the pulmotor.
A practical bulletin, prepared by the home economics department of a state university, on the best arrangement of a kitchen to save needless steps, was used for articles in a number of farm journals.
From a bulletin of the U.S. Department of Agriculture a writer prepared an article on "the most successful farmer in the United States" and what he did with twenty acres, for the department of "Interesting People" in the American Magazine.
The results of a municipal survey of Springfield, Illinois, as set forth in official reports, were the basis of an article in the Outlook on "What is a Survey?" Reports of a similar survey at Lawrence, Kansas, were used for a special feature story in the Kansas City Star.
"Are You a Good or a Poor Penman?" was the title of an article in Popular Science Monthly based on a chart prepared by the Russell Sage Foundation in connection with some of its educational investigations.
The New York Evening Post published an interesting special article on the "life tables" that had been prepared by the division of vital statistics of the Bureau of the Census, to show the expectation of life at all ages in the six states from which vital statistics were obtained.
A special feature story on how Panama hats are woven, as printed in the Ohio State Journal, was based entirely on a report of the United States consul general at Guayaquil, Ecuador.
SCIENTIFIC AND TECHNICAL PUBLICATIONS. Almost every science and every art has its own special periodicals, from which can be gleaned a large number of subjects and much valuable material that needs only to be popularized to be made attractive to the average reader. The printed proceedings of scientific and technical societies, including the papers read at their meetings, as well as monographs and books, are also valuable. How such publications may be utilized is illustrated by the articles given below.
The report of a special committee of an association of electrical engineers, given at its convention in Philadelphia, furnished a writer with material for an article on "Farming by Electricity," that was published in the Sunday edition of the Springfield Republican.
Studies of the cause of hunger, made by Prof. A.J. Carlson of the University of Chicago and published in a volume entitled "The Control of Hunger in Health and Disease," furnished the subject for an article in the Illustrated World. Earlier results of the same investigation were given in the Sunday magazine of one of the Chicago papers.
From the Journal of Heredity was gleaned material for an article entitled "What Chance Has the Poor Child?" It was printed in Every Week.
"Golfer's Foot, One of Our Newest Diseases," was the subject of a special feature in the New York Times, that was based on an article in the Medical Record.
That the canals on Mars may be only an optical illusion was demonstrated in an article in the Sunday magazine of the New York Times, by means of material obtained from a report of the section for the Observation of Mars, a division of the British Astronomical Association.
ANTICIPATING TIMELY SUBJECTS. By looking forward for weeks or even months, as editors of Sunday newspapers and of magazines are constantly doing, a writer can select subjects and gather material for articles that will be particularly appropriate at a given time. Holidays, seasonal events, and anniversaries may thus be anticipated, and special articles may be sent to editors some time in advance of the occasion that makes them timely. Not infrequently it is desirable to begin collecting material a year before the intended time of publication.
An article on fire prevention, for instance, is appropriate for the month of October just before the day set aside for calling attention to fires caused by carelessness. Months in advance, a writer might begin collecting news stories of dangerous fires resulting from carelessness; and from the annual report of the state fire marshal issued in July, he could secure statistics on the causes of fires and the extent of the losses.
To secure material for an article on the Christmas presents that children might make at a cost of twenty-five cents or less, a woman writer jotted down after one Christmas all the information that she could get from her friends; and from these notes she wrote the article early in the following summer. It was published in the November number of a magazine, at a time when children were beginning to think about making Christmas presents.
Articles on ways and means of earning college expenses are particularly appropriate for publication in the summer or early fall, when young men and women are preparing to go to college, but if in such an article a student writer intends to describe experiences other than his own, he may well begin gathering material from his fellow students some months before.
Anniversaries of various events, such as important discoveries and inventions, the death or birth of a personage, and significant historical occasions, may also be anticipated. The fiftieth anniversary of the arrival of the first railroad train in Kansas City was commemorated in a special feature story in the Kansas City Star, published the day before the anniversary. The day following the fifty-sixth anniversary of the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania, the New York Times printed in its Sunday magazine section a special article on the man who first found oil there. The centenary of the launching of the first steam-propelled ship to cross the Atlantic, was commemorated by an article in the Sunday edition of the Providence Journal. Munsey's Magazine printed an article on the semi-centennial of the discovery of the process of making paper from wood pulp.
By looking over tables giving dates of significant events, writers will find what anniversaries are approaching; or they may glean such information from news stories describing preparations made for celebrating these anniversaries.
KEEPING LISTS OF SUBJECTS. Every writer who is on the lookout for subjects and sources of material should keep a notebook constantly at hand. Subjects suggested by everyday experiences, by newspaper and magazine reading, and by a careful study of special articles in all kinds of publications, are likely to be forgotten unless they are recorded at once. A small notebook that can be carried in the pocket or in a woman's hand-bag is most convenient. Besides topics for articles, the titles of books, reports, bulletins, and other publications mentioned in conversation or in newspapers, should be jotted down as possible sources of material. Facts and figures from publications may be copied for future use. Good titles and interesting methods of treatment that a writer observes in the work of others may prove helpful in suggesting titles and methods for his own articles. Separate sections of even a small notebook may conveniently be set aside for all of these various points.
FILING MATERIAL. The writer who makes methodical preparation for his work generally has some system of filing good material so that it will be at hand when he wants it. One excellent filing device that is both inexpensive and capable of indefinite expansion consists of a number of stout manilla envelopes, large enough to hold newspaper clippings, printed reports, magazine articles, and photographs. In each envelope is kept the material pertaining to one subject in which the writer is interested, the character of the subject-matter being indicated on one side of the envelope, so that, as the envelopes stand on end, their contents can readily be determined. If a writer has many of these envelopes, a one-drawer filing case will serve to keep them in good order. By constantly gathering material from newspapers, magazines, and printed reports, he will soon find that he has collected a considerable amount of information on which to base his articles.