FINDING SUBJECTS AND MATERIAL
From: How To Write Special Feature Articles
(Category: PART I
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
"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
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.
* * * * *
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.
* * * * *
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.
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