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PREPARATION FOR SPECIAL FEATURE WRITING






From: How To Write Special Feature Articles
(Category: PART I)

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 ęsthetic
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.





Next: FINDING SUBJECTS AND MATERIAL

Previous: THE FIELD FOR SPECIAL ARTICLES



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