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

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


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

_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


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.


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

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.

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