Training for Feature Writing
century ago -
These thoughts are extracted from How to Write Special Feature
Articles, by Willard Grosvenor Bleyer, 1919.
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
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 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
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
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
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