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Training for Feature Writing
- a 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 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 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.

 

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