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 commericial 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 æsthetic 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.
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