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 article.
"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 said: 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 Star.
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 woman.
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 pursuits.
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 Mechanics.
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 World.
"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 Companion.
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 experiences.
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 Undergraduate." "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 Magazine.
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 paper.
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 Transcript.
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 Fireside.
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.
Scientific and Technical Publications. Almost every science and every 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 Week.
"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 losses.
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 before.
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 semicentennial 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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