Analyzing the Subject. When from many available subjects a writer is about to choose one, he should pause to consider its possibilities before beginning to write. It is not enough to say, "This is a good subject; I believe that I can write an article on it." He needs to look at the topic from every angle. He ought to ask himself, "How widespread is the interest in my subject? How much will it appeal to the average individual? What phases of it are likely to have the greatest interest for the greatest number of persons?" To answer these questions he must review the basic sources of pleasure and satisfaction.
What Interests Readers. To interest readers is obviously the prime object in all popular writing. The basis of interest in the news story, the special feature article, and the short story is essentially the same. Whatever the average person likes to hear and see, whatever gives him pleasure and satisfaction, is what he wants to read about. In order to test all phases of a given subject from this point of view, a writer needs to keep in mind the fundamental sources of satisfaction.
Subjects and phases of subjects that attract readers may, for convenience, be divided into the following classes, which, however, are not mutually exclusive: (1) timely topics, (2) unique, novel, and extraordinary persons, things, and events, (3) mysteries, (4) romance, (5) adventure, (6) contests for supremacy, (7) children, (8) animals, (9) hobbies and amusements, (10) familiar persons, places, and objects, (11) prominent persons, places, and objects, (12) matters involving the life, property, and welfare of others, (13) matters that affect the reader's own success and well-being.
Timeliness. Though not absolutely essential, timeliness is a valuable attribute of any subject. Readers like to feel that they are getting the latest facts and the newest ideas, in special feature articles as well as in the news. A subject need not be discarded, however, because it does not make a timely appeal. It may have interest in other respects sufficiently great to compensate for its lack of timeliness.
Many topics that at first glance seem quite unrelated to current activities are found on closer examination to have some aspects that may be brought into connection with timely interests. To a writer keenly alive to everything that is going on in the world, most subjects will be found to have some bearing on what is uppermost in men's minds. Emphasis on that point of contact with current ideas will give to the article the desired timeliness.
Novelty. When a person, object, or circumstance is unique, it arouses an unusual degree of interest. The first person to accomplish something out of the ordinary, the first event of its kind, the first of anything, arrests attention.
Closely associated with the unique is the extraordinary, the curious. If not absolutely the only one of its kind, a thing may still be sufficiently unusual to excite an uncommon degree of interest. Novelty has a perennial charm. Careful study of a subject is often necessary to reveal the novel and extraordinary phase of it that can best be emphasized.
Mysteries. The fascination for the human mind of whatever baffles it is so well known that it scarcely needs elaboration. Mysteries, whether real or fictitious, pique curiosity. Even the scholar and the practical man of affairs find relaxation in the mystery of the detective story. Real life often furnishes events sufficiently mysterious to make a special feature story that rivals fiction. Unexplained crimes and accidents; strange psychical phenomena, such as ghosts, presentiments, spiritism, and telepathy; baffling problems of the scientist and the inventor—all have elements of mystery that fascinate the average reader.
Romance. The romance of real life is quite as interesting as that of fiction. As all the world loves a lover, almost all the world loves a love story. The course of true love may run smooth or it may not; in either case there is the romantic appeal. To find the romantic element in a topic is to discover a perennial source of attraction for all classes of readers.
Adventure. Few in number are the persons who will not gladly escape from humdrum routine by losing themselves in an exciting tale of adventure. The thrilling exploits in real life of the engineer, the explorer, the soldier of fortune, the pioneer in any field, hold us spellbound. Even more commonplace experiences are not without an element of the adventurous, for life itself is a great adventure. Many special feature stories in narrative form have much the same interest that is created by the fictitious tale of adventure.
Contests for Supremacy. Man has never lost his primitive love of a good fight.
Civilization may change the form of the contest, but fighting to win, whether in love or politics, business or sport, still has a strong hold on all of us. Strikes, attempted monopolies, political revolutions, elections, championship games, diplomacy, poverty, are but a few of the struggles that give zest to life. To portray dramatically in a special article the clash and conflict in everyday affairs is to make a well-nigh universal appeal.
Children. Because we live in and for our children, everything that concerns them comes close to our hearts. A child in a photo-drama or in a news story is sure to win sympathy and admiration. The special feature writer cannot afford to neglect so vital a source of interest. Practical articles on the care and the education of children also have especial value for women readers.
Animals. Wild or tame, at large or in captivity, animals attract us either for their almost human intelligence or for their distinctively animal traits. There are few persons who do not like horses, dogs, cats, and other pets, and fewer still who can pass by the animal cages at the circus or the "zoo." Hunting, trapping, and fishing are vocations for some men, and sport for many more. The business of breeding horses and cattle, and the care of live stock and poultry on the farm, must not be overlooked in the search for subjects. The technical aspects of these topics will interest readers of farm journals; the more popular phases of them make a wide general appeal.
Hobbies and Amusements. Pastimes and avocations may be counted good subjects. Moving pictures, theaters, music, baseball, golf, automobiles, amateur photography, and a host of hobbies and recreations have enough enthusiastic devotees to insure wide reading for special feature stories about them.
The Familiar. Persons whom we know, places that we constantly see, experiences that we have had again and again, often seem commonplace enough, even when familiarity has not bred contempt; but when they appear unexpectedly on the stage or in print, we greet them with the cordiality bestowed on the proverbial long-lost friend. Local news interests readers because it concerns people and places immediately around them. Every newspaper man understands the desirability of increasing the attractiveness of a news event that happens elsewhere by rinding "local ends," or by giving it "a local turn." For special feature stories in newspapers, local phases are no less important. But whether the article is to be published in a newspaper or a magazine, familiar persons and things should be "played up" prominently.
The Prominent. Many persons, places, and objects that we have never seen are frequently as real to us as are those that we see daily. This is because their names and their pictures have greeted us again and again in print. It is thus that prominent men and women become familiar to us. Because of their importance we like to read about them. If a special feature article in any of its phases concerns what is prominent, greater attractiveness can be given to it by "playing up" this point, be it the President of the United States or a well-known circus clown, Fifth Avenue or the Bowery, the Capitol at Washington or Coney Island, the Twentieth Century Limited or a Ford.
Life and Welfare of Others. Sympathy with our fellow beings and an instinctive recognition of our common humanity are inherent in most men and women. Nowhere is this more strikingly shown than in the quick and generous response that comes in answer to every call for aid for those in distress. So, too, we like to know how others feel and think. We like to get behind the veil with which every one attempts to conceal his innermost thoughts and feelings. Our interest in the lives and the welfare of others finds expression in various ways, ranging from social service and self-sacrificing devotion to gossip and secret confidences. These extremes and all that lies between them abound in that "human interest" upon which all editors insist.
This widespread interest in others affords to the writer of special articles one of his greatest opportunities, not only for preparing interesting stories, but for arousing readers to support many a good cause. To create sympathy for the unfortunate, to encourage active social service, to point the way to political reform, to show the advantages of better industrial conditions, to explain better business methods—all these are but a few of the helpful, constructive appeals that he may make effectively.
He may create this interest and stir his readers to action by either one of two methods: by exposing existing evils, or by showing what has been done to improve bad conditions. The exposure of evils in politics, business, and society constituted the "muck-raking" to which several of the popular monthly magazines owe their rise. This crusading, "searchlight" type of journalism has been largely superseded by the constructive, "sunlight" type. To explain how reforms have been accomplished, or are being brought about, is construed by the best of the present-day journals to be their special mission.
Personal Success and Happiness. Every one is vitally concerned about his own prosperity and happiness. To make a success of life, no matter by what criterion we may measure that success, is our one all-powerful motive. Happiness, as the goal that we hope to reach by our success, and health, as a prime requisite for its attainment, are also of great importance to every one of us. How to make or save more money, how to do our work more easily, how to maintain our physical well-being, how to improve ourselves mentally and morally, how to enjoy life more fully—that is what we all want to know. To the writer who will show us how to be "healthy, wealthy, and wise," we will give our undivided attention.
Business and professional interests naturally occupy the larger part of men's thoughts, while home-making is the chief work of most women. Although women are entering many fields hitherto monopolized by men, the home remains woman's peculiar sphere. The purchase and preparation of food, the buying and making of clothing, the management of servants, the care of children —these are the vital concerns of most women. They realize, however, that conditions outside the home have a direct bearing on home-making; and each year they are taking a more active part in civic affairs. Matters of public health, pure food legislation, the milk and the water supply, the garbage collection, the character of places of amusement, the public schools, determine, in no small degree, the success and happiness of the home-maker.
Since the dominant interests of men and women alike are their business and their home, the special writer should undertake to connect his subject as closely as possible with these interests. To show, for example, how the tariff, taxes, public utility rates, price-fixing, legislation, and similar matters affect the business and home affairs of the average reader, is to give to these political and economic problems an interest for both men and women far in excess of that resulting from a more general treatment of them. The surest way to get the reader's attention is to bring the subject home to him personally.
Of the importance of presenting a subject in such a manner that the reader is led to see its application to himself and his own affairs, Mr. John M. Siddall, editor of the American Magazine, has said: Every human being likes to see himself in reading matter—just as he likes to see himself in a mirror.
The reason so much reading matter is unpopular and never attracts a wide reading public lies in the fact that the reader sees nothing in it for himself. Take an article, we'll say, entitled "The Financial System of Canada." It looks dull, doesn't it? It looks dull because you can't quite see where it affects you. Now take an article entitled "Why it is easier to get rich in Canada than in the United States." That's different! Your interest is aroused. You wonder wherein the Canadian has an advantage over you. You look into the article to find out whether you can't get an idea from it. Yet the two articles may be basically alike, differing only in treatment. One bores you and the other interests you. One bores you because it seems remote.
The other interests you because the writer has had the skill to translate his facts and ideas into terms that are personal to you. The minute you become personal in this world you become interesting.
Combining Appeals. When the analysis of a topic shows that it possesses more than one of these appeals, the writer may heighten the attractiveness of his story by developing several of the possibilities, simultaneously or successively. The chance discovery by a prominent physician of a simple preventive of infantile paralysis, for instance, would combine at least four of the elements of interest enumerated above. If such a combination of appeals can be made at the very beginning of the article, it is sure to command attention.
Definiteness of Purpose. In view of the multiplicity of possible appeals, a writer may be misled into undertaking to do too many diverse things in a single article.
A subject often has so many different aspects of great interest that it is difficult to resist the temptation to use all of them. If a writer yields to this temptation, the result may be a diffuse, aimless article that, however interesting in many details, fails to make a definite impression.
To avoid this danger, the writer must decide just what his purpose is to be. He must ask himself, "What is my aim in writing this article?" and, "What do I expect to accomplish?" Only in this way will he clarify in his mind his reason for writing on the proposed topic and the object to be attained.
With a definitely formulated aim before him, he can decide just what material he needs. An objective point to be reached will give his article direction and will help him to stick to his subject. Furthermore, by getting his aim clearly in mind, he will have the means of determining, when the story is completed, whether or not he has accomplished what he set out to do.
In selecting material, in developing the article, and in testing the completed product, therefore, it is important to have a definitely formulated purpose.
Three General Aims. Every special article should accomplish one of three general aims: it should (1) entertain, or (2) inform, or (3) give practical guidance.
The same subject and the same material may sometimes be so treated as to accomplish any one of these three purposes. If the writer's aim is merely to help readers pass a leisure hour pleasantly, he will "play up" those aspects of a topic that will afford entertainment and little or nothing else. If he desires to supply information that will add to the reader's stock of knowledge, he will present his facts in a manner calculated to make his readers remember what he has told them. If he proposes to give information that can be applied by readers to their own activities, he must include those details that are necessary to any one who desires to make practical use of the information.
When, for example, a writer is about to prepare an article, based on experience, about keeping bees on a small suburban place, he will find that he may write his story in any one of three ways. The difficulties experienced by the amateur beekeeper in trying to handle bees in a small garden could be treated humorously with no other purpose ihan to amuse. Or the keeping of bees under such circumstances might be described as an interesting example of enterprise on the part of a city man living in the suburbs. Or, in order to show other men and women similarly situated just how to keep bees, the writer might explain exactly what any person would need to know to attain success in such a venture. Just as the purpose of these articles would vary, so the material and the point of view would differ.
Entertaining Articles. To furnish wholesome entertainment is a perfectly legitimate end in special feature writing. There is no reason why the humor, the pathos, the romance, the adventure, and mystery in life should not be presented in special feature stories for our entertainment and amusement, just as they are presented for the same purpose in the short story, the drama, and the photo-play.
Many readers find special feature stories with real persons, real places, and real circumstances, more entertaining than fiction. A writer with the ability to see the comedies and the tragedies in the events constantly happening about him, or frequently reported in the press, will never lack for subjects and material.
Wholesome Entertainment. The effect of entertaining stories on the ideas and ideals of readers ought not to be overlooked. According to the best journalistic standards, nothing should be printed that will exert a demoralizing or unwholesome influence. Constructive journalism goes a step further when it insists that everything shall tend to be helpful and constructive. This practice applies alike to news stories and to special articles.
These standards do not necessarily exclude news and special feature stories that deal with crime, scandal, and similar topics; but they do demand that the treatment of such subjects shall not be suggestive or offensive. To portray violators of the criminal or moral codes as heroes worthy of emulation; to gratify some readers' taste for the morbid; to satisfy other readers by exploiting sex—all are alike foreign to the purpose of respectable journalism. No self-respecting writer will lend the aid of his pen to such work, and no self-respecting editor will publish it.
To deter persons from committing similar crimes and follies should be the only purpose in writing on such topics. The thoughtful writer, therefore, must guard against the temptation to surround wrong-doers with the glamour of heroic or romantic adventure, and, by sentimental treatment, to create sympathy for the undeserving culprit. Violations of law and of the conventions of society ought to be shown to be wrong, even when the wrong-doer is deserving of some sympathy. This need not be done by moralizing and editorializing. A much better way is to emphasize, as the results of wrong-doing, not only legal punishment and social ostracism, but the pangs of a guilty conscience, and the disgrace to the culprit and his family.
A cynical or flippant treatment of serious subjects gives many readers a false and distorted view of life. Humor does not depend on ridicule or satire. The fads and foibles of humanity can be good-naturedly exposed in humorous articles that have no sting. Although many topics may very properly be treated lightly, others demand a serious, dignified style.
The men and women whom a writer puts into his articles are not puppets, but real persons, with feelings not unlike his own. To drag them and their personal affairs from the privacy to which they are entitled, and to give them undesired and needless publicity, for the sake of affording entertainment to others, often subjects them to great humiliation and suffering. The fact that a man, woman, or child has figured in the day's news does not necessarily mean that a writer is entitled to exploit such a person's private affairs. He must discriminate between what the public is entitled to know and what an individual has a right to keep private. Innocent wives, sweethearts, or children are not necessarily legitimate material for his article because their husband, lover, or father has appeared in the news. The golden rule is the best guide for a writer in such cases. Lack of consideration for the rights of others is the mark neither of a good writer nor of a true gentleman. Clean, wholesome special feature stories that present interesting phases of life accurately, and that show due consideration for the rights of the persons portrayed, are quite as entertaining as are any others.
Informative Articles. Since many persons confine their reading largely to newspapers and magazines, they derive most of their information and ideas from these sources. Even persons who read new books rely to some extent on special articles for the latest information about current topics. Although most readers look to periodicals primarily for new, timely facts, they are also interested to find there biographical and historical material that is not directly connected with current events. Every special feature writer has a great opportunity to furnish a large circle of readers with interesting and significant information.
In analyzing subjects it is necessary to discriminate between significant and trivial facts. Some topics when studied will be found to contain little of real consequence, even though a readable article might be developed from the material. Other themes will reveal aspects that are both trivial and significant.
When a writer undertakes to choose between the two, he should ask himself, "Are the facts worth remembering?" and, "Will they furnish food for thought?" In clarifying his purpose by such tests, he will decide not only what kind of information he desires to impart, but what material he must select, and from what point of view he should present it.
Articles of Practical Guidance. The third general purpose that a writer may have is to give his readers sufficiently explicit information to enable them to do for themselves what has been done by others. Because all persons want to know how to be more successful, they read these "how-to-do-something" articles with avidity. All of us welcome practical suggestions, tactfully given, that can be applied to our own activities. Whatever any one has done successfully may be so presented that others can learn how to do it with equal success. Special feature articles furnish the best means of giving this practical guidance.
In preparing a "how-to-do-something" article, a writer needs to consider the class of readers for which it is intended. A special feature story, for example, on how to reduce the cost of milk might be presented from any one of three points of view: that of the producer, that of the distributor, or that of the consumer. To be practical for dairy farmers, as producers of milk, the article would have to point out possible economies in keeping cows and handling milk on the farm. To be helpful to milk-dealers, as distributors, it would concern itself with methods of lowering the cost of selling and delivering milk in the city. To assist housewives, as consumers, the article would have to show how to economize in using milk in the home. An informative article for the general reader might take up all these phases of the subject, but an article intended to give practical guidance should consider the needs of only one of these three classes of persons.
In many constructive articles of practical guidance, the writer's purpose is so successfully concealed that it may at first escape the notice of the average reader.
By relating in detail, for example, how an actual enterprise was carried out, a writer may be able to give his readers, without their realizing it, all the information they need to accomplish a similar undertaking. When he analyzes such articles, the student should not be misled into thinking that the writer did not have the definite purpose of imparting practical information. If the same material can be developed into an article of interesting information or into one of practical guidance, it is desirable to do the latter and, if necessary, to disguise the purpose.
Statement of Purpose. In order to define his purpose clearly and to keep it constantly before him, a writer will do well to put down on paper his exact aim in a single sentence. If, for example, he desired to write a constructive article about an Americanization pageant held in his home city on the Fourth of July, he might write out the statement of his aim thus: "I desire to show how the Americanization of aliens may be encouraged in small industrial centers of from 3000 to 20,000 inhabitants, by describing how the last Fourth of July Americanization pageant was organized and carried out in a typical Pennsylvania industrial town of 5000." Such a statement will assist a writer in selecting his material, in sticking to his subject, and in keeping to one point of view. Without this clearly formulated aim before him, it is easy for him to dwell too long on some phase of the subject in which he is particularly interested or on which he has the most material, to the neglect of other phases that are essential to the accomplishment of his purpose.
Or, failing to get his aim clearly in mind, he may jump from one aspect of the subject to another, without accomplishing anything in particular. Many a newspaper and magazine article leaves a confused, hazy impression on the minds of readers because the writer failed to have a definite objective.
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