The blank page is symbolic of two things in magazine stories. a) Everyone starts out the same, and that ’s the glory of writing magazine articles. They are totally unformed. A magazine article can be whatever you write about in whatever form you write. They can be narratives, q & a’s, dialogues, plays – your imagination is the limit. But they do have some rules that come from storytelling. 2) You can face writers ’ block, no matter how good a writer you are. It's a rare day that I have trouble putting those initial words on paper. But there are some. I always do some preparation ahead of time, then use a slight trick. We’ll talk about how to get over any writer’s block later. Ideas for magazine articles are everywhere and the ways we write are just as plentiful. We ’re going to cover both in the next couple of days. Remember the basics from story-telling because that’s what magazine stories.
It ’s simple. You tell a story using a magazine form for publication in, duh, a magazine. But think of it first as a story, because that’s what it is. Often we think of magazine stories as more complex than the basic story because magazine offer us flexibility in both form and length. That ’s also the advantage of writing a magazine story for a website: they can be written in various forms and to various lengths. Today and tomorrow we’re going to go over some of those forms and discuss length. But let ’s start at the beginning – and that means thinking about your audience.
This is harder than you think. Are you writing for me? I ’m going to have first edit of your stories, which means I may be sending them back for revisions. Are you writing for your peers? Your parents? The subjects of your articles? The mayor of Cagli? Total strangers? Frankly, all the of the above are going to be reading it. But you want a primary audience, that that will shape your writing. You wouldn ’t write the same story for Marquette Today as for Cosmo or Maxim, that’s why audience is so important. As I talk today, by the way, I ’m going to offer some points for magazine writing in general because I think they’re important. One of them concerns audience. That is that a way to gauge a magazine’s audience is to read its stories. Read the stories on past Cagli Project websites, and you’ll find its audience. If you complete this project and want to write for Marquette’s magazine, read the magazine and see who comprises its audience. Same for Cosmo or Maxim. The audience tells you what and how to write.
You start with an idea. But this doesn ’t tell you a story. What is it about the spices at the marketplace that you want to write about? It can be about various kinds of spices, how you use them, the sellers, where they come from. All those are stories, while the spices are merely spices.
In a query letter to a magazine, you would explain how you ’ll go about researching your article. It ’s the same thing here: You need to set up a research plan just like you do for your research papers. You guys have probably already figured out in your classes that the process for writing is the same whether it’s a magazine article or a philosophy research paper. They both are long-form writing, and that means you have to plan them out. When I was a young writer, I decided to find out more about the art of writing so I talked to several people – the best writers I could find – about just how they went about writing. They all would research their topic, then interview people, then write. What I found was that the tactics weren ’t the same. One transcribed every word from his interviews, then wrote out a story plan in great detail, then started writing. Another made an elaborate outline in great detail, then started writing. Another jotted down notes ordering the story’s ideas, then started writing. The point is that there is no one way to do this; pick your own style. But every one of them planned out in great detail. The key is planning. Plan your approach to the story. Plan who you will interview. Plan how you will interview them (and we ’ll have more on that in a class on interviewing). Plan your time. That may be the most important part. Journalists and deadlines.
I teach a graduate class designed to tackle a major topic. This year, the class created The Marquette Obesity Project and looked at childhood obesity in Milwaukee. One of our speakers was the Journal Sentinel ’s special projects editor Greg Borowski. He emphasized that when you start a big project don’t look at the issue. Go for the story.
The key is that you ’re writing a story, no matter how complicated the issue you might tackle, don’t forget that you’re writing a story. So the way to approach your plan is to decide what’s the story, then move on. So you know your publication – in this case our project ’s website. That gives you some ideas of how the story is going to be shaped and what you will need. So what’s next?
What is enough research? I ’ll be each of you has overresearched a paper. Suddenly you’ve hit the page limit and think, why’d I waste all my time doing all this work since I can’t use any mor material. Let me tell you a story about my Brady Street project. For those not familiar with Milwaukee, Brady Street is a street that dates back to the mid-19 th century when it was a street filled with shops used by the servants at nearby lakefront mansions. Over the years it evolved from an Irish to an Italian to an Italian-Polish area, became a hippie magnant during the ‘60s, because a slum in the ’80s, and was redeveloped into a hip, modern area in the past 15 years, packed with bars, restaurants and small shops. I decided to do a paper on all of these changes. It had to be at least 20 pages. It ended up 29 pages with three appendeses, including a photo look at the street comparing it during the hippie period and its modern look, and a look at every address on the street for the past hundred years (that one ran 44 pages). Yes it won awards, but it was badly over-researched. Some writers, in fact, will research so much they get discouraged about writing because they ’ve got too much. You need to know what research you need, and how to do it.
But above all, plan it out. Do your background research first, then you will know what information you will need to get.
Can I suggest . . . Never? I warned you about getting so involved in the researching that you don ’t get to the writing stage, but the reality is that you can never have too much research. When I was writing a lot of free lance writing – and getting from $2,000 to $8,000 per article – I believed that the best articles had at least 20 facts for every one I used. That depth of knowledge, I felt, gave my writing a richness and confidence that showed through. I always believed that was the reason I was able to command such high prices. On the other hand, remember when I talked about the research plan. It is vital that you finish your stories on time, so you have to stop researching and start writing at sometime. I ’d suggest you set yourselves deadlines for the last moment when you can start writing to finish the project. Then stop. If you believe you have enough research earlier – including interviews – then start writing. Be sure to allow time for re-research, whether it be on the Internet or even another interview or two.
How to begin, how to write a lead, what kinds of stories work on the Internet
Let ’s switch subjects a moment. The point of view defines the story, it’s how you choose to tell it.
It ’s called the interested bystander. We’re telling the story, not taking part in it.
This is a photo layout of a school in Italy where I teach in the summer. It ’s an art school that closed because of funding problems. Notice how the pictures all speak to loneliness and an ending from the teacher closing the window shades to the shift hanging alone.
And, of course since it ’s a Bollywood film, we know they will.
How do you show emotion in an inanimate object? You need to use your imagination.
Feature writing Dr. Stephen Byers Marquette University
We start with a blank page Everyone starts at the same place – with nothing