Friday, August 25, 2006

Inspired by My Young Colleague David Silver Who Believes Information Wants to be Free, I Post my Syllabus

Feature/Magazine Writing
Fall 2006

Dr. Michael Robertson
Office: 502 University Center
Phone: 666-6250 (office); 510-836-4870 (home);

Office hours: Monday and Wednesday, 3p-430p. . If you need to see me, don't hesitate to ask for a time convenient for you.

Required texts: “The Art and Craft of Feature Writing” by William Blundell; “The Journalist and the Murderer” by Janet Malcolm

Additional reading: Pick a source of what you consider to be first-rate feature/magazine pieces, and read it on a regular basis. Bring outstanding examples to class to share.

Statement of purpose: The emphasis in this course is writing entertaining non-fiction stories that might appear in a newspaper, magazine or on the Web. Some of you are already familiar with the standard newspaper story in which the key facts are crammed into the first 50 words, the style is drab and the justification for the story’s existence is the notion that in some way the information it contains is vital to the community. Feature/magazine stories move toward the other end of the spectrum. The information they contain can be anecdotal, even trivial. The style in which they are written is sometimes so lively that it becomes as important as their content in drawing readers. Such stories often have a strong point of view in that the writer does not strive for “objectivity” – or its appearance – but makes clear directly or indirectly that he or she is giving his or her very personal opinion of the facts or events described.

Of course, as I said earlier, I am describing a spectrum or continuum. On the front page of newspapers, you will often find “news features” in which story-telling elements are used to dramatize or get behind the hard facts. Indeed, some magazine/feature stories bring to life issues of the utmost importance, and in that way they may seem more serious than the dry stories that surround them. Thus, grappling with the shades of difference between the kind of stories we are going to write in this course is challenging, and we could spend a good deal of time engaging with that problem. We are not going to spend a great deal of time doing so – though we will talk about it just as much as you like. The point of this course is writing, not theorizing. Suffice it to say that I am going to push you to write stories that are as well-structured as possible – I’m looking for a beginning, a middle and an end – and are as well written as possible, by which I mean the shape of each sentence and the choice of each word will manifest considerable re-writing and re-thinking.

Let me point out an irony here. My emphasis on entertainment does not mean reporting becomes less important. This is not a fiction class. I expect to be able to send each of these stories to the people quoted or described therein and have those subjects confirm that all the quotes and events described are accurate and also that you have not ignored key information needed to provide context. You can’t write an entertaining profile of someone unless you spend time with him or her finding the raw material out of which the “art” can be created.

We will concentrate on one particular type of story during this semester. That is the profile, a fact‑based article about people -- their surroundings and how they live in them, how they behave and what they say – that reads like a good short story. Certainly many kinds of feature stories exist, from the news story with a dash of human interest grafted onto it to the trend story to the review of the performance to the fashion or travel story that often reads as if it were an unpaid advertisement for a business whose paid advertisement appears elsewhere in the newspaper or magazine. We are going to do some of those stories, but we will concentrate on the tools of narrative and characterization and how they are used in the construction of the full‑length profile of one person. Narrative and characterization will enhance many types of story, but they are the backbone of the full‑length profile, in which (I argue) journalism comes closest to art. Producing such an "artful" profile is the ultimate goal of this course. By art, however, I do not mean irrelevance. One of the most effective methods of getting at the great issues of our time is by focusing on a single individual. Sometimes such people have chosen to be at the heart of such an issue. Perhaps ironically, whenever any person's life is examined in considerable detail, that life tends to assume universal significance. The challenge to the writer is honoring the facts even as you shape them, for you will discover they can assume more than one shape.

Regard this class as a workshop. You can't learn to write well by talking about it. Talking about writing is fun. Writing itself is hard. That is why good talkers are not always good writers. (There is a school of thought that good talkers are seldom good writers. We shall see.) It may be helpful for you to think of this class as a magazine or newspaper feature section – I am the editor, and you are my stable of talented but high-strung writers. I will make some allowance for real-life problems with deadlines. I will gladly meet with you during office hours to discuss such writing/reporting problems. It is preferable to thrash out such matters in advance rather than turning in an article that doesn’t work. In the real world of a-dollar-per-word (if you’re lucky), editors hate being surprised.

The further we go into the semester, the more your grades will count. Final grades will be determined by progress and by class participation. The final project will count about half your grade. All assignments must be typed double-spaced with generous margins, so I can write in those margins. Serious errors in grammar or spelling will result in a lower grade. Always keep a copy of your story just as you would when submitting a story to a real magazine or newspaper. Student writing will sometimes be read aloud and discussed in class, but no grades will be revealed.

A final word about what this course is not. It is not about writing poetry, children's stories, fiction, recipes, diaries or speculative fiction. All these things appear in some magazines and alternative newspapers, all are important to some readers, and all, from time to time, may be produced by magazine writers and newspaper writers for their own pleasure or profit. But this course centers on basic magazine and newspaper feature journalism, with an emphasis on writing about people and their impact on other people. This course is about the kind of craftsmanship that takes truth and makes it better than truth -‑ but never less.

Your Blog: It seems clear that the rise of the high-speed Internet connection, in combination with the growing power of the personal computer and the greater affordability of all sorts of software for manipulating sound and image, is making it possible for individuals to tell stories in ways that were unimaginable when I began to teach at USF 16 years ago. I certainly didn’t imagine them, anyway. It’s the dawn of a new age of what some call digital storytelling, a genre in which text, audio and video can be amalgamated so easily and inexpensively – and accessed so readily – that audiences may come to expect it and talented storytellers will be drawn to it.

In this course, we will take a couple very small steps toward that sort of “value-added” journalism. If you do not have a blog, create one. I use During the semester, I will require you to post some behind-the-scenes insights about the stories you are doing. That may be the most elementary way in which the Internet benefits the non-fiction writer. It enhances credibility by allowing readers easy access to the process of producing the story, allowing readers to understand, for example, exactly why the writer is so confident in writing about something that he or she did not see. (How many sources – witnesses, documents, etc. – were consulted? How many tough questions were asked?)

Also, I will require that you record at least one interview and post it as an audio file. I will require you to take photographs of one or more of the sources for your stories and post them. If any of you are taking or have taken video production, we will … talk. The focus in this course will remain words on the page. That won’t change. But neither will we ignore what the future may require of word-lovers open to the possibility of enriching the ways in which they create non-fiction narrative.


A Exceptionally well‑written, arresting, probing. Well organized. Effective use of quotes, observation, anecdotes, based upon thorough research. Publishable. (Stories are never late.)

B Only a few problems of style and organization. Clear, cohesive, well‑researched. Interesting, but in need of an edit and/or additional material to merit publication. (Perhaps one story is late during the semester.)

C Superficial. Rewrite required to better organize and emphasize significant elements. Details important to the story are missing. Annoying spelling and/or grammatical problems. (Several stories are late during the semester.)

D Factual but ineffectual. Further reporting, interviewing and research necessary before a successful rewrite can be undertaken. Serious problems in style, spelling, grammar, coherence and quality of research. (Stories are usually late.)

F So incomplete, confusing and/or erroneous that it could not be published under any circumstances (except for a brand‑new start, presumably by another writer). Willful and contrary disregard for the assignment. (Some stories are never turned in!)

Semester Schedule

August 29/Week One: Introduction to the course/Interviewing/Focusing your idea.

Assignment: The Stranger (1). A 500‑word story based on an interview with an immigrant or alien (preferably a refugee) who has been in the country no more than two years. Most of the story will reflect your interview with your subject, but I want two additional sources: a secondary written source and a brief interview with a USF professor or staff member who has expertise that is relevant to the experience of your immigrant. Read Blundell, Chapter 1.

September 5/Week Two: Physical description/Generating ideas

Assignment due: None

New assignment: The Performance (2). Catch a live performance (a waiter, a chef, a teacher, a departmental secretary, a traffic cop, a demonstrator, a street preacher, a panhandler, an attractive girl or boy primping or exercising or eating their soup). Write a 250‑word scene in which you describe in precise and evocative language that individual performance. (By performance, I mean only an individual's visible behavior in a situation in which an audience of some kind is present.) Consider this piece as an element that might appear in a larger story, though it should stand on its own. This is not a review. Blundell, Chapter 2.

September 12/Week Three: Arts writing/The review

Assignment due on Monday: The Stranger (1).

New assignment: We review a restaurant. Read Blundell, Chapter 3.

September 19/Week Four: Marketing your story

Assignment due on Monday: The Performance (2).

New Assignment: A list of possible subjects for your final story, which will be an “issues” profile. Read Blundell, Chapter 4.

September 26/Week Five: Jon Franklin and his theory of writing for story.

Assignment due on Monday: The Restaurant Review (3).

New assignment: Pick a newspaper or magazine as the intended market for your final profile. (You can change your mind later. This is only an exercise.) Write a 350‑word essay on how you will need to position your profile so that it will serve what appears to be this publication's particular approach to life. Write your analysis in a style and tone suitable for that market. Read Blundell, Chapter 5.

October 3/Week Six: The trend story.

Assignment due on Monday: List of possible subjects.

New assignment: A 500-word trend story. Read Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer”

October 10/Week Seven: Discuss “The Journalist and the Murderer,” by Janet Malcolm.

Assignment due on Monday: Market Analysis (4).

New assignment: None.

October 17/Week Eight: Begin work on final profile/working with an editor.

Assignment due on Monday: Trend story (5).

New assignment: A 350-word story describing your first contact with a prospective subject for your 2,000-4,000-word “issues” profile. Read Blundell, Chapter 6.

October 24/Week Nine: The travel story.

Assignment due on Monday: First-contact story (6).

New Assignment: A 600-word travel story based on a “destination” in the Bay Area. Read Blundell, Chapter 7.

October 31/Week Ten: Up Close and Personal

Assignment due on Wednesday: Travel story (6).

New assignment: We will interview someone during class. You will write a 350-word sketch of that person based on the in-class interview. Read Blundell, Chapter 8.

November 7/Week Eleven: Showing what you mean.

Assignment due on Wednesday: Up Close and Personal (7).

New assignment: The Death Story. You will interview someone in the death business (a hospice worker, an emergency room nurse or physician, an ambulance medic, a morgue attendant, a pathologist in the coroner's office, a suicide survivor, a suicide counselor, a member of the armed forces who informs survivors of the death of a family member, a friend or acquaintance who has
lost a loved one). Write a 600‑word story, part of which recreates a moment in your subject's life. You must work at drawing out details of something you have no way of directly confirming.

November 14/Week Twelve: Showing what you mean.

Assignment due: None

New assignment: A working outline of your profile; a scene from your profile that can stand by itself (9).

November 21/Week Thirteen: Revising and revisiting.

Assignment due on Monday: The Death Story (8)
Assignment due on Friday: An outline of your profile; a scene from your profile (9).

New Assignment: A draft of your introduction and your conclusion. (10)

November 28/Week Fourteen: Revising and revisiting.

Assignment due on Monday: A draft of your introduction and your conclusion (10).

New Assignment: Finished profile (11) due last day of class.

December 5/Week Fifteen: ‑30‑

Assignment due on Wednesday: The profile (11).

There will be no final exam.

1 comment:

david silver said...

great looking course michael. i'll be eager to hear how your students take to the blog part of the course. i like this sentence: "I am the editor, and you are my stable of talented but high-strung writers."