Letter from the Editor: Five Tips for Writing Feature Stories

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We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.
–Ernest Hemingway

So I am officially the Editor-in-Chief for the college newspaper in the fall, which will be my last semester at PSC.  I will graduate with an A.S., and, because I want to go farther, an A.A. (as I am so done with math).

If there’s one thing that the class from hell (i.e., Statistics) forced me to do, it was learn superior organization, which will come in handy when overseeing each issue.

Being a confirmed introvert, the idea of being a leader of anything is intimidating, but I tell myself, “I can do this.  They’re just people.”

I am very excited about this opportunity.  I wasn’t going to go for it, but let’s just say my adviser made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

*

Since my post about tips for writing college feature stories (https://sarahleastories.com/2017/02/04/feature-story-ideas-for-a-college-newspaper/) has, by a landslide, been my most popular post, I thought I’d share a few other things that have helped me not just become better but more prolific:

  • Be aware—not only of what is going on around you but also the people around you—pay attention to quirks, distinctive tattoos, and even cars with a bunch of crazy bumper stickers.  For example, on the first day of my ENC1102 class, my professor asked everyone to write something true and something untrue about themselves; the rest of the class was supposed to guess which was true and which was false.  Remember the true things that are interesting, and reach out to those students.
  • If you’re in online classes, and there is a “Get To Know You” discussion forum, read all the bios, but, as Troy Moon (a former columnist for The Pensacola News Journal) said, “Everyone has a story, but not all of them are interesting.”  
  • Craft your interview questions in such a way that you won’t get a yes or no answer, and do not use direct quotes like, “It was great.”  That’s so boring and generic, it’s paraphrasable.  Ask great questions, get good quotes.  
  • An easy way to gather quotes (speaking from an introvert’s point-of-view) is to cover events where people are speaking.  This way, you don’t even have to ask questions.  When I covered Carl Hiaasen, columnist for The Miami-Herald, I recorded his entire talk on my phone and got excellent (and accurate) quotes.  
  • Read other college newspapers in-depth, because all I’m doing is telling you how it’s done—they’re showing you.

My ultimate goal for our publication is to get more student names and faces in every issue, because, as Diane Varsi (as Allison MacKenzie) said in the 1957 movie, Peyton Place: “It was nice to come back to a place where the names in the newspaper meant something to you.”

That embodies the very idea of “community,” and The Corsair is a community college newspaper.

Updated 12/27/2019

If you want to learn how to write well, write for the student newspaper

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“The Bluffer” staff (Poplar Bluff High’s high school newspaper). My dad is the one with the glasses in the back of the room.

There have been times I’ve wondered if I’d gotten on the newspaper staff in high school (rather than the yearbook), if I would’ve decided to major in journalism (rather than the culinary arts, which was a colossal waste of time and money). I don’t even remember seeing our high school newspaper around, except once (for fifty cents or a quarter), and I thought, We have a newspaper?

Even though there was a permanence about the yearbook (encased in hardcover, like a coffee-table book), the staff meetings were just another class. What’s more, I don’t even have any of my old yearbooks. I’m a nostalgic, sentimental kind of gal but not for my high school days. 

Maybe it was because I was shy and didn’t have any school spirit (I always begged my dad to check me out of the pep rallies, because why should I cheer for a bunch of misogynistic athletes?). Though I was involved in the Art Club and “The M.O.B.” (Ministry of Believers), I often found myself feeling like I was stuck in hell for seven hours a day where the bathrooms were never clean enough. In fact, I found the bathrooms and the food utterly disgusting.

I remember writing stories for the yearbook, but I don’t remember what any of them were about. Because my creativity wasn’t nurtured or appreciated, I thought any writing career other than a creative one wasn’t for me. My teacher, Mrs. T., didn’t like kids and was only concerned about putting out a product (and probably winning awards); she also didn’t have much of a sense of humor and neither did she have any passion about the process—she just wanted to get the damn thing done.

Though yearbooks are becoming a relic with the advent of social media, I still see the intrinsic value of a printed book, but would I buy one now?

I don’t think I would. 

However, there will always be a need for newspapers, even if they are only online.

~

My dad was the sports editor of the Poplar Bluff high school newspaper staff from the fall of 1968 to the spring of 1969. I asked him what it was like back then. He remembered that the girls far outnumbered the boys, and that one of the girls was what they called a “morgue editor,” meaning she cut out articles and pasted them into a book. For the Christmas issue, the whole paper was printed in red—something that would never fly now.

Being the family historian, I record not only my memories but the memories of others. I love to document, and newspaper writing does just that. Through writing features, I record other people’s experiences but with humor columns, I’d be documenting my experiences in a way that would resonate, or connect, with people.

A couple of days ago, I texted the Editor-in-Chief on The Corsair (our college newspaper) that the only way I’d ever become a journalist would be as a humor columnist, reason being that I’d never get accused of disseminating fake news. (Advice columnist would be second best, and I wouldn’t go all “Judge Judy” on people. That is one rage-filled lady.)

Through my run (so far) of being on the paper staff, I’ve found not only what I love to write the most but what I’m good at, too. 

Ernest Hemingway and Margaret Mitchell started off writing for newspapers—maybe writing for a newspaper is in my future. (I’m trying greeting cards, as well, even though most English professors think they’re shit.)

Though I don’t love interviewing people (people are like a box of chocolates—some are Roman nougat, and some are orange cream, which are slightly less horrendous than peanut butter kisses), as that involves transcribing (I prefer to make eye contact with my subjects rather than try to scribble down exactly what they say, so I don’t misquote them), I enjoy talking to them and have learned a lot from doing so. I wouldn’t have met many of the people I have had it not been for interviewing them for The Corsair, and the best friends I made in college, I met through The Corsair.

Though I’m not majoring in journalism (and you don’t have to, to write for a newspaper), my journalism experience has helped me become a better writer, for all writing experience is valuable experience. I’ve learned, through analyzing my blog statistics, that my non-fiction posts far outpace my fiction ones, so technical or business writing will be my day job, creative, my night.

I’ve had a lot of creative writers snub the opportunity to write for the paper, but they are doing themselves a disservice, because it was through writing for the college newspaper that I became a better writer all the way around. You will learn more by writing for the paper than you will for any comp class; what’s more, when you’re a student reporter, you’ll have the chance to win journalism awards that you can put on your resume, with published clips that you can add to your online portfolio. 

Don’t waste an opportunity because it doesn’t fit your niche. You will find it (or something close to it). After all, it was through the newspaper that I learned how to write humor.

Updated 2/2/2020

#Fiction Friday: #Novelines from the Book

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Though David loved Dalí and Hemingway, he was a patron of the local arts community. If it was beautiful, he sought after it–like my mother

David saw the beauty in religious art–art, he believed, that breathed humanity into the dark texts, even as hymns sang only of grace.

David was known as the god of the Arts where he lectured, for he was the only professor to have the talent of the subject he taught.

David was academia, with his tweed blazers and corduroy trousers. He taught Art History—this artist whose history was hazy.

I basked in David’s presence, drawing near to him with my heart, just as my mother drew near to him with her lips.

I saw every man who had looked my way as someone who could take me from David. I had bottled it up, and twas because of David, I was pure.

The light from the bronze chandelier in David’s study gave his face an amber glow, illuminating his smoldering, smoky-black eyes.  Troubled eyes.

It excited me to see David like this–his fervor making me become feverish in anticipation. In anticipation of what, I did not know.

“Your mother has found a truth that will give her peace, not penance. Though truth itself isn’t a dangerous thing, the belief in an absolute is.

I knew an absolute truth existed, but no one knew what it was. They only thought they did, or spent the rest of their lives wondering.

Though David had never spent the night at our house, nor had Mother ever spent the night at Maxwell Manor, I knew they had been intimate.