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Fly too close to the sun and 11 other guidelines for writing hot magazine features.

Here's raw material for a feature writer's nightmare factory: What if readership were the basis of payment? What if unread company-magazine articles meant unpaid company writers? Whew! Talk about a read alert...

Unfortunately, reality is no less alarming; it's just more complicated. Down the hall from you are people who tweak numbers in a room where spreadsheets billow skyward like champagne geysers on New Year's Eve. They may not read magazines, but they know the letters MBA, CPA and ROI (return on investment). Tomorrow, they're going to ask if your magazine is a profit center.

If your magazine is read -- really read -- you have good ammunition. Chances are you're building shared vision, boosting morale, increasing productivity, and reducing absenteeism.

But unread magazines? The handwriting is on the wall -- and it's probably livelier than the committee-stirred broth of words it condemns.

Magazines aren't the dark side of the moon. Your readers already enjoy People, Parade and Sports Illustrated -- maybe even Harper's, The Economist, Maclean's or Punch. They want to like your magazine. So give 'em a nudge with features good enough to appear in their favorite magazines. How? These 12 facetiously worded guidelines may help.

1) Ignore the following guidelines: As a young man, Ben Franklin composed a list of personal qualities designed to lead him to moral perfection. A tolerant friend suggested that he add humility -- a lesson for anyone presumptuous enough to suggest a set of guidelines.

Remember the ubiquitous '80s bumper sticker Question Authority? Challenge these and draft better.

2) Mind your business. Whatever kind of widget your company produces, you should know the product and the process from beginning to end -- or at least know who does know.

Such knowledge does more than protect your credibility; it suggests new features or new angles for scheduled features. A former editor of one of the U.S.' most-honored university-alumni magazines periodically booted his staff out to tug at tweed-jacket sleeves and ask what was going on.

But there is more to minding your own business than knowing your company. You're also a feature writer for an important magazine. Performance reviews from superiors can tell you how they think you're doing, but what do your readers say? Are you minding the business of giving them what they want and need? How many reader focus groups does your magazine staff conduct -- and how often? How often do you survey your audience? (If you just winced, welcome to a club that's bigger than it should be.)

3) Stop writing. In his essay "The American Scholar," Ralph Waldo Emerson lists three essential influences on the creative mind: interaction with nature, knowledge of the past and familiarity with society. It's a scholarly way of saying that good writers stockpile knowledge and experience. They crick their necks at operas and inhale rodeo dust. They know Byron and they read Batman on the sly.

Playwright Ben Jonson -- a tankard-hoisting buddy of Shakespeare's -- called such experiences "timber": the splintery beginning of literary constructions. So how's the inventory in your personal lumberyard?

4) Do a lot of useless research. In other words, gather more research than will appear in print. There's never been a prose style good enough to bridge a fissure in reporting. Collecting more than enough research illuminates what should and shouldn't be in the article. It creates present options as well as ideas for future features.

You probably keystroke your stories on a computer that has more power than you usually need. Why? Those extra megabytes speed things along and support other occasionally useful programs. Think of comprehensive research in the same way: power in reserve that boosts the efficiency of your features.

Extra research isn't always as daunting as a safari to the darkest jungle in the corporate archives. It can be as simple as taping your interview, which frees your hands to make notes on the speaker's gestures or the penguin figurines on her office shelves.

As he squirmed through an interview with a corporate lawyer, one writer once found salvation in this technique. On the lawyer's desk was an empty jar with a strange label and an even stranger destiny. The jar became a lead:

"On General Attorney John Doe's desk sits a jar labeled 'Grouch Control Pills' -- and the jar is empty. The medication must have been effective because Doe has nothing but praise for..."

Not all interviews, of course, should be with management. When appropriate, are you interviewing at all levels of the company? To build true inclusiveness, do you ever interview employees' spouses for their views?

5) Stand on one leg. Shades of the thesis statement from English 101! It's nothing new to say that every feature should have a central, clear purpose -- that a feature should stand on one leg. But as Hamlet once said under different circumstances, that custom is more honored in the breach than the observance.

Try writing the purpose of your feature in one tight sentence on a small index card you can post near your word processor. That sentence probably won't appear in the article; instead, it will help you sift the facts, determining what should and shouldn't be included.

Edgar Allan Poe called this mania for relevance "totality." Every ingredient of a literary work, he said -- every punctuation mark, word, sentence, fact -- had to develop or support the work's purpose. If any particular element failed the test, it appeared in that work nevermore.

(For readers willing to do a little extra research, the earthy episode that suggests the wording "Stand on one leg" can be found in Chapter 16 of William Zinsser's "On Writing Well," first edition.)

6) Jumble your thoughts. Why sleepwalk through a straight chronology? You're presenting more than "just the facts, ma'am." You're writing a feature, designed not only to instruct, but also to entertain.

"The Odyssey" and "Paradise Lost" may not be on the New York Times bestsellers list, but they're stories that refuse to wrinkle and die. Like a couple of geriatric weight lifters, their structures are powerful.

Most epic poems begin in medias res, in the middle of things. That technique creates the powerful hook of having readers looking forward and backward, asking What caused this uproar? and What's going to happen next? Both questions, finally, are answered -- but only after the story has ensnared the reader.

Feature writers should occasionally raid the turf of fiction, stealing away with rising and falling action, flashback, foreshadowing, climax and denouement. The lead writer of an award-winning quarterly magazine wallows in the reams of excess research he gathers for each feature. Then, like a wet dog, he shakes it off, settles in at the word processor and says, "Tell me a story." In cross-stitching the research with an entertaining structure, he becomes simultaneously writer and reader. And the reader in him deep-sixes any stale structures that ignore that childlike but undeniable demand: "Tell me a story."

7) Be born on Tuesday. Mother Goose prompted this flight of fancy. Remember "Monday's child is fair of face/Tuesday's child is full of grace?" Grace scoots away from easy definition like a dab of mercury from a probe, but it's just as real. Long, flowing sentences envelop and relax the reader. Blunt sentences hit hard. Several in a row build tension. Open vowels and soft consonants soothe, while flat vowels and harsh consonants rattle and slap. The middle of everything -- sentences, paragraphs, articles -- lacks emphasis that naturally goes to beginnings and endings.

Achieving grace is, to paraphrase a top corporate editor, one of those things that says easy but does hard. Required reading in this area is George Orwell's short essay "Politics and the English Language."

8) Learn to steal. As a stuffy but earnest writer-in-training, Somerset Maugham would copy paragraphs from his favorite novels, then rewrite them from memory and compare the two versions. Slowly, he said, he learned his idols' techniques.

Good writers can be bloodthirsty readers. They'll cross scalpel and forceps over a satisfying passage by another writer, dissecting it to find the source of pleasure: sentence rhythms, sounds, word order, whatever. Then, ideally, they take the discovered technique and give it a personal spin.

The idea for these facetious guidelines, for example, came from Daniel Okrent's hilarious rules for editing the late New England Monthly (See Folio magazine, November 1987).

Never, of course, steal other writers' words or, unchanged, their ideas. That's plagiarism. Besides being unethical, it's a great way to end your career.

9) Fly too close to the sun. Writers fall into ruts. We reuse favorite opening strategies -- anecdotes, questions, etc. -- because we know they work and we can wring our brains a little less. We sometimes mindlessly repeat the same stock phrases or trot out metaphors so jaded they no longer kick up an image in our mind or in the reader's. With new projects pouring onto our desktops like dollar bills raining down on a game-show winner, we're all too ready to embrace the easy, the familiar, the tried-and-true. The boring.

We're like Daedalus, who, in Greek mythology, invented wax and feather wings for his son, Icarus, and himself to escape a tyrannical king. Playing it safe, Daedalus flew in a straight line across the Mediterranean. He watched the inflight movie, arrived on time and collected his frequent-flier miles.

But Icarus grew drunk on the joy of flight. He flapped deliriously through the clouds, arcing so close to the sun that his wings melted and he plunged to his death. (What did ancient Greeks know about high-altitude temperatures?)

OK, Daedalus succeeded while Icarus took an eternal bath. But which would you rather read: A plodding, predictable plot or a story that soars and swoops, that gambols and gambles -- one that, if it fails, at least fails gloriously?

10) Write backward. You're too busy for writer's block. If the lead won't come, begin elsewhere. Some writers start with the conclusion, seeking the psychological boost of knowing how it all ends. Or jump in at some other point of high drama just to get your juices flowing. If the finished piece seems a little patchworky, see Guidelines 11 and 12.

11) Talk to yourself. Off with the heads of well-meaning elementary-school teachers who, when we hunkered down for silent reading, sewed our lips shut. Sealed lips deny the sensuous pleasure of feeling the words, their rhythms and sounds. Reading your feature-in-progress aloud to yourself -- even just whispering it -- can be like running your hand over a bit of carpentry. You'll feel the rough and smooth spots and know whether they're right. You may even find that you've memorized passages and can punch in on the editing clock while mired in the day's 6 p.m. freeway morass.

12) Be your own worst enemy. Or at least be your own toughest editor. First drafts are rarely as good as seconds, which are rarely as good as thirds. Ignore the euphoria that follows the completion of a good first draft. Set the draft aside, if possible, for at least 24 hours. And the seductive, destructive phrase, "Oh, that's good enough" must be seen for what it is: the surrender of a writer willing to settle for second best.

At the end of the writing lies not the glory but the proofreading. Proofread backward, one sentence at a time. That breaks up the narrative flow, allowing you to focus on the least exciting part of the noble, exasperating art of the feature.

Charles Marsh is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, Lawrence.


1. Make money 2. Save money 3. Save time 4. Avoid effort 5. More comfort 6. Better health 7. Cleaner 8. Escape pain 9. Gain praise 10. Be popular 11. Be loved/accepted 12. Keep possessions 13. More enjoyment 14. Satisfy curiosity 15. Protect family 16. Be stylish 17. Have beautiful things 18. Satisfy appetite 19. Be like others 20. Avoid trouble 21. Avoid criticism 22. Be individual 23. Protect reputation 24. Seize opportunity 25. Be safe 26. Make work easier 27. Be secure
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Marsh, Charles
Publication:Communication World
Date:Sep 1, 1992
Previous Article:Employee communications - fracture for success and security.
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