Gerald Grow's Website
method for helping students generate ideas for magazine articles.
by Gerald Grow (Florida
A&M University) [Reprinted from Magazine Forum]
be used freely by teachers
and reprinted with credit in small-circulation, educational
Please send notice of such publication to author.
Audience, Type of Article, and Subject Matter
with the Game
1. An example of lists
generated for the Article Idea Game
is the age of computers, there are still innovative teaching methods
that require no more than a good idea and a blackboard.
When asked to come up with ideas for articles, most new students
in magazine writing have difficulty realizing what makes a good
article idea. This exercise is designed to teach them that an
article idea has three components:
it is addressed to a specific audience;
it is about a specific topic,
it identifies a suitable form
for the article.
of the students in my magazine writing classes
have backgrounds in news writing or public relations, and they
need to learn the concept of "the magazine article idea."
Those who have taken newswriting usually think that publications
are driven by current events and that all articles are directed
to the same audience.
assumptions about audience
are nearly all implicit; students learn to write one standard
way, for one standard, poorly defined audience. Public relations
students, on the other hand, develop a sensitivity for different
audiences, especially if they have had experience writing
brochures, or speeches. But they are used to thinking that publications
originate from the needs of the sponsoring organization, and that
their job is to communicate the sponsor's message to the receiving
A magazine writing course must help students see that the content
of magazines arises from the relationship between the magazine
and its readers. With the exception of newsweeklies, few magazines
depend on current events for the subjects of their articles, nor
do they limit themselves to features with news pegs.
relations magazines shape their content according to the dictates
of some external group--such as a company or a church. The vast
majority of commercial consumer magazines and most trade magazines
derive their subject matter from an implicit relationship between
the magazine and its specific, targeted readership. Magazines
serve specific readers. They respond to and lead those specific
Type of Article. Students are helped by having
to study and emulate--what a computer-oriented student called
"templates" for articles. A limited number of such templates
account for most articles in familiar magazines. Experienced writers
may not give it a thought, but before writing an article, a student
is likely to be helped by deciding what kind of article to write.
I require students to specify the kind of article when they give
a an idea for an article.
Although there is no
single list of "types of articles,"
the first dozen you think of are likely cover most of the common
Subject Matter. News coverage can make the
world seem bewildering.
Most items are new, often startling, and rarely connected with
the news events of other days and weeks. Here again, (non-news)
magazines are different. Nearly every magazine shows a remarkable
consistency in content, with articles on topics of recurring interest
to a specific readership.
Though it is easy for
students (and teachers)
to think of magazines that are directed to readers like themselves,
most magazines are directed to highly specific audiences with
concerns quite unlike those of college students and teachers.
Tow Times, for example, regularly explains new equipment and changes
in liability laws that affect the tow truck drivers who read it.
Middle Eastern Dancer regularly addresses the health concerns
of professional belly-dancers. Cats publishes a monthly calendar
of cat shows. Miami Skier features snow-skiing articles for travelers
from a semi-tropical climate. It's Me! gives fashion advice for
and contains ads directed to large women.
blackboard, make three
Types of Articles
Ask students to come up with at least 10 items for each column--10
common types of articles that appear in magazines, 10 subject
areas of wide intrest, and 10 audiences that are targeted by magazines.
Write these on the board; number each list, starting at 1. Table
1 shows the lists created by students in a recent class.
Break into groups. Each group picks a number from each column
and challenges another group to come up with at least one article
idea based on that combination. After the challenged gives its
answers, other class members contribute their ideas and the challenged
group picks three items to challenge the next group. And so on.
At first, ask them to start with likely combination like these:
Challenge: A how-to article on animals
for working mothers.
Plausible article Idea: "Help your child choose a pet you can afford to
Challenge: A how-to article for working
mothers dealing with education.
Plausible article Idea: "How to help your child in school."
Challenge: A humor article on sports
Plausible article Idea: "How I gave up Complaining and Learned to Love
Then ask them to pick combinations that will be difficult
to turn into article ideas, like these:
Challenge: A how-to article on government
directed to teens.
Plausible article Idea: "How to Use Parliamentary Procedure to Push
Your Bill," for a publication directed to participants in Boys State.
Challenge: A travel article on death
for sports fans.
Plausible article Idea: An article for a sports magazine describing a
visit to the graves and shrines of famous sports figures, and telling
readers how to get there.
Challenge: An inspiration article for seniors
Plausible article Idea: Articles on people who became successful late
in life. One article might be about people who became millionaires
after 60. Any one of those could be profiled in another magazine. One
article could tell about famous people throughout history who did their
great work late in life (Milton, Cervantes, Grandma Moses).
Challenge: A profile article on food
for a religious audience.
Plausible article Idea: Profile of the chef at a kosher restaurant.
Teaching with the Game
One of the game,
go for the excitement. Stay in the background. Encourage students
to be creative and to enjoy themselves. Silly ideas are entirely
appropriate at this stage.
In Stage Two, occasionally extend an article idea
some questions, such as:
"What if you wanted to write another article using the same
research, but for a different audience?
What audience would
you pick and how
would you change the focus?" (Example: "The Cost of
Your Pet," for a magazine that focuses on family finances.)
Or: "What if you
wanted to write
a different type of article on the same subject for the same audience?"
"What similar subjects could you write about for this same
audience? What article types could you use?"
"Do you think there is actually a magazine for that audience
that would consider such an article?" (This question sends
them to Writer's Market to see if there really are magazines directed
to high school student body presidents.)
"That's a great idea; what kind of research would you need
to do to carry it out? As a student writer, could you gain access
to the people and sources you need for this article? How? If not,
"What ideas have you heard or had tonight that you might
actually be able to write about this semester?"
Stage Three: Assign students to do three
analyses of published
articles as a way of developing their awareness of types of articles,
audiences, and subject matter.
1. Choose a magazine and analyze the different types
of articles and subjects covered in it.
2. Choose a subject and analyze how it is treated differently by
magazines directed to three different audiences or
in different types of articles.
3. Choose a type of article and analyze how it has been used to convey different
subject matter to different audiences.
And you are off and running.
The heart of this approach, though, remains the Article Idea Game,
which you can keep returning to briefly during lulls in later
Table 1. An
example of lists generated for the Article Idea Game. To play the game, pick a number from each
and challenge someone to come up with an article idea that meets
those specifications. The article contains instructions on how
to generate such a list with your own class.
|Types of Articles
1. How to
2. Personal experience
15. Love and sex
18. Quality of Life
1. Working mothers
2. Single women
7. Business men
8. Single men
9. Sports Fans
11. Senior citizens
12. Religious audiences
13. Tow Truck drivers
14. Readers of a specific regional magazine
15. Professionals (in what field?)
� 1994 by Gerald Grow <email@example.com>