The Article Idea Game
A classroom method for helping students generate ideas for magazine articles.
Copyright 1994 by Gerald Grow (Florida A&M University) [Reprinted from Magazine Forum]
May be used freely by teachers and reprinted with credit in small-circulation, educational publications. Please send notice of such publication to author. Contact.
Available at <http://www.longleaf.net>
Although this 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 about a specific topic, and
it identifies a suitable form for the article.
Audience. Most 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.
Newswriting’s 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 advertisements, 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 audience.
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.
Only public 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 readers.
Type of Article. Students are helped by having examples 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 ones.
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.
On the blackboard, make three column headings:
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 keep.”
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 for homemakers.
Plausible article Idea: “How I gave up Complaining and Learned to Love Saturday Football.”
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 on money.
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
In Stage 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 by asking 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, who could?”
“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 classes.
Table 1. An example of lists generated for the Article Idea Game. To play the game, pick a number from each column 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 Articles1. How to
2. Personal experience
15. Love and sex
18. Quality of Life
|Audiences1. 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?)
Copyright 1994 by Gerald Grow