February 4, 2011 / Copywriting / Winter 2011

The Write Stuff: getting past writing to the rubric to write to the reader

Written by Jami Williams

The five-paragraph essay… MLA… word quota research papers: an English teacher’s to-do list? Probably, but more important, they are the sworn enemy of interesting yearbook writing.

All the double-duty English/Publications teachers are frantically grabbing for their smelling salts, but consider this for a moment: We spend an entire educational career teaching kids how to draw things out, look at one subject from every angle, get the words on the paper and hit the quota and let’s face it, sometimes we are pushing not so much for quality, but for quantity. And then BAM! They join the yearbook staff and we want them to be concise, fun, off-the-cuff. But how do we get them there? Here are some old magazine/feature writing tricks that might help those word nerds shave a few off the top and get to the fun.

Six Word Life Story

This makes for a fun exercise in class, but can also be a great way to get a new perspective on how students see themselves as opposed to how they are viewed by others. For example, imagine the homecoming queen/head cheerleader whose SWLS is, “Bet you won’t fight me, though…” or the massive football player who wrote, “I wanted to play the violin…” This is a great photo feature on its own, or it can be used to start or end an interview.

One Word Interview

Twenty questions and only one word responses are allowed and the potential for pages and pages of captioning is at the fingertips of the writers. Take the 20 words and make a word picture, use them as a story in and of themselves or pick one and use it as a paragraph starter.

This Is a Recording

One old trick is to carry a voice recorder, such as an MP3 recorder, and speak phrases into it. This is particularly handy for students who are stuck in the “write to the rubric” rut.  Actually describing an event as it happens in one’s own words AND voice can lead to a more casual writing tone that is perfect for the readership of a yearbook.

The Eternal Journal

Instead of asking students to write about an event, ask them to journal that event first. There’s something personal and laid back about being able to write to no one in particular. Some of the best stuff students write, some of the most yearbook-worthy, are blurbs that would never make it to a formal draft.

The fact of the matter is yearbook writing, much like magazine writing, isn’t so much journalistic as it is reader-friendly. Letting students write like they speak, allowing them the freedom to be casual and of-the-moment with their readers brings them one step closer to creating a yearbook that is more than just something to look at; it is something to be visually devoured.

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Jami Williams

Jami Williams is the journalism/publications adviser for Mexico High School/Hart Career Center in Mexico, Mo. She brings a background in magazine feature writing, editing, production and design as well as newspaper reporting to her job as an adviser. Williams also teaches World Literature I where she makes her students strictly adhere to essay formats and word limits.