April 15, 1999 / Spring 1999 / Theme

Theme copy should tell year’s story as students lived it

Written by Crystal Kazmierski

Embark. Embark. Now there is a theme word for you. Every yearbook in eras past has featured threshold-crossing, challenge-facing, embarking students in some form or another.

I thought about that at a yearbook conference where I was teaching theme writing. After asking each group to pen a sample of opening copy, I was surprised to find that the word “embark” is still very much alive.

“Now tell me, do you embark often? Is this embarkation a daily thing? A group thing? Or can you embark alone?”

The students asked about this seemed confused. They told me that they did not usually embark anywhere. (One of them moved for the shared thesaurus.)

I asked, “What do you do then? If you don’t embark, I mean.”

“Well, we, uh…”

“Does embarking in some way define the personality of your school? Your students? Does it sum up the year?”

Blank stares. Nervous laughter. Silence.

“How would you describe what was happening at school on the telephone with your best friend? What would you write in an e-mail?”

I had struck a chord. As we role-played a mock phone conversation, words like “embark,” and “threshold,” (and a string of meaningless cliche’s) disappeared. True, a yearbook’s theme copy should date the year, but not with platitudes that a politician might “articulate.”

A platitude might sound deep, but does it communicate? Does it cut to the heart of what teens feel about music, relationships, major events or sappy everyday trivialities? Theme copy should not be about showing how “smart” or “philosophical” the writers can be. Instead, it should overflow with words students use in casual conversation. It should move themmake them laugh, cry, remember.

Any staff can write about facing obstacles, meeting challenges, or experiencing changes. What makes theme copy work is the personal details that can only be written by a particular staff at a particular school during a particular year. Specifically, what were the obstacles, challenges and changes? And not just the big, important ones.

The Indian yearbook staff at Shawnee Mission North High School, Overland Park, Kan., hit the nail on the head with this opening copy creating a mental picture of the chaos brought on by unfinished construction at the beginning of the school year. “Ceilings were left with gaping holes to the roof, and floors were without tile. Loose wires and abandoned tools were scattered throughout the building and construction workers stood out among the crowd… Part of the school was brand new, another part was in progress, and another had yet to be touched. Even after starting school one day late, teachers’ books and lesson plans were still in storage… Students were not allowed access to the library. Lockers were uninhabitable. Clocks had mysteriously vanished. The interior of the school looked entirely different from how it had looked in the spring.”

Nothing lofty here. No platitudes. No big, fancy words. It does not seek to impress. It tells a story. This writing is specific. It creates a singular moment in time unique to this school. That is what theme copy should do.

While theme writing typically introduces the book and ties all of the sections together, it can also be supported in non-theme areas through related topics and writing styles. For example, the Lair yearbook staff at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School, Shawnee, Kan., boldly declared their theme, “Communication,” in the opening, division and closing copy, and then whispered it within sections through issues presented as “conversations.” This unique format provided excellent, personalized coverage, while reinforcing the theme. Some of the topics were even theme-directed with aspects of communication, such as cell phones, pagers, relationships and the Internet.

Theme copy is all about being personal. Making memories. Playing with details. Having fun.

I chuckled as our editor scrolled through the opening pages for our ’99 book on the computer screen. It began on the front cover where he tickled the reader: “Inside this book you will find plenty of words and pictures for your friends to sign over.” He continued, “Feel free to toss it in your backpack, place it decoratively on your mantle, or use it as a doorstop.” Then he suggested, “One day, you might just read some of it.”

At first I wondered what kind of theme copy is this? The further I read, the more I realized his purpose. He did not write it for the faculty, the community or the scholastic press associations. Instead, he captured the heart of his peers in words and expressions that they could relate to.

While he dated the year with major events like the Starr investigation and the impeachment trials, he did not overlook the details that personalized the year. “Just how did we survive before those automatic flushers?” he pondered. Even a reference to something as petty as the new toilets in the school bath rooms was significant in dating the year.

He included familiar music trends, and took a chance on writing in the first person, almost as if the book were doing the talking.

“We danced to the Brian Setzer Orchestra, but didn’t know what to do with Rammstein, as German industrial tapped into the mainstream with ‘Du Hast.’ Brandy and Monica wouldn’t leave me alone. I really didn’t care whose boy it was, so long as they didn’t fight over him while I was listening to the radio.”

While I may have reacted with a clueless “Huh?” I observed quite the opposite in the staff whose grins broadened knowingly in joyful reminiscence.

Of course not every staff will (or should) use such a funky tone in their theme writing. That is not the point. The theme will dictate the writing style. But whether the theme is serious or light, the copy should capture the reader through words and images that are interesting and entertaining, blending substance, humor, and reflection. There should be lots of specifics to remember the year and enough heart to enjoy the process.

Do that and you just might be embarking up the right tree.


One Response to “Theme copy should tell year’s story as students lived it”

January 07, 2011 at 10:22 am, Ginny Crandall said:

Crystal, you have written a very poignant article, although I know it probably wasn’t designed to be. Somehow, when you are talking about theme copy and the articles from the high school yearbooks, I can see in my head what the students are describing and it somehow places me in a location that I have never been before. I just hope that there is a document scanning service that they can employ for keeping these memories forever.

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Crystal Kazmierski

With a background in commercial art, Crystal Kazmierski advises the Wings yearbook at Arrowhead Christian Academy in Redlands, California, and teaches design and photography at journalism workshops and conventions across the country. Under Crystal’s guidance, Wings has received multiple CSPA Gold Crown and NSPA Pacemaker awards; including winning a Yearbook Pacemaker 18 times in the last 19 years. Crystal is also the author of Finding Your Theme, a unit in Walsworth’s Yearbook Suite curriculum.