I’ve been teaching feature writing since 1987. For 15 years I taught part-time — and latterly as an assistant professor on faculty — in Ryerson University’s School of Journalism in Toronto. Since 2003, I’ve been teaching Advanced Magazine Writing in the Magazine Publishing program of Ryerson’s G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education. I’ve included the outline for this course below.
I also give workshops and lectures, as well as appear at conferences and panels.
Advanced Feature Writing — CDJN 118
This course, designed for senior students of magazine feature writing, is intended to further develop your reporting and narrative writing skills. We’ll be paying particular attention to what is called “narrative nonfiction” (also known as “literary journalism”), which combines journalism’s attention to reporting and factual accuracy with many of the dramatic techniques of fiction. At its best, narrative nonfiction holds readers, entertaining them while simultaneously providing the depth and context necessary to understand complex issues and events, or capture the essence of a profile subject. (This is the default style for any of the larger-market magazines in the business.)
The best magazine writers are first-rate reporters, imaginative thinkers and accomplished prose stylists. As Mark Kramer points out in his introductory essay to the anthology, Literary Journalism: A New Collection of the Best American Nonfiction, the strength of this writing – a blend of sociology, anthropology, memoir writing, fictional techniques, history and standard news reporting – is in the way writers become personally engaged with their subjects. Whether this is done explicitly – some writers involve themselves as characters in the unfolding events – or implicitly, via a strong point of view and the authoritative use of detail, the result is distinct from the detached, “objective” voice associated with traditional news reports.
There’s another advantage to these skills. Many feature writers discover that their sophisticated stylistic and structural talents can lead to lucrative writing work outside of journalism, in the corporate world and in the non-profit sector.
If you’re in this course, you’ve either successfully completed Magazine Writing (Staff and Freelance) or have sufficient professional feature writing experience to qualify without it. Either way, you should be acquainted with many of the elementary principles of magazine feature writing – lead times, focusing ideas and developing a theme, conducting basic research, using description to enliven the storytelling. But being aware of them and being able to skillfully employ them are two different things. In this course, we’ll be concentrating on taking the principles and making them work for you, and expanding on some of them. (For example: constructing a feature using descriptive scenes as structural building blocks.)
The class will combine casual lectures with informal group discussions. I’ll be handing out various readings and we’ll be critiquing stories as well as discussing aspects of the craft. (In addition to reporting and writing, we’ll talk about ethics, freelancing, dealing with editors, etc.) I’ll also be inviting guests from the industry to join us. You can contact me (phone or e-mail) between our weekly sessions; I only ask that you don’t do so frivolously. (Like most of you, I work full-time.)
There will be several short writing assignments through the semester. The major assignment for the course will be a 2,500 word feature. I expect to see the elements we’ll be looking at in class used in your features. These include evidence of on-the-scene reporting, a narrative arc consisting of a well-crafted beginning-middle-end, character development, the use of dialogue instead of (or in addition to) traditional quotations, the use of symbol to support the theme, etc. (This course requires you to get out into the city, interviewing people and gathering scenes – in broadcasting, it would be called “footage” – to provide the visual components for your features.)
Standards are understandably high in this course. (Some of you may be pursuing an equivalency for a course related to the Bachelor of Journalism degree offered by Ryerson’s School of Journalism. Others may be working in the industry and taking this course as professional development.) The main feature story and short writing assignments will be graded according to professional standards. I will take into account the clarity and coherence of the prose, the quality and depth of the research and reporting, the accuracy of everything from factual information to spellings, and the ability to produce on deadline and to the assigned length. I will evaluate participation based on initiative and involvement in the course (for example, doing the assigned readings and participating in class discussions). The breakdown of the grades is:
Main feature story: 50%
Short writing assignments: 30%
Deadlines for writing assignments will be enforced. A writer is expected to notify an editor, in advance, of legitimate circumstances that might affect meeting a deadline. The same applies in this course. A missed deadline means the loss of a grade point per day for that assignment. Consistent lateness means failure.
Formats: You can e-mail me your assignments, but they should be in Word format as an attachment. (It’s awkward to edit when an assignment is pasted into an e-mail.) All assignments should include your name, the name of the assignment and a word count.
Marina Kamalova, Advanced Feature Writing, Fall 2015
I took David’s class in the fall of 2015 and now feel so much more confident about my writing and researching, especially on longer pieces. The classes were engaging and spurred lots of discussion so I always looked forward to going. David also invited guest speakers who work in the industry, giving us exposure to experts in their field, like interview expert Paul McLaughlin and editors at local publications. David was always very quick to reply to questions and gave feedback right away. He even met with me for coffee on a weekend to give me specific feedback on my feature article and personal essay. I would recommend this class to anyone looking to develop their writing, whether seasoned writers or those who are new to journalism, like I was.
Nancy Fornasiero, Advanced Feature Writing, Winter 2015
I almost didn’t enroll in David Hayes’ Feature Writing Course at Ryerson because the tuition was a bit outside my budget, but am I ever happy that I did. Thanks to David’s coaching and edits, my classroom assignments turned out to be ready to publish. I sold all three of them, allowing me to recover all of my tuition fees, plus the cost of my commute every week from the ‘burbs. The best part is that I established relationships with a number of magazine editors with whom I’ve been doing ongoing work ever since. Frankly, though, even without all that, the course was worth every penny. I highly recommend it to anyone serious about improving their writing.
Jennifer Lee, Advanced Feature Writing, Winter 2014
David Hayes’ course, Advanced Feature Writing, is probably the best course I’ve taken at Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education. He takes a nice approach by using a variety of writing examples–from iconic articles to published stories by his former students. I used to think that the magazine industry would be very hard to break into, but within a few months of taking his class, I was able to publish pieces in magazines and newspapers. Even after the course ended, David provided encouragement and advice to help me get my pieces across the finish line. He is honest, open-minded and willing to share his ideas and opinions. The freelance writing market (and journalism in general) is very competitive at the moment and it’s refreshing to work with someone like David.
Sue Bowness, Advanced Feature Writing, Winter 2013
I’d already been freelancing for several years when I took Advanced Feature Writing, but I had heard good things about it and also had an intriguing personal story (about my mother’s adoption and reunion with her birth family in her late 60s) that I’d wanted to write my way rather than immediately pitching to an editor. I took the course and now the feature’s scheduled to be published this fall. So that can be another reason to take it, to force you to work on that special feature in the bottom drawer.
Suggested Reading List
Writers (and editors, for that matter) are dedicated readers. I recommend reading a variety of publications, as well as anthologies of great magazine journalism. The kind of nonfiction we’re concerned with can be found, with varying degrees of consistency, in Canadian and international publications such as Toronto Life, The Walrus, Chatelaine, Reader’s Digest, Report on Business, Canadian Business, This Magazine, Maisonneuve, Geist, The Ryerson Review of Journalism, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, Vanity Fair, Fortune, Bloomberg Businessweek, Fast Company, Outside, Esquire, GQ, Rolling Stone, Granta and others. Online sites I recommend include Slate, Salon and Nieman Storyboard.
On Writing Well: William Zinsser (Harper & Row)
Asking Questions: The Art of the Media Interview: Paul McLaughlin (Available at Ryerson University’s bookstore or at http://paulmclaughlin.ca/books/asking-questions/.)
The Elements of Style: William Strunk & E.B. White (Macmillan)
The Bigger Picture: Elements of Feature Writing: Edited by Ivor Shapiro. (Also available at Ryerson’s bookstore.)
Literary Journalism: ed: Norman Sims & Mark Kramer (Ballantine)
The Art of Fact: ed: Kevin Kerrane & Ben Yagoda (Scribner)
The Best American Magazine Writing (Public Affairs) Published annually.
The Best American Essays (Houghton Mifflin Company) Published annually.
The New Journalism: ed: Tom Wolfe & E.W. Johnson (Picador. A classic. Might have to order it used.)
Why Are You Telling Me This; Taking Risks; To Arrive Where You Are; Word Carving. (These are four Canadian literary journalism anthologies published by Banff Centre Press.)
The Gay Talese Reader (Walker Books)
The John McPhee Reader (Vintage)
The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Joan Didion (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters with Extraordinary People: Susan Orlean (Random House)
Pulphead: Essays: John Jeremiah Sullivan (FSG Originals)
Somewhere in America: Mark Singer (Mariner Books)
The Purple Decades: Tom Wolfe (Berkley Books)
The Devil Problem and Other True Stories and Reporting: David Remnick (Random House)
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