“What can I write about?” That’s the ongoing question writing and journalism instructors are asked by students all the time, but here are some answers and examples that can help students learn to write on many topics and not struggle with what those topics might be.
In journalism classes students learn they need to be timely when they write for newspapers. Beat reporting is an area of classroom study combined with active writing about contemporary events in first-hand accounts of what goes on in community venues. It teaches them about specialization in writing, because that is what occurs in working with many newspapers. It provides experience on how one can do an investigative development of a story in a particular focus area as well. This active writing means visiting courtrooms, city council meetings, school board affairs, police departments and ordinary organizations and businesses that are part of a community. That’s why in college curriculums it is called “beat reporting,” as it stands out in its focus on immediate, close-up concerns that journalists see and touch in the daily experience of writing. It’s what students learn to function as part of that special world.
As a college instructor and supervisor of beat reporting, I learned to answer that question “what should I write about” in ways similar to those offered in English writing classes in high schools where I have taught. The answer is always, “Write about your day,” or the directive “just walk around” and that direction means many avenues that relate to what one knows best, where one lives, studies, moves and learns where people relate in intimate, interesting ways.
This is the example I have used with students over the years, that provokes class discussion and allows students to grapple with ideas that can be expanded and developed in writing assignments.
This is what I tell them, something a teacher can use to begin the process of helping students learn for themselves to discover what to write about. ” Writing begins with you, as you see your world, You see the details, you hear the voices, you feel an atmosphere where you are. You begin that day where you begin to sort out topics, just by walking around.
You visit the shop on the corner. ‘I see you have a new shipment of shoes,’ you observe. ‘Do you expect to be selling more shoes this season? What do you expect will happen in your industry this year?’ The answers that come develop that story. That shipment of shoes might lead to talk of new fashions. The industry movements may speak of the economy and the shoe sales that may rise or fall as a consequence to what happens in business. The rest of the story is personal touch, from that special business, that owner’s needs and concerns.”
The topic for writing is made easy by that experience where interaction and asking questions brings various ideas to mind. In that English or journalism class, the student can focus on the needs specific to that business discussed and how that business relates to the businesses in the overall community. The thesis can include city and state business affairs, pending legislation and a host of other details. Or the theme can end with a “day in the life” point of view of a single business entity in town. A brief encounter with a shop owner, or even business employees, can foster various topics, that young writers can expand upon. That’s the learning process, Jerome Bruner, the master of cognitive development in education, explains brings most effective learning. It is that direct involvement that can make a difference in what and how a student learns and how that information is processed in ways that can be remembered and used later on.
More of that day, used for teaching how topics develop, might come simply from looking around. The grass has turned brown, and stayed brown for weeks. What might that imply for the season ahead, for climate, or just for local interest in weather patterns and change is the question that allows for a number of writing topics to develop in many ways. An old man walking his dog on a street somewhere might bring an essay or story on the benefits of having a pet during the aging process or how regular walking improves health.
All that is felt, tasted and touched on an ordinary day can be developed into that story needed to satisfy classroom requirements in writing. It is that process of doing where learning occurs, as experts in education declare. It is, however, sometimes forgotten in just listing writing topics on a blackboard for students to examine. Sometimes that example comes with it a field trip where students can write down all the topics they discover as they take that walk around town.
My students don’t run out of topics after an exercise like this. It is motivational tool as well, as young people learn to open their eyes, their ears, their minds and their hearts and focus on what’s around them to sharpen those creative skills and use them for writing well in many, many ways.
The Journalism Beat System
Jerome Bruner and the process of education