JMC 3023: Syllabus

Expect a fast-paced journey that will be a lot of work and, I hope, a lot of fun.

What: JMC 3023, Feature Writing
Who: Instructor Seth Prince (Just call me Seth, not professor, sir or anything else.)
When/where we meet: 11:15 a.m.-1:05 p.m. Monday, Wednesday in Gaylord 1030
Office hours: By appointment, Copeland 168A (inside The Oklahoma Daily)
Contact: sethprince@ou.edu, @seth_prince, 405.325.6334


OVERVIEW

The goal of this class is to help you write the best nonfiction features of your career to date and in doing so to learn broader storytelling takeaways of benefit in your upcoming professional life.  

In doing so we will dispel any notion that feature writing is at the simple end of the journalism spectrum, and instead make clear that the best of this type of work relies on more fully developed reporting skills coupled with advanced writing tools. We’ll dive into real-world written and broadcast examples, discussions about and reporting of several basic types of features: Q&A, essay, profile/obituary, human interest and trend. In addition, you will research and interview one of your favorite writers to understand his or her career path and the story behind a great story. You will experiment with audio. Also, to develop experience with the marketing of stories, you will write a resume and pitch letter that you would send to an editor you would like to purchase your work.

Three things are essential for success in this course: A creative and collaborative approach, a dedicated work ethic and diligent time-management skills.

Like a professional newsroom, our classroom meetings will be discussion oriented and students will be expected – and graded in part on their willingness – to consistently contribute to that conversation. Our discussion will stress the importance of understanding your audience, generating original story ideas, developing interviewing and reporting skills, experimenting with story structure/format and, finally, refining writing techniques such as tension, action, dialog, detail and character development to generate fully-formed, digital-era features.


HOW AND WHERE WE WILL WORK

To experiment with new platforms for writing, editing, collaboration and ultimately publishing, we will write and edit in Google Drive and then upload to Canvas. After peer and instructor editing creates a fully formed and graded product, whenever possible we will aim to get our stories published to broader audiences, be it via OU Daily or off-campus outlets. We also will explore audio-driven work in the vein of podcasts.


WHAT WE WILL CREATE AND HOW IT WILL BE JUDGED

We’ll aim to see the forest for the trees — details matter greatly, but conceptual learning is vital, too.

If you’re a word person, write us the story. If you’re a broadcast person, write us the script and then make the package. Want to make a podcast? I’d love to see us experiment with that. Whatever your major, you will be required to think digitally, and to provide some of the visuals that would be associated with the final product we would like to get published.

You will be graded on eight, equally weighted, 250-point assignments/components of your work and contributions to the course.

  1. Participation.
  2. Essay.
  3. Q&A.
  4. Profile/Obituary.
  5. Human interest.
  6. Trend.
  7. Pitch letter/resume.
  8. Story behind the story.

Completing peer reviews and visiting office hours will improve work but not guarantee top grades. Finding your errors is your responsibility. There is no extra credit. Letter grades are based on:

  • A. Excellent. Publishable with little or no revision. The concept being conveyed to an audience is clear, well organized and well conceived. The information is complete and in context. Only minor style, grammar errors.
  • B. Good. Publishable with minor revision. The concept being conveyed to an audience is satisfactory and demonstrates a basic understanding of media principles. The information is well developed and contextual; limited style, grammar or mechanical errors.
  • C. Average. Publishable with moderate revision, additional information gathering and/or copy editing. Meets minimum assignment requirements.
  • D. Poor. Publishable only with substantial revision. Lacks focus, clarity, structure; incomplete information and context; significant style, grammar or mechanical errors; some basic assignment requirements missing.
  • F. Failing. Unpublishable. Fact error(s). Fails basic assignment requirements.

Some of the best work produced in this course by previous students has ended up garnering national honors:


Standards and expectations

Attendance/participation/discussion. Media professionals are expected to be on time, prepared and engaged, and so will be members of our class. Unless excused, failure to do so will lower your overall grade. Arrange to stay on track if you know you will be absent.

Deadlines. Just like media professionals, you will face frequent and firm deadlines. Late work, unless excused, is penalized one letter grade per weekday.

Fact errors. This is an upper-division course. As such, and to model the paramount importance of media accuracy, fact errors on final work result in an automatic 50% assignment grade reduction.

Academic integrity. Honesty and trust are bedrock media ethics and the foundation of this course. Per OU’s Faculty Handbook, academic misconduct includes:

  • Cheating. “Use of unauthorized materials, methods or information in any academic exercise, including improper collaboration.”
  • Plagiarism. “Representation of the words and ideas of another as one’s own.”
  • Fabrication. “Falsification or invention of any information or citation in an academic exercise.”
  • Fraud. “Falsification, forgery or misrepresentation of academic work, including the resubmission of work performed in one class for credit in another class.”
  • Ignorance. “I did not know (transgression) was cheating” is not an excuse.
  • Underestimate the seriousness of this at your peril. My detector for bogus information and writing is well developed from years of working as an editor, and I will routinely fact-check your work and call your sources. Any student guilty of these or other forms of dishonesty will get a zero on the assignment in question, possibly fail the class and likely be reported to OU’s Integrity Council.

Diversity. Great features are about people, and people are inherently diverse in their races, ethnicities and life experiences. An important component of great feature writing is to accurately encompass the full portrait of our subjects and both how they experience and are perceived by the world.  This class includes components related to diversity, multiculturalism and inclusivity. You will be exposed to these ideas repeatedly, and we will discuss gender, race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, different abilities and other areas of difference as they relate to feature writing. Awareness of and willingness to understand these differences is a key step to being able to craft authentic and accurate features.

Special needs. Need to miss class for a religious holiday? Not a problem, just let me know. Need to adjust something about the class due to a pregnancy- or childbirth-related matter? Let’s make a new plan. Have any other issues that would potentially influence your performance? Please, notify me immediately. I will make every possible accommodation, including incorporating the services of the Accessibility and Disability Resource Center if beneficial, to give you the opportunity to succeed in this class.

JMC 3023: Q&A assignment

Goal

Capture a compelling conversation and storyline in lieu of a full-blown story.

Key dates

  • Monday, Sept. 28: Launch + be familiar with reading list + start interviews
  • Monday, Oct. 5: Final version turned in. (no peer review)

Reading list

For each style of feature I will ask you to complete I will provide some examples that we can discuss in class to help jog your creative muscles and that you can refer to for inspiration while you work on yours. Please read, listen or watch at least three of them — some by the pros, some by the students — before we launch each segment.

The assignment

Great features depend on great interviews, which are conversations with a purpose yet still open to unexpected possibilities. A well-done Q&A captures a compelling conversation and storyline with a person in lieu of a full-blown story.

You will

  • Record a 7-10 minute podcast that…
  • Introduces the person as well as the subject of the conversation along with why that’s a compelling angle now…
  • Encapsulates at least eight question/answer exchanges that move readers through the conversation in an engaging way…
  • And is relatable to a clearly defined audience.

You will not

  • Regurgitate a transcript of the interview with all the boring parts.

Rubric (250 points total)

  • Interview | 50 percent
    • Finds a compelling line or lines of conversation with the subject
    • Is explored in significant depth to explain while also providing a sense of the person’s character and style
    • Is relatable to a broad audience
  • Writing | 50 percent
    • Meets a 7-10 minute duration in podcast form
    • Uses clear, open-ended questions
    • Tells a story within the arc of conversation
    • Does not regurgitate a transcript of the interview
  • Deductions
    • Fact errors: -50 percent

JMC 3023: Class tools tutorial

Where we’ll work

Google Drive

We will write our stories or scripts in Google docs, set the share settings to “CAN EDIT” and then share them in a public folder for peer and instructor editing. If the folder is being wonky, also share the file via email. Edit by leaving comments, questions and suggestions as you see fit.

Every piece can be improved. Be constructive. Be real. But don’t be a jerk.

Remember, part of your participation grade will account for how engaged you are in providing genuine feedback to help your peers succeed.

Doodle polls

I’ve set these up for each individual writing conference in my office or via Zoom. Look for them on each assignment post. Sign up to schedule when you want to meet with me to discuss your story. Do so as we progress through the semester, or sign up for your preferred time now for all the assignments. It’s first come, first served.

Questions on any of these? Let me know.

JMC 3023: Essay assignment

Goal

Explore a landmark moment, experience or influence that informs who you are or aspire to be.

Key dates

  • Monday, Aug. 31: Launch + be familiar with reading list
  • Wednesday, Sept. 2: Individual story conferences (Sign up)
  • Monday, Sept. 7: Labor Day, no class
  • Wednesday Sept. 9: Peer-review day; draft shared via Google Drive
  • Wednesday, Sept. 16: Final version turned in, in both written and podcast format

Reading list

For each style of feature I will ask you to complete I will provide some examples that we can discuss in class to help jog your creative muscles and that you can refer to for inspiration while you work on yours. Please read, listen or watch at least three of them — some by the pros, some by the students — before we launch each segment.

The assignment

A poorly done essay is a trite waste of time. When done well, however, this style of writing can be among the most resonant and transcendent types of professional work, and be devoured by audiences accordingly. Two common elements of this style of writing when done well: Great storytelling rooted in universal themes and transformational moments.

You will

  • Write a minimum 750-word (digital) or 3-minute package (broadcast) piece that
  • Explores a landmark moment, experience or influence that informs who you are today or aspire to be in the future…
  • Is unflinching in its critical self-evaluation…
  • And is relatable to a clearly defined audience.

You will not

  • Write a journal entry that lacks appeal to a broad audience
  • Write an autobiography (these bore even your parents)

Rubric (250 points total)

  • Topic | 45 percent
    • Clearly informs who the writer is or aspires to become
    • Explored in significant depth
    • Has a universal theme or transformational moment, making it relatable to a broad audience
  • Writing | 45 percent
    • Meets the word-count or script-length minimum
    • Uses clear, conversational language
    • Unflinching in critical self-evaluation
    • Does not resort to journal-like style or autobiographical tendencies
  • Formats |10 percent
    • Turn in both a written version and a podcast version
  • Deductions
    • Fact errors: -50 percent
    • Spelling: -10 points
    • Grammar, punctuation, AP style: -1 point each

JMC 3023: Human interest assignment

Goal

Describe a real adventure, experience, project, crisis or quest involving people.

Key dates

  • Monday, Oct. 19: Launch + be familiar with reading list
  • Wednesday, Oct. 21: Individual story-selection and pre-reporting conferences
  • Monday, Nov. 2: Draft posted to Google Drive; peer-review day
  • Wednesday, Nov. 4: Individual mid-point story conferences
  • Wednesday, Nov. 11: Final version turned in

Reading list

For each style of feature I will ask you to complete I will provide some examples that we can discuss in class to help jog your creative muscles and that you can refer to for inspiration while you work on yours. Please read, listen or watch at least three of them — some by the pros, some by the students — before we launch each segment.

The assignment

A human-interest piece, in the words of a previous instructor of this course, describes a real adventure, experience, project, crisis or quest involving people. For our purposes, narrow your focus to a central character or small group of people working together. Also, consider using a narrative story-telling format grounded in a specific time and place and proceeding chronologically.

You will

  • Write a 1,000-word (digital) or 4-minute package (broadcast) piece that…
  • Appeals to an audience on an emotional and/or dramatic level…
  • Is fully-developed in examining the subject in depth via research and at least three sources (more may be necessary to be successful)…
  • And is relatable to a clearly defined audience.

Rubric (250 points total)

  • Topic | 50 percent
    • Clearly appeals to an audience on an emotional and/or dramatic level
    • Is explored in significant depth via research and at least three sources (more may be necessary to be successful)
    • Is relatable to a broad audience
  • Writing | 50 percent
    • Meets the word-count or script-length minimum
    • Uses clear, conversational language
    • Fully examines the subject
  • Deductions
    • Fact errors: -50 percent
    • Spelling: -10 points
    • Grammar, punctuation, AP style: -1 point each