traci's lists of ten

Traci's 8th List of Ten:
Ten Ways to Use An Old Stack of Magazines

I frequently have a stack of old magazines and try to find a use for them (beyond recycling). I've created some writing assignments that ask students to consider a particular magazine, generally to hone their analytical skills by writing an analytical, expository or persuasive piece.

My students often enjoy this assignment because they get to work with popular magazines that they are interested in anyway -- it gives them an excuse to read that copy of Sports Illustrated, Ebony, or People. After all, it's now homework. If I ask students to provide their own magazines for these assignments, I always have a pile of magazines available in class for students who can't find a magazine on their own.

Though it doesn't always fit the assignment, I ask students to add a page that includes the bibliographic citation for the magazine that they examine. When they're working on an assignment such as writing a sales letter, where the citation really doesn't fit, I add a lot of explanation to make sure that they understand that while they need to add the bibliographical citation, it isn't really a part of the writing assignment -- it's more like an attached prewriting worksheet or peer review sheet.

Most of these assignments can be easily modified for use with a newspaper -- often by some simple rewording of the original assignment, replacing the word "magazine" with "newspaper."

  1. Assume that you work for an advertising agency, and your job is to create a classification system that explains the kinds of advertisements in a particular magazine to help account executives determine whether their client's products would fit in the magazine. You need to explain what kinds of advertisements are normally included in the magazine, including some detail about how the advertisements present the product or service to readers. Here's a possible way that the document would be used: an account executive is placing ads for a new children's breakfast cereal that is targeting health-conscious parents. The executive would pull your document to see whether the ad would fit in the magazine that you've examined.

    To get started, pull all the advertisements from your magazine that take up a full-page or more (in other words, also pull ads that take up two or more pages). Now go through the advertisements, and create a classification system to organize them into piles. For example, you might use a classification system based on the kind of product, the persuasive appeal used in the advertisement, or the segments of the audience that the advertisement is targeting. Once you've created these large categories, look for sub-categories that fit the ads (for instance, use of color, amount of text, and so on). When you've divided all the ads, write a paper that explains your classification system.

    [TWO TIPS: (1) If you ask students to bring their own magazines to class for this assignment, be sure that they understand that they need to bring a magazine that they are willing to destroy. (2) This assignment can be adapted by asking students to do an analysis of the magazine readers based on the advertisements that they find in the magazine.]

  2. Write an analysis of the readers who write letters to the editor for your particular magazine. Because there are only a handful of letters in any magazine, you might want to look at the letters from two or three issues to simplify the process of drawing conclusions about the people who have written the letters. Who are these readers? Based on these letters, what are the readers of your magazine interested in? What issues are important to them? What is the purpose of their letters? Do the letters show differing opinions or agreement? What conclusions can you draw when you think of the letters as a collected group -- what do they have in common?

    You need to turn in the pages from your magazine that include the letters you're analyzing. If you're working with your own magazine and you don't mind tearing out the pages, you can pull the original pages out and staple them to your paper. If you don't want to tear up your magazine or you're working with a borrowed magazine or a magazine at the library, attach a photocopy of the pages. Be sure to include all the letters for each issue that you examine.

  3. Analyze the document design for your magazine. How have the magazine editors used page layout, colors, graphics, and fonts to highlight and present information in the magazine? How are white space, paragraph length, and indentation used? What clues in the layout help indicate the significance of an article? How can you tell a featured article from a regular column? How does the cover relate to the contents? How does the layout on the cover draw your attention to the contents of the magazine? Draw all your ideas together in an analytical paper that explains the design principles that are used by the magazine.

    [TEACHING TIP: For shorter papers or more focused pieces, ask students to look at the magazine cover only or the layout for a particular article or column.]

  4. Consider the absences in your magazine -- what's left out? Begin by going through your magazine and taking notes on the kinds of things that are covered in the articles and shown in the pictures. If you had to describe the magazine to someone, how would you complete these sentences:

    This magazine covers _______, _______, and _______.

    It uses lots of _______, _______, and _______ to emphasize articles.

    The pictures in the magazine show _______, _______, and _______.

    The readers of this magazine are _______, _______, and _______.

    Now think about the things that fit the theme and audience for the magazine but that aren't included in this magazine. Are there issues that fit the magazine's focus and audience but that aren't mentioned anywhere? Are there things that are explained but not pictured (or things that are pictured but never discussed)? Are there categories of readers who are never shown in the pictures? Explore the things that are left out of the magazine, and write an essay that discusses the things that are missing. Why do you think that they are missing?

    A note: Don't focus on anything silly -- while it's true that Sports Illustrated has no articles on baking pastries, it's a silly point. Articles on baking pastries would not fit the theme and audience for Sports Illustrated. Be realistic -- look for things that fit the magazine but that are not included.

  5. Choose three major articles in your magazine. Compare their content, technique, and presentation. Why are the three of them in the same magazine? Begin by looking closely at three areas in the magazine:

    1. What common ideas or issues do they discuss? How are the three related to the audience for the magazine? Why do the people who read this magazine care about the issues that these articles cover? What makes the ideas significant? The editors could have included a great number of articles; why did they choose these three?

    2. How does the technique -- the organization, the genre, description, style, and so forth -- compare? What similarities and differences do you notice?

    3. Finally, take a look at the document design. If you just looked at the three articles, without reading them, would you know that they were from the same magazine? What visual clues does the magazine use to provide continuity from one article to the next?

    After you gather all your observations together, write a paper that analyzes the similarities and differences between the articles and draws conclusions about their relationship to one another and to the larger magazine as a whole.

    [TEACHING TIP: You may need to give students guidance in choosing their articles. The assignment provides the widest range when students work with unrelated articles. The magazine a student is working with may have a section of related pieces (for instance, a news story on a recent happening, an interview with someone who was involved in the event, and an editorial commentary that considers the significance of the event). Urge students to work with only one of these three articles, choosing their other articles from another section of the magazine.]

  6. Write a letter to the editor, responding to one of the articles or issues that is covered in the magazine. First, you'll need to go through the magazine and choose an article that catches your attention. You need to choose an article that covers something you are interested in and can say something about.

    Next, gather your ideas for the letter by completing these sentences:
    1. I am interested in this article because _____________________.
    2. I feel _______ about this article because it _____________________.
    3. In response, I want to say _____________________ to the editor.

    With your ideas gathered, you can begin shaping your letter. The letter should begin by indicating the article that you're responding to and a brief statement of the reason that you're writing. The letter should then explain each point that you want to make to support your argument. Turn to the letters included in the issue of the magazine you have for examples. Remember that you need to follow letter format, beginning with "To the Editor" and ending with a signature block.

    [ALTERNATE ASSIGNMENT: Students might write a letter to an author whose article appears in the magazine.]

  7. You're an editorial assistant working for a publisher. The publisher is interested in launching a new magazine, and your job is to examine the competition to help the publishing company focus their efforts. Write a complete analysis of one of the competing magazines. What themes, ideas, or issues are the main arena of the magazine? What do the articles cover? What kind of depth and detail does the competing magazine use? Who reads the magazine? What can you tell about the audience? Think about questions such as these: how old are they? What are their hobbies and interests? do they have children? and so forth. What style does it use? How does the magazine use document design? What is the "look and feel" of the magazine? What makes it stand out in the rack of magazines at the store? What makes it different and identifiable? In your paper, outline the characteristics that make the magazine that you're examining special, with an eye to the special features that your new magazine will need to be aware of.

  8. Take a look at the Table of Contents for the magazine you're examining. What information is included? How do the titles listed in the Table of Contents compare to those on the actual articles? What do the short descriptions under the titles say? Are author's names listed? How are color and layout used to highlight articles? How are pictures and graphics used? How many pages are used for the table? How are the articles divided into categories? How are the sections subtitled? Write an analytical paper that explores the way that the Table of Contents represents the magazine and the persuasive techniques that the editors have used to draw your attention to the articles.

  9. Write a short sales letter for the magazine, urging the reader to subscribe or to purchase a gift subscription. Take a look at the articles and advertisements in the magazine to get an idea of who reads the magazine and what their interests are. Brainstorm a list of things that readers look for in the magazine, the reasons that they would want to read the articles. Once you've gathered your list, shape the ideas into a letter that persuades someone to subscribe to the particular magazine. To help shape your language, take a look at the way that things are phrased in the magazine. Think about the style that the magazine uses and the way that style affects the style that you use in your sales letter.

  10. Brainstorm a list of words that come to mind when you think of the magazine that you're examining. The words might describe the focus of the magazine, the ideals that are important to the readers, or qualities that the readers possess. Once you've created your list, choose one term and write a paper that discusses how that term is represented in the magazine. Explore how the magazine defines the term in its presentation of articles and advertisements. If this magazine were your only way to know what words like "beauty," "fitness," or "love" mean, what would the definition be? Be sure that your paper (1) gives the definition and (2) provides details from the magazine that support your definition.