Maybe you were on a campus tour when you heard that Macalester alum and benefactor DeWitt Wallace brought a cow to the top of chapel when he was a student. Perhaps you were strolling past Old Main when a friend mentioned the time that Carleton students ferried “the rock” down to Northfield, then mailed it back—postage due.
Like any school with more than 100 years of history, Macalester has a treasure trove of incredible tales that seem true enough. Tell the stories often enough, and they develop a sheen of authenticity that seems too good to fact-check. Until now.
To find out the truth behind Macalester’s own urban legends, we dug deep into the archives with archivist and special collections librarian Ellen Holt-Werle, called up experts from Macalester and beyond, and scoured the Web for supporting details. The tales you’ve heard are sometimes true. They’re sometimes false. And they’re sometimes not nearly as interesting as what actually happened.
After 10 years working on my own, I recently formed an LLC: Capstone Communications.
When I started freelancing 10 years ago, I focused mostly on solo projects. Over the past two years, however, I’ve hired researchers, writers, designers, copy editors, and photographers to work with me on larger projects. To make that process seamless for both my clients and for the people who help me complete these projects, I’ve formed an LLC, Capstone Communications.
Are you still writing stories?
Yep. I’ll continue to write alumni magazine stories, copy for donor publications, and other communications materials for colleges.
So what’s the big deal, anyway?
Now I can also take on larger projects. Starting in 2012, with the help of other contractors who have deep experience in higher education, I’ve tackled annual reports, major case statements, gift proposals, and stewardship publications. I found fantastic freelancers and honed my process to perfection so I can deliver more than just words on a page. I can take a project from concept to print — or anywhere in between.
It was important to me to make sure I could get every detail right before I made the jump. Now, if you’ve got bigger projects to manage, but you still want to work with someone who really “gets” higher ed publications, I can help.
Every year, I eagerly await the announcement of CASE’s Circle of Excellence awards. (Fact: I’m a nerd.)
I pay particular attention to the awards for general excellence in the general interest magazine awards.
Over the years, I’ve had the chance to work in the editorial offices of—and as a writer for—many CASE award winners, and I’ve noticed that they often approach things differently than their peers. And while I gathered this information working for alumni magazines, I think many of these lessons apply much more broadly to college publications and communications in general.
Here are 5 lessons I’ve learned from those experiences.
1. Details matter. In all of the best magazines I’ve worked for, details are critical. At the Carleton Voice, for example, we didn’t see headlines and captions as afterthoughts, but as entry points. We spent hours crafting clever headlines. (My personal favorite was a story about the school’s croquet club called “Something Wicket This Way Comes.”)
In a more recent story I wrote for the magazine about an alumna who balanced law school with mixed martial arts, I wrote a caption that used a quote that didn’t make it into the body copy. The alum said she assuaged her mom’s fears about her high-risk fights by assuring her that she’d “crush her opponents like bugs.” Many of us do interviews and discover we can’t pack all the great quotes into the story; captions are the perfect place to use them.
Great magazines find new ways to pack in interesting details: Self, Runner’s World, and Esquire, for example, boost interest in their boring masthead by adding one-question Q&A’s that their editors, designers, and writers answer. Men’s Health runs a “Top 10” list (last month: top 10 beers) running along the top margins of the magazine’s pages, creating a whole new reason to flip through the magazine more than once. I love the care that these editors take in making every facet of their magazine interesting.
2. Playing with format leads to better stories. There’s no question that there’s a certain reverence for the long-form story, perhaps bolstered by the viral think pieces that appear every so often in publications like the New Yorker and The Atlantic. It’s been helped along by sites like Medium and The Atavist. But in the end, sometimes a long story is just…long.
I do plenty of stories that are 2,500+ words of straight narrative. But I would argue—and I think the best editors would agree—that you can tell a different kind of story by breaking that story into smaller parts, not just through subheads, but through sidebars, interesting packaging, or simply stories on a theme.
Denison does this particularly inventively with a front and cover that bleeds into the first six pages of the magazine (You can see an example here, though its full power comes only when you’ve got the magazine in your hands).
Instead of doing a mammoth feature on an innovative capstone course, Georgia Tech’s alumni magazine is breaking it down into four 1,000-word mini-features over the course of a year, walking readers through the challenging process of creating brand-new inventions.
There are inspiring approaches to stories in magazines like GQ, Mental Floss, and New York. It’s worth studying the best to see how you can use other approaches to tell stories in interesting ways.
3. Knowing your readers makes a difference. Kenyon’s Shawn Presley once told me he surveyed his readers after every issue. He learned, for example, that the most popular stories were campus-based tales about parties and ghost stories and myths. He learned that readers were more likely to read alumni profiles if they were embedded in class notes, rather than placed in the feature well. More important, he used that magazine to create a publication that alumni loved—and that earned critical raves.
4. It’s okay to be funny. In 2001, when the Carleton Voice won a Sibley, my editor and I pored over the judges’ notes. The judges noted the magazine’s photography, design, and story selection. But they also mentioned something that surprised me at the time: the magazine’s sense of humor.
In part, it represented who we were as editors and writers. We were happy to profile the campus Quidditch club or craft a quiz about the wacky metaphors offered up by a visiting campus speaker. It was partly who we were as editors and writers, but that sense of joy and playfulness was also deeply embedded in Carleton’s campus culture. Students were always planning crazy events—24-hour jugglathons, for example—and the president himself loved choreographing the occasional April Fool’s prank.
Those things weren’t part of any strategic plan or capital campaign, but to us, the represented the energy and inventiveness of the campus. And that was worth highlighting. Kenyon does a great job with this, including a totally amazing and stealable Rural Legendspiece on campus myths.
5. Good ideas can always get better. With the stories I am most proud of, there is almost always give and take between the editor as we develop the idea and shape the final story. Years ago, I came up with an idea for a story package about cheating. I pitched it to editor after editor, and got turned down time after time.
Then Denison’s Mo Harmon saw it—and figured out how to make it better. A story about cheating was kind of edgy. But what if the story was about how all the ways that cheating is actually good? It was a brilliant way to take an okay story idea to the next level, and you can see the results in Bluffs for a Better World.
The point is that you never have to accept a boring story idea as given—there are almost always ways to give it an interesting twist.
University research scientists are expected to be pioneers in their labs. A new group of HHMI professors will be meeting those same high expectations in the classroom.
The traditional systems of rewards and recognition and allocation of resources at research universities often encourage an imbalance: most science faculty members are far more focused on their work as research scientists than their work as educators.
“It has been a great, missed opportunity,” says Sean B. Carroll, vice president for science education at HHMI. “Research universities attract some of the brightest young minds in the nation, and they are home to some of the best scientists. They offer a potentially superb environment for engaging students in both the classroom and the laboratory.”
Fifteen years before the Pyramid of Giza broke ground, the Pharaoh Sneferu oversaw the construction of what is believed to be the first-ever pyramid with smooth, rather than stepped, sides. The plans were grand. The sides were steep. And halfway through construction, the pyramid began to crumble. The 54-degree angle was simply too steep to maintain. The builders scrambled to salvage the massive structure by changing the pyramid’s angle to a more moderate 43 degrees. Today, the wonky-looking structure—known as the Bent Pyramid—still stands.
Egyptians had learned the hard way about the limits of pyramid construction and the power of mathematical slope. The pyramids that followed, like the more famous one 20 miles north in Giza, were steep—nearly 52 degrees—but the angles were never quite as sharp as those that nearly did in Sneferu’s project.
From the Summer 2014 issue of the University of Minnesota’s Legacy Magazine:
For decades, Karen Oberhauser has tracked monarch butterflies from sites in Minnesota and elsewhere to their winter home in central Mexico. Oberhauser, an associate professor in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences, has long been in awe of the fact that an insect that weighs no more than a paper clip can make this epic journey. In recent years, however, her awe has transformed into concern: these gorgeous, fragile creatures are dying off. In some cases, specific monarch populations have declined by nearly 90 percent during the past decade.
Their dwindling numbers aren’t just a concern on their own. They’re also a barometer for even greater environmental concerns, like the increasing presence of insecticides in the environment and diminishing prairie habitats, says Oberhauser. “Monarchs are an indicator of what’s probably going on with a lot of other, harder-to-measure species,” she says.
But thanks to Oberhauser’s research and outreach efforts, which have been supported by both individuals and corporations, she’s helping rebuild monarch populations one lawn, one schoolyard, and one student at a time.
A couple years ago, I asked an editor what she found frustrating about editing her alumni magazine. She had a beautiful magazine — the stories were smart and topical. The design was gorgeous. The problem, she said, was the letters page. Alumni had a million ways to contact the magazine. Regular mail, email, phone, Twitter. But she and her staff practically had to beg for reader feedback.
I spent a lot of time thinking about that problem. I’d worked as an editor at an alumni magazine for five years, and I remembered having the same concerns.
So I started asking other alumni magazine editors: What’s the story that’s gotten the most feedback for your magazine? I asked 5 editors. Then 10. Then 20.
In all, I’ve talked to more than two dozen editors about this topic during the past couple years, and while every magazine is a little different, I began seeing patterns.
The stories that garnered the most letters and emails weren’t the stories about amazing alumni or presidential transitions. They weren’t even the deeply reported narratives that landed CASE awards.
Here’s the story that consistently won out: campus myths, and the truth (or the half-truths) behind them. Did a student really lead a horse to the top of the tallest building on campus? Are there secret tunnels beneath campus? What about that one story about the famous alum?
Skeptical, I tried it out on the Facebook page linked to my own alma mater. I asked alumni to share any campus legends that they remembered and might like investigated. Within an hour, I had more than 80 responses. By the end of the day? Well, you can see for yourself:
The story I ended up writing, which includes the back stories of the six most-requested legends, will appear in an upcoming issue of the magazine. I hope the editors get a thousand letters.
But the real story is this: You don’t have to come up with great ideas on your own. You can use successful templates from other magazines and make them unique to your school.
Sign up for my free quarterly email newsletter and I’ll send you a 5-page Insider’s Guide with detailed information on other alumni magazine story topics that generated lots of reader feedback — and that you can use for your own magazine:
From Vol. 90, No. 3 of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine:
If you fractured your femur, a doctor would likely insert a rod into your bone shaft to hold the bone together and help it heal. It’s an effective solution, but the process of inserting the screws to hold the bone and rod together is difficult. And because radiation is involved, it’s also somewhat risky. Or, at least, it used to be: In tandem with the medical company Smith and Nephew, a team of five Georgia Tech students last year—working together on their Senior Capstone Design Project—developed a simple, low-cost technique to help overcome these challenges.
Thanks to the Capstone Design Project’s emphasis on real-world development, these students didn’t work on the problem in a vacuum. They talked to doctors, studied cadavers and tested numerous options. After zeroing in on the best solution, they built a successful prototype that required no radiation. The product and the technique they developed has the potential to benefit people who often cannot afford expensive medical care. And although her team can’t discuss the project in depth—thanks to a nondisclosure agreement with Smith and Nephew—Elizabeth Morris, BME 14, says the company was “thrilled with their work.”
From the Summer 2014 issue of Saint John’s Magazine:
Most doctors are hardwired to help. They want their patients to live healthier lives. They want to make an impact in their clinics and in their communities. And for doctors who graduated from Saint John’s University, there’s often a pull to think even bigger. “Saint John’s nurtures the idea that we should be part of the larger global community, and that it’s important to make things better for those in need,” says anesthesiologist Ryan Jense ’98. “We’re asked to pursue these ideas in many different ways.”
Jense isn’t the only Johnnie who feels that way. We talked to five doctors who have traveled the world to help those who need it most. Often, they say, their patients are not the only ones who benefit.
From the Summer 2014 issue of TheGrinnell Magazine:
Plenty of people agonize about if (and how) they should change their last names when they tie the knot. But few people tackle the problem with the zeal of Caryn Platt ’92 and Paul Helwing in the months before their 1994 marriage. Both were eager to change their names to something different, because they felt it represented a concrete way to show that they were embarking on a journey together. The question was how to find a name that perfectly captured their new union, while also recognizing their pasts as individuals.
First, they tried to tackle the problem through technology; Helwing wrote a computer program to generate new last names based on the letters of their birth names. The only problem was that the program worked a little too well: Helwing tried to print out the results at his office over a weekend and returned on Monday to a 2-foot-high stack of pages. The printer was still running.
Next, Platt bought packages of refrigerator magnet letters, then pulled out four sets of the letters in their last names . They invited a few friends over, mixed up a batch of margaritas, and had their friends rearrange the letters like a high-stakes game of Scrabble. The right combination could result in a name that would be carried forward for generations. Still, although the results were better, they weren’t sure they’d found just the right one.
Sign up for my free quarterly newsletter and I’ll send you my field-tested template to get even the busiest professors to respond to your interview requests:
Higher Ed? Hire Erin.
I have more than 15 years' experience writing for the nation's top college and university publications.
I've written stories about the growing cost of higher education, innovative new teaching methods, and the business of liberal arts education. I've also done fun projects on political optimism, debunking common myths, and social entrepreneurs.
My clients include CASE/Sibley award winners, top education grant makers, and highly ranked colleges by U.S. News and World Report.
How can I help you? Contact me at erin [at] erinpeterson.com.