True North Magazine, published in 2002.
(Photo courtesy of Michelle Bartleman)
What’s on the pages may have changed, but what’s behind them hasn’t
I made a magazine like this once before, in a course just like the one that made this magazine. Well, almost like it.
It was the spring semester of 2002. The journalism computer lab had a few shiny new iMac G4s. They were the only machines with QuarkXpress, the page layout program of choice, back when Adobe’s PageMaker was better known as RageMaker. I had been the layout editor at the campus newspaper for two years, which made me the de facto layout editor for that year’s magazine production class. This was fine by me; I was, by my own admission, “not a writer.” So of course, almost two decades later, I’m teaching the damn class.
Our theme back then was change. It was mostly a collection of stories around campus: new buildings, an art tour, varsity athletes and a look at the ever-changing classroom technologies. That article—titled Technoprof and whose cover line references a VCR—explains what a blog is, introduces new software called Blackboard, and champions a progressive professor who puts his course reading materials “on a CD-ROM, one for each student.” Another article introduces a wacky new sport picking up steam, called disc golf. The closest we got to any feminist issues was a story about the women’s hockey team trying to join the university league, which had “officially recognized women’s hockey” just three years earlier.
I am, of course, both proud and sentimental about that year’s issue of True North. I spent every day of spring break sitting at one of those G4s in a field of blueberries—trust me, this is funny if you remember the G4’s turn-of-the-century, fruit salad-themed predecessors—shoulder to shoulder with my professor, who was equal parts terrifying and mesmerizing. The cerulean cover with its modern grunge font, the back page with its Andy Warhol quote, and all 47 pages in between are etched into my memory, like course materials on a CD-ROM.
It was, however, lightweight, compared to the topics this team has tackled. Asexuality, Two Spirit folks, polyamory, gender-neutral beauty, BDSM, fat phobia, mental health and parenting, all laced together by a global pandemic: this magazine has its finger on the pulse of this place and time in history. And yet, what’s on the pages may have changed, but what’s behind the pages isn’t all that different.
Back then, I was an aviation student with a thing for graphic design. I was a journalism major, too (in theory). But as of this, my fourth semester, I had taken algebra, anthropology, aviation law, pre-calc, two art history classes, and the ever-enthralling Elements of Weather, but not a single journalism course. I didn’t get a style guide smackdown until that summer’s Writing for the Media and, ironically, I took magazine writing the following fall.
My staunch assertion that “I am not a writer” carried no weight with my professor; I was getting a byline whether I wanted one or not. I capitulated with a soft Q&A about the university’s head gymnastics coach (who was my coach) and a column about myself. Well, technically it was “aboot” myself and my experience as a Canadian “international” student in the U.S. The writing is best described as snarky. I probably thought it an act of rebellion to use the powers of my position to eat up an entire page with 14 snapshots of myself in a variety of maple leaf-emblazoned headwear.
When they signed up for Magazine Editing, the situation for many on this team was not unlike my own, albeit the results have included fewer hats. All eight are professional communications majors who have spent the last few years learning critical theory and comms strategy, research methods, grammar, composition and rhetoric. If one could hear a stomach drop, the sound would have echoed across our digital classroom when my sweet clew of bookworms realized I wasn’t going to let them hide behind screens fixing comma splices and verifying that a group of worms is, in fact, a clew. Learning to edit means understanding how to write, so like it or not, they were also getting bylines. And they were going to have to talk to people in order to get them.
One student messaged me: “I am not a journalism student: I haven’t written articles for any of my classes, I’ve never conducted interviews and I’m unfamiliar with the style. Do you think I’m cut out for this?” Another was less diplomatic: “I’m a non-journalist coward.”
Add those to the compendium of emails I’ve collected this semester, ranging from “I’m a bit intimidated by it all” to “I’m tearing my hair out.”
My own professor sat next to me in that computer lab day after day, patiently editing and restructuring and correcting and advising and re-editing. Her handwritten notes, in proper editing markup on printed proofs, were almost the same as those I’ve been typing all semester with digital comments in Word: Be specific. Avoid passive voice. Avoid overstatement. Avoid qualifiers. Save words. No clichés. Please concentrate on organization. I have unresolved questions (presumably about the full page of my face).
As this crew finished the daunting task of writing their drafts and stepped into their roles as magazine editors, these were the same notes they began to leave for each other.
I remind my students time and again that both writing and editing are skills. There are rules and guidelines that can be learned and practiced. A copy of the original rulebook, Strunk’s century-old classic The Elements of Style, sits on my desk, a gift from my college roommate, the editor-in-chief of our magazine. The inscription is to “Michelle: A.K.A. Ms. ‘I am not a writer.’”
It took two journalism degrees, press credentials and a journalism award for me to finally concede that I am, indeed, a writer. But it’s taken an army of thoughtful and thorough editors to make me a good one.
“I’m not destined to write for periodicals,” one of my students told me after a tough round of edits.
Funny that. Neither was I.