How I used Jason Isbell to teach feature writing

My sports writing and reporting students at SUNY Oswego are working on their final projects, in which they are supposed to write a longer-form enterprise story on an event, topic or issue that interests them.

And to teach them a valuable lesson about feature writing, I tuned to Jason Isbell.

The lesson here is not just the vividness of Isbell’s writing, his use of details or the simplicity of his language — although he’s among the best lyricists in music today.

The lesson is what’s not in the song.

There’s no solution.

There’s no answer. Isbell’s narrator in “Last of My Kind” doesn’t try to solve the problem, or make big proclamations about the state of the world, his place in or or about how to fix the world. The song is an observation of the faded pictures in his mind.

This is a valuable tool for young writers. Too often, I’ve read stories where my students feel like they have to take a stand on the issue they are reporting. They feel like they have to take a side. Or they feel like their job is to present a solution to the issue they’re writing about. They feel compelled to offer a solution.

That’s not often true. Just because you are writing a story about an issue doesn’t mean you have to solve it. Those solutions can feel forced and make the writing feel labored. It can also lead to bad reporting habits, where a young writer only looks for evidence that supports their point of view.

Sometimes, the real power in reporting can come from simply observing a situation and writing what you observe in clean, clear, evocative language.