This post is primarily for City University journalism students but if you are interesting in writing features, do read on…
In our last workshop, we covered news writing. This is the bread-and-butter of any working journalist’s trade: the ability to convey news in a pithy, compelling and appropriate style. News writing is journalism at its most functional.
What is a feature?
The imperative in feature writing is a little different. I like to think of it as an extended conversation with the reader. For this reason, newspapers often regard feature writers, along with columnists, as a corps that is integral to their identity. Writing fantastic feature stories can really help you to stand out from the crowd.
In newspapers, features tend to come after the other staples such as home news, foreign news, leaders (the small non-bylined articles that express that newspaper’s stance on the big issues of the day) and opinion-editorial (called op-ed, or comment). This position in the middle of the paper, or in a separate supplement, reflects the fact that features are aimed at readers who have the time and inclination to consume a longer article.
Where do you start?
Anyone who commits to reading your article should come away feeling rewarded, rather than short-changed. You need to think about: the choice of subject; the new approach or information that you are bringing to the party; and the tone. As I recommended in the last post: read, read, read! Find lots of features, read them and think really hard about why some were so much better than others.
Even though features are not news stories, there is usually some kind of news ‘peg’. It might be the publication of a book, or a court hearing, or a legal ruling, or the publication of an alarming trend. It might be an ongoing news story. Whichever topic you choose, are you sure that readers want to read 1,000 words or more on it? If not, then think of something else. If you’re not sure yourself, then ask your colleagues. If you and your friends can’t get enthused about a feature, then it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to interest anyone else.
Ok, you’ve got a topic….
Once you’ve got an interesting topic, you need to be able to say something new about it. You cannot regurgitate something that has already been in the news pages – well, you can, but you need to be an exceptional writer to get away with it. Look at the links above: they are all genuinely interesting and deserving of a long read. A top geneticist who has flown home in disgrace after a race row: a legal case determining whether a chimp is a ‘person’; the greed of genomics companies with monopolies on cancer tests; how scientists contain the most contagious viruses.
They are, at heart, all stories about people (except, maybe, for the chimp one – we’ll have to wait and see on that). The features re-state the news peg but also add context, colour and discussion. They add richness to the story by providing more detailed answers to the ‘who, what, how, why, when’. They also move the story forward by asking: what happens next?
Developing a narrative ‘flow’
Like any piece of writing, your feature needs to tell a story. It sounds like a cliché but pieces of extended writing really do need a beginning, a middle and an end. It doesn’t need to be in chronological order – you don’t want to end up reciting a long list of facts in date order.
The beginning – what writers call the ‘intro’ – is crucial. This is where you open the bargaining with a reader. Given him or her a reason to keep reading. Make your opening paragraph dramatic, urgent, important, absorbing – or quirky. Hook him or her in – the best features are the ones that make you miss your tube stop. Can you find a way of making readers think: ‘I have to know what happens next’ ?
It might help to make a note of the important things you want to get across – and then think about how you might link them. When I wrote a recent feature on painkillers, my starting point was a phone interview with Roger Knaggs. A lot of what he said was incredibly interesting and new to me.
Given that I had 5 hours to deliver 1,300 words, I also didn’t have time to talk to anyone else. I did the obvious and Googled the subject – and somewhere along the line I found a list of Victorian medicines. Among them was Mother’s Quietness – basically, opium for babies. I knew it had to be my intro.
Never submit your first draft…
…because it might be a fact dump. Read it critically. Have you successfully conveyed the impression that this is an urgent/important/untold/fascinating story? Have you checked facts and figures? Have you given the names and affiliations of people you’ve quoted? And, talking of quotes, do your quotes add anything to the story or merely re-state something you’ve already said in your own words? If you have the good fortune to talk to an important scientist, don’t just ask the academically important questions. Ask them a question that brings your feature alive: ‘When you revived the Ebola patient, what were her first words? How did it feel to save someone’s life?” Add colour, add life, add things that you don’t think people will know.
Now read your feature yet again. Does it…flow? Or is the move between successive paragraphs jarring and unnatural? Finding links between paragraphs isn’t easy – try moving a troublesome paragraph somewhere else and writing in a new link. If that doesn’t work, do you need that paragraph at all? In my painkiller feature, look at the first sentence of each paragraph: this seems to be a natural place to connect the themes in successive paragraphs.
Does your feature answer the questions a reader might have? When is the next court hearing? What’s likely to happen to that disgraced scientist? How many more people are likely to die in the current Ebola outbreak? Don’t leave the reader hungering for basic information. Add a small box if necessary: this is a good way to put in basic facts and figures without slowing down the narrative, and sometimes makes a page look nice.
Practise, practise, practise
Becoming a good feature writer takes practice and experience. Ask others to read your work, and ask them to appraise your work honestly. Definitely don’t expect to get it right first or second time, or even tenth time. Check the byline pictures in national newspapers: the feature writers are rarely the youngest chicks in the nest. It’s hard enough to produce decent news stories to deadline; it’s even trickier to write longer pieces with panache.
Good luck and see you on Thursday.
Please bring in a feature that you’ve enjoyed – and this time we’ll look at them!