Joseph J. Marks
Extension and Agricultural Information
A good feature writer is imaginative, curious, nosey, attentive, unconventional, witty, and usually is not above "borrowing" a good writing idea from someone else.
He or she does a good job of digging out information, then is clever enough to twist even dull data into interesting and sometimes amusing prose.
What is a feature?
It differs from straight news in one respect — its intent. A news story provides information about an event, idea or situation. The feature does a bit more. It also may:
- Interpret or add depth and color to the news
The feature usually does not follow the inverted pyramid style of the news story.
The hard news story lead based on one of the five "Ws" (who, what, when, where, why) or the H (how) is seldom appropriate for a feature story. The feature lead "sets the stage" for the story and generally cannot stand alone.
A feature lead must interest the reader. It's the "grabber" that gets the reader into the story and keeps him or her going.
Many rules for news writing also apply to feature writing: short sentences, easy words, personal words, active verbs. But feature stories can be more fun to write, because you can be more creative.
When do you write a feature?
A feature is a better alternative than a news story when you want to accomplish one of the purposes cited above. When educational material is hard to swallow, a feature can be the "spoonful of sugar" that helps the medicine go down. Remember, features generally are longer than news stories. Make sure the editor will give you the space for one before you write it.
What makes a feature work?
"Easy" writing makes for easy reading. That means short sentences, simple words, active verbs, personal words and transitions to keep the article moving forward, interest-building devices, and a "kicker" that ends the feature with some punch.
For today's mass audiences, news stories averaging between 15 and 20 words per sentence are easy reading. Sentences longer than 30 words may be hard to understand.
Keep paragraphs short. And vary them — from one word to five average sentences. Remember, a 100-word paragraph looks mighty long in a narrow newspaper column. Editors don't like them. Neither do readers.
Use short, simple words in place of longer, multi-syllable words with the same meaning. When a technical or difficult word must be used, explain it as simply as possible.
Words like "you," "we," a person's name, direct quote, etc., give your copy more human interest. Admittedly, this kind of personalization is more often used in "feature" rather than in "hard news" stories. But it is still a good technique for holding reader interest.
Action verbs keep a story moving and grab the reader more than "to be" verbs that show little action.
Transitions are used to add to, illustrate or extend a point. They usually begin with words like "and," "furthermore," "also," "or," "nor," "moreover," "along with," etc.
They summarize: "at last," "so," "finally," "all in all," etc.
They link cause and effect: "as a result," "that produced," "consequently," etc.
They refer back: "they," "those," "these," "that," "few," "who," "whom," "except for," etc.
They restrict and qualify: "provided," "but," "however," "in case," "unless," "only if," etc.
Personalize the people you are writing about and what they are doing; provide quotes, human interest.
"Kicker." While the lead or grabber at the beginning gets the reader into a story, the kicker at the end of a feature should have a punch line that helps the reader remember the story.
Write features and get opinions from others, especially editors. Check the feature below for style and feature writing devices.
Feature stories start in the mind. You have something you want to tell others. You would like to make it at least as interesting to your readers as it is to you.
One winter day, I was asked to teach feature writing to extension specialists. I wanted to give them some personal examples close to their field and began searching through their newsletters.
I found mainly straight information summarized from university or agency publications. Then up popped an item that hit my eye immediately. My goodness! There were words like "I" and "my" in the item. I knew in a moment a feature couldn't be far away.
The following passage is an original newsletter item, followed by a "P.S." of additional information I gathered from a safety specialist. After you read the material in the box, look at some of the alternate leads I developed for writing my feature story. Then look at the end product. No Pulitzer prize winner, but I have a hunch it has more effect on readers than a straightforward, "you-should-be-careful-of-kitchen-fires-because" story.
If you plan to write for a particular publication, you should read it. What kind of content does the editor use? What's the format? The style?
If your main concern is to reach a particular audience, then you should decide which publication or publications would best reach that audience. At MU, we have extensive mailing lists generally broken down by commodity, such as agricultural engineering, beef, cotton, dairy, farm management, feed, fruits, and vegetables, horse, lawn and landscape, poultry, sheep, soil and crops, and swine. Then we also have a list of Missouri newspapers, a home economics list, newspapers in each geographic area, etc.
Once you have decided on the newspaper or magazine for your article, contact someone on the staff (preferably the editor) and explain your story.
Once you get approval to go ahead, outline the story. You can do this in your head or on paper. One technique is simply to go through your notes and number parts of them in the order that you think they should appear in the story. I like to dictate my stories, simply because I can then get them down on paper more quickly without breaking my thought process with fingers jammed in typewriter keys, etc.
I also recommend that when you write your first draft, include a lot of paragraphs. That way, you can always cut, paste and reorganize the article if you need to.
Another technique is to include subheads. Magazines or newspapers may or may not be able to use these, but it helps the editor in setting up the article. It's also a way for the editor to say, "Hey, I need more information under that subhead on 'How to _____.'"
In developing an article for a magazine, be careful to research the article carefully and then write something that does not talk down to the readers. A person who reads a farm magazine, for example, is usually well versed on his or her business and doesn't have to be told every detail. That doesn't mean you should make the article so technical that only a few people can read it. It's a fine line, and one that requires a little experience or a lot of practice.
Before you write, think
Who is the audience? Do they care about this? How do I get their attention? How do I appeal to them?
Then get ready to write
Gather information (who, what, when, where, why and how). Outline and mark important points. Go! (you can edit and cut and paste later). Let someone read your story (quickly for general impressions — then slowly for accuracy). Polish and publish. Edit and send (or take) a neat copy to the newspaper(s) and magazine(s) of your choice. Be prepared for a humbling experience. (Editors have a way of doing that to writers.)
Good luck! I'll look for you in print.