2Learning ObjectivesDescribe the special characteristics of a feature storyList ideas that could be developed into feature storiesExplain the importance of organization in the writing processWrite a polished feature story for publication or production
3What is Feature Writing? Feature—A prominent news story written like a short piece of fiction. The story is usually not related to a current event.
4What is Feature Writing? You should think of a feature as a news story written like a piece of short fiction. You, as a writer, must combine the rigors of factual reporting in news writing with the creative freedom of short-story writing. Therefore, the feature story’s form must be more fluid than that of an actual news story; the inverted pyramid style must be sacrificed so that a story can have a distinct beginning, middle and end. The readers won’t be able to scan a few paragraphs; they will have to read the entire story to understand it.
5What is Feature Writing? Feature stories place a greater emphasis on facts that have human interest. You can write a feature about anyone if you can find an unusual angle that captures the interest of your readers.
6What is Feature Writing? Generally, feature stories are of two types: news features and timeless stories.A news feature is usually written as a follow-up or a sidebar story that is linked to a breaking news event. A sidebar is an article that accompanies and appears beside the main news story.
7What is Feature Writing? Additionally, many features are developed around what is called a news peg. A news peg merely means the relationship of a feature to, or how it is pegged on, something else in the news.For example, a story on the safety of football equipment might be pegged on the fact that your school’s quarterback recently suffered a head injury in a game. That feature, of course should run during football season.
8What is Feature Writing? A timeless story, in contrast, does not have to be used immediately. The information in the story will be just as relevant in the next edition of the paper as it is in this one. A feature on how to make a good impression or on the funny things people do in the bathrooms is not time bound.
9What is Feature Writing? In either type of feature—news features or timeless stories—good reporting is at the center of what you do. You collect details as many as possible. You describe people, settings and feelings: the elements of storytelling. When all details are added together, the reader is placed in the scene you are describing.
10Finding Feature IdeasAuthor E.B. White’s advice to young writers who want to get ahead without delay was, “Don’t write about man, write about a man.” Perhaps the best way to follow this advice is to localize and personalize your stories. Tell your stories through the experiences of individuals in your school community. The more your readers are affected, the more importance they will place on a story. Furthermore, a story that takes place close to your readers will have more appeal.
11Finding Feature IdeasReading a story about a classmate’s volunteering time at a local soup kitchen will engage your audience more than a story about a new soup kitchen’s opening in a neighboring community.Although feature stories can be about things, the strongest features are almost always about people.
12Finding Subjects That Matter In feature writing there are no restrictions on subject matter. You are only limited by your imagination. Often, a feature is nothing more than a simple story about a common person in an uncommon circumstance. The feature writer’s job is to find a fresh angle—to find the story behind the person.
13Finding Subjects That Matter cont. Consider the following topics that deal with the ordinary:Foreign exchange studentsEating disordersPart-time jobsUnusual hobbiesTeacher featuresFavorite moviesFavorite celebritiesFast-food restaurantsFashion trendsTop ten lists
14Finding Subjects That Matter cont. In contrast, author Roy Peter Clark suggests that a writer can cultivate an eye for the unusual, offbeat topic. The following feature story topics deal with the offbeat:Talk radioGuerrilla kindnessWeirdest cravingThe truth about goat cheeseThe best books not to readCrazy answering machine messagesBeepersCoincidencesPsychotherapyThe irony of individualism
15ProfilesOne of the more popular types of feature story is the profile. A profile is a short, vivid character sketch. Unfortunately, too many profiles turn into a tedious recounting of biographical facts: “She was born near Red Cloud and attended high school in Superior…” Other unsuccessful profiles are merely a few unrelated anecdotes sandwiched between quotations.
16Profiles cont.A good profile includes impressions, explanations and points of view. A writer should make sure that the subject of the profile lives on the page by providing dramatic tension and telling details.Begin with an unusual insight or newsworthy detail. Then emphasize what is unique about the person. You can organize the material by “using flashbacks” or “highlighting the individual’s many roles.”
17Getting the Story DownYou are a reporter, then a writer. This means that before your fingers ever hit the keys, you get to experience the thrill of the hunt, the giddy feeling that comes when the facts all fit together and you have something important to say. However, after you have had the fun of getting the story, you still have the painstaking work of getting the story right.
18Thinking About Beginnings The beginning of a story must pull the reader in. The first sentence must make them want to continue to the second. That does not mean that the beginning—the lead—has to be extraordinary. Instead, it should be honest to the story first and compelling second.Being honest or compelling is not always easy. The lead, however, does not need to be viewed in terms of a gimmick or a hook. (A hook is something in a story that captures the reader’s attention enough to cause him to move on to the next paragraph.) You must think of making the whole story compelling rather than merely focusing on a clever beginning.
19The SummaryUsing a summary paragraph as a lead is similar to the use of the lead in the news story. The introductory paragraphs indicate the direction the entire article will take. Often, the summary paragraph answers the questions of who, what, when, where, why and how.
20The Summary cont.The following is a good lead that takes the form of a summary:It is the thing your parents make you do. It is the place where you first fall in love. It is the way you learn the disturbing truth that many people’s work is tedious. It is what you will be nostalgic about—but not for many, many years. It is the last time you will have to know how to make a lanyard.It is the Summer Job, that moderately distorted Introduction to Adulthood—accurate to the extent that it introduces kids to paychecks, taxes and getting up early, false to the extent that come Labor Day it is over. (Elizabeth Kastor, Washington Post)
21The Striking Statement A striking statement used as a lead shocks or surprises the reader. The reader, astounded by some fact or idea, is promised the details later in the article:I have a confession to make, a revelation that may tarnish my reputation as a politically correct woman of the 90’s—I laughed at Lush Limbaugh. This has been such a traumatic experience for me that I usually insult every chance I get. (Tiffany Hartgen, Bruin News, Twin Falls, Idaho)
22The Striking Statement cont. The 137th Ohio State Fair still had more than two weeks to run when the fat man dies. The sideshow workers took down the sign advertising 529-pound Big Billy Pork Chop, and with considerable effort the mortal remains of Big Billy were removed too.But the show—one of America’s largest and longest-running state fairs—must go on and so, a good fat man being hard to find, Zoma the Deranged from South America was brought in to replace Mr. Pork Chop. (Christopher Corbett, Washington Post)
23The Descriptive LeadThe descriptive lead is constructed with concrete, vivid details. The writer paints a clear picture of the scene, the individuals and their emotional states. The following is an example:You might find them staring at the stars, or you may see them building telescopes. But wherever you spot them, planetarium director Gene Zajac and librarian Kelly Jons are “out-of-this-world.”Jons and Zajac have a starlit history together in astronomy they said. They have star-gazed, built telescopes and constructed a mirror-grinding machine that rubs two glass surfaces against a course surface to make a concave and convex lens. (Debbie Libman, Shakerite, Shaker Heights High School, Shaker Heights, Ohio)
24The NarrativeThe narrative lead is probably the most popular. Narrative leads recount stories in which things happen. They often incorporate incidents or anecdotes. Dialogue can be used to draw the reader into the narrative.
25The Narrative cont. Action is the key: The beat rhythmically transforms the dancers. Competing rhythms challenge everyone’s ability. The rain that had been competing for attention stops and so does the music. The dancers are told, “Do it again. But with more feeling this time. Get over being self-conscious. You’ll never grow as a dancer if you’re so concerned with what everyone else thinks.” The music starts again and the dancers attempt perfection one more time. (Chelsea Bushnell, Axe, South Eugene High School, Eugene, Ore.)
26Quotations and Questions Leads that use quotations or questions generally are ineffective choices for inexperienced writers. Most quotations need explanations to be understood. As for questions, you, the reporter, are supposed to answer them, not ask them. There are exceptions, of course, that make for strong beginnings.
27Quotations and Questions cont. Here is an example:It’s your worst nightmare: you’ve been expelled from school. What happens now? Can you ever go back?Expulsion is mandatory when a student commits a category III offense such as possession or use of a weapon, or possession of drugs or alcohol on school premises. According to Principal Thomas Hensley, the administration has no control over such situations; the student is immediately expelled if found guilty of the charge. (Abby Flower, Griffin, Dulaney High School, Timonium, Md.)
28Thinking About Endings Sometimes writing the beginning of a story is not as great a challenge as writing an effective ending. You want those final lines to leave a lasting impression. Readers, after all, remember best what they read last.
29Thinking About Endings cont. The feature writer has many ways to end a story—many ways to create a vivid impression. One type of ending is the circle, in which the ending is related back to the beginning.Another popular approach is the summary ending, in which the story is quickly summarized at the close.
30Thinking About Endings cont. The anecdotal ending can be effective, especially the split-anecdotal technique. In this approach, the writer begins telling the anecdote early in the story and concludes it at the end.Or you might experiment with the add-on closing by making a point at the end that was never made in the story.
31Thinking About Endings cont. No matter which ending you choose, make sure that it is a logical extension of what you have already said in a story. The reader should feel that the story has run its natural course and that the subject has been covered.
32Checking Your References The importance to the feature writer of careful research cannot be overemphasized. As a high school journalist, you are ultimately responsible for the accuracy of everything you write. You do not have the luxury of a staff of professional fact checkers to save you from an embarrassing mistake.Little can do more damage to your reputation as a journalist than having someone you interviewed say he or she was misquoted in your feature. To avoid this, use a tape recorder and take notes. However, tape recorders malfunction and memory fades. Therefore, ask questions twice, using different words at different points, during the interview.
33Organizing Your Material You should ask yourself four vital questions as a way to improve the organization of your feature stories:1. What’s your subject?2. What are you trying to say?3. How will you say it?4. Have you said it well enough?
34What’s Your Subject?As you gather and organize the details for a story, you must begin a selection process. To help you with this, discuss the story idea with a teacher or a friend. Take note of which details interest them and the direction the story takes as you retell it. Furthermore, using another person as a sounding board may force you to articulate your ideas more clearly. Once you have a clear focus for the story, you are less likely to waste time in false starts. An unfocused feature wastes your time, the editor’s time and the reader’s time.
35What’s Your Subject?Focusing means narrowing—reducing a large quantity of material to a usable amount.For example, when you write a term paper for history class, you don’t choose an overly broad topic such as “the history of the United States.” Instead, you focus on a topic such as “The Industrial Revolution.”Similarly, as a feature writer, you would avoid choosing an idea such as “school life” in favor of a narrower topic such as “detention: the newest vacation spot.”
36What Are You Trying to Say? You can decide what you are trying to say by translating the focus of your story into a summary sentence.Another useful strategy for some feature writers is to plan the ending of the story first. To organize their thoughts effectively, these writers find it helpful to know where they are going to arrive.You should experiment with several leads before deciding on the direction for the rest of your story. The right lead not only pushes you forward into the story but also provides a map to keep you going.
37How Will You Say It?After you have written the lead (and possibly the ending of the story), you need a structure in which to place the rest of your information. A structure is an organizational pattern the writer uses to synthesize—that is, to establish relationships between—relevant pieces of information. Some common structures are the hourglass, the spatial story, the story in scenes and parallel narratives.
38How Will You Say It?The hourglass structure begins as an inverted pyramid, arranging information in descending order of importance. Below the “waist” of the hourglass, the information is introduced in chronological order.This structure works well with day-in-the-life features.
39How Will You Say It?The spatial story uses physical space rather than logical sequence to determine order. For example, you could describe the new wing at your school by moving from room to room. You could follow a maintenance person from task to task, and geography would become the focus of your feature.
40How Will You Say It?Writing the story in scenes can be an effective approach to a profile. By using some typographical device (for example, bullets) to separate scenes, you can show the subject of your story reacting differently in different situations.Another advantage of this structure is that it allows the reader to view what you are describing through the eyes of many different people.
41How Will You Say It?One of the best examples of the use of parallel narratives may be in Truman Capote’s chilling novel In Cold Blood. At the beginning of the story, the reader follows the separate courses of the killers and the victims and waits for the inevitable grisly murders.You might want to experiment with parallel narratives. Imagine and describe two debate teams from different schools as they prepare to meet in the state finals, or a boy and a girl as they nervously await a blind date.
42How Will You Say It?No matter which structure you choose, the key is to provide the reader with logical connections. Each paragraph must be connected to the previous paragraph.
43Have You Said It Well Enough? Most writing will benefit from being seen with a fresh eye. Try to walk away from your story for a while and then come back and refine the writing. Stories that flop usually suffer from poor organization. You can literally take scissors to paper and cut the text into paragraphs. Then reassemble the pile of paragraphs until you have an organization that pleases you.
44Have You Said It Well Enough? This reassembling process often suggests an entirely new approach that eliminates the structural weaknesses of your rough draft. Of course, you may learn that the problem is not your method of arranging the materials at all; sometimes you simply may have a bad idea for a feature. Bad ideas happen to even the best of writers.
45Refining the StoryErnest Hemingway’s advice is still true: If you want to be a writer, you have to write. And for the aspiring feature writer, let us add, you have to rewrite.The techniques that follow should help you write your story and put the finishing touches on your next feature.
46Finding the Right Voice You have many voices. You speak to your friends differently than you do to your parents or your teachers. In every story you write, as the narrator, take on a persona, or character. That doesn’t mean that you always have to write in first person singular, but it does suggest that you must choose a voice that best imparts the information in the story.
47Finding the Right Voice cont. The choice you make becomes the tone of the story. The tone may be childlike if you are describing a mentoring program for elementary school children through the eyes of one child. The tone, or mood of the story, should always match the content. After all, you wouldn’t describe a tragic car accident in a light or humorous tone.
48Using Description Effectively Vivid description in a feature can take the reader on a journey of the senses. The details you choose should appeal to taste, sight, smell, hearing and feeling.
49Using Description Effectively cont. Consider how the following descriptive passage from Kim Ode, a feature writer at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, takes our senses to the Badlands in South Dakota:The sun drops like a coin into a slot on the horizon, triggering a jukebox of coyotes. The full moon rises so huge and fast, you unconsciously brace yourself against the rotation of the Earth. Stars burst into view. You wouldn’t be anywhere else. There is nowhere else.
50Using Description Effectively cont. How can you create such vivid description? Your notebook should be filled not only with facts but also with your observations of anything out of the ordinary. In a straight news story you may refer to the basketball coach as the basketball coach. In a feature story, however, the coach can become a paunchy, balding, Coke-chugging workaholic.As you are sorting through the details you have collected, eliminate those observations that are unnecessary or that do not contribute to the reader’s understanding.
51Rounding Out a ProfileA profile must be more than a simple recounting of biographical facts. A profile is only as good as the characterization of the subject. You create memorable characters by showing, rather than telling details, concrete bits of information that allow the reader to “see” the subject.
52Rounding Out a Profile cont. Furthermore, the subject of the profile needs to have a story. The anecdotes must demonstrate specific attributes of the subject. Avoid anecdotes that don’t directly contribute to the describing of those attributes you have selected to highlight.
53Humoring the ReaderHumor, when appropriate, can breathe life into a story. It can keep the reader who is in a hurry from putting the story down. Develop an eye for humorous details.When you are choosing amusing details for a story, always exercise good judgment. Your humor should never be at the expense of others. Sensitivity to people’s feelings far outweighs any desire you might have to get a few laughs.
54SourceSchaffer, James, Randall McCutcheon and Kathryn T. Stofer. Journalism Matters. Lincolnwood: Contemporary, 2001.