18 July 2018
Get to grips with ‘the best job in journalism’ with top tips on writing feature articles
Feature-writing is hands-down the best job in journalism. Getting paid for using your skill with words to tell stories that you couldn’t – and don’t have to – make up? There can be few better ways of earning a living. But because it’s such a good job an awful lot of people want to do it. It’s a competitive business.
To make any kind of success of writing features it helps to understand exactly what they are and how to construct them. News is about what happened. Features tell you why it happened. Features are about human interest. They use a narrative structure to give the reader an insight into a world they did not previously know.
Ideas are vital
In print journalism, this kind of journalistic writing tends to be called a ‘feature’, ‘piece’ or ‘story’, which includes colour pieces, arts features, travel stories, lifestyle writing, interviews and so on. For a specialist magazine, we’d probably refer to ‘articles’. Whatever it’s called, the key to writing a successful feature piece is simple.
You need to have an idea. Ideas are the stock in trade of staff and freelance journalists, and someone with a good idea for a feature will do much better at attracting the attention of an editor than someone who writes beautifully but offers mundane suggestions. Why do you think editors ask for brief idea pitches? It’s because good ideas draw attention to themselves.
A lot of people can write. Not so many of them will have great ideas for a feature.
What makes a good idea?
Look at it this way. ‘Bee-keeping’ is not an idea. You wouldn’t approach an editor and say: ‘I want to write a feature about bee keeping.’ [You’d be surprised... – Ed]
‘Bee-keeping’ is a subject, not an idea. ‘Idea’ is not synonymous with ‘subject’. I once spent a frustrating afternoon talking to a highly talented writer, quite famous in a field other than journalism, about what he would like to write for the magazine I worked for as a section editor. He suggested subject after subject but he didn’t come up with a single workable idea for a piece. An editor would want to know what particular aspect of the subject you are interested in writing about. In journo terms, this is called an ‘angle’. An angle for your bee-keeping story might be ‘how bee keepers are using social media to share traditional techniques’ or ‘the successes of a niche dating site for bee-keepers’.
Once you’ve established an angle, your editor may well want to know what the hook is. A hook is the thing that makes it time-sensitive and therefore worth running. Your bee-keeping feature stands more chance of success if you pitch it in time for it to run the week or month before the World Bee-Keeping Championships.
Tell a story
A feature needs to tell a story. It will always be a topical story, ie you the feature writer will need to convey why it should be told now (the ‘hook’ we’ve just mentioned). Sometimes, but not always, it will be a story relating to something newsworthy. But the difference between a feature story and fiction is that you can’t make it up. Writers tell stories. Features are about real life, and the feature writer’s job is to find out the stories and tell them.
Stories come from everywhere. A subject isn’t an idea, or a story. But it is a starting point. The most mundane of subjects will contain stories if you look for them. Nothing that involves people is too dull to contain a story. Think ‘human interest’. Dig a bit. You might think that the ladies in the weekly cake decoration class offer nothing interesting to write about but if you talk to them you may discover that there is a deep rift between buttercream fans and royal icing aficionados – you could be the person to break the story of the resulting bunfight.
And a note of caution: remember you are not the story, you are the storyteller, so try not to put yourself in it. Of course this rule can be broken, but you’d better be really good to get away with it.
Find out the facts
Subject matter for features and approaches to it can vary widely – you might be writing a descriptive feature, a how-to feature, a colour feature, a background feature or a piece of reportage – but all will have in common that you are using factual information to take your readers through a story. Whether
it’s a day in life at a refugee camp or an insight into a radical new approach to bee-keeping, you will need to introduce what you’re writing about then tell a story with clear narrative progression that leads to a satisfying conclusion.
As with anything in journalism, facts are key. You may not be writing a news or information-led story but you are still reporting something. A news story might report that overcrowding in a refugee camp has meant antibiotics to fight an epidemic of dysentery are in life-threateningly short supply. Features need facts but they need to go beyond news. A feature writer would visit the camp on the back of that news story, describe the conditions and talk to people who are affected. Look for the human interest story and tell it.
Pay attention to detail. Facts should be correct. Quotes should be accurately reported and attributed, and names properly set out.
Most importantly, don’t rely on second-hand information, and never on hearsay. Basic journalism is vital: don’t assume anything, do your research, find out who to speak to, check your facts. Who is your feature about? Talk to them. What is it about? Talk to the experts. Let them tell you – don’t have preconceived ideas and be prepared to listen. Your initial story idea might change or alter once you’ve got information from the people who know.
A good feature writer will have what’s called ‘a good nose for a story’ – ie, they’re a mixture of knowledgeable, open-minded and curious about their subject, fascinated to find out the latest developments in it, and aware of what will interest other people (readers!). Many topics are perennial but a good feature writer will keep them fresh by giving them a new angle in line with recent developments. For instance, Christmas comes round every year but in recent years ironic Christmas jumpers have become a thing – you could write about that and lead into Christmas traditions that have been updated. There is always something new that’s worth writing about.
For even more on article writing, take a look at our online course. It's a great way to learn new skills and improve your writing.