Every great feature article starts with a question but they don't all end with an answer. The feature writer tells a story but never idly spins a tale. Features are a hybrid of news and narrative, an art form you can master with a plan and some practice.
The Nuts and Bolts of Feature Writing
The journey into the feature story may unfold more slowly and in greater detail than a news account. Good storytelling takes time - and higher word counts - so the development of the feature is typically slower than the machine-gun delivery of hard news. The story occupies more space - on the page, measured in bytes, and in the reader's mind. Feature writing steps include:
1. Choose a Topic
There are always new angles for feature stories. Look at a topic that interests you from a different perspective. Drill down as deeply into it as you can. If you can make the point by telling a very particular story - about one person's experience, for example - your article will be convincing and memorable.
Note the guidelines of the site or publication where you will pitch your idea. Those will set acceptable topics and word count - it's critical to follow these directions.
2. Identify Your Audience
The intended audience will affect your tone and style. Teenage college applicants are a very different cohort from medical professionals or home decorators, so adjust your style appropriately. Carefully craft your approach to appeal to the people who will read your piece.
3. Rock That Research
Don't skimp on research. A Google search or two won't cover it. The more you dig into a topic, the better information you'll get. Appropriate research for a feature article may include:
- Interviewing experts and eyewitnesses
- Going to the event or the physical location
- Checking historical archives at the library
- Shadowing a personal profile subject
4. Organize Your Material
Your feature article will have a beginning, middle and end, just like any good story. Ask yourself a few key questions:
- What's at stake?
- What does the subject of the article want?
- What is the problem and how does it affect people?
- What is unique about this information? You'll find your strongest angles by looking for points of contrast, tension, loss or challenge.
Aim for a strong beginning, a middle that explains the story or makes your case, and a wrap that refers back to the opening and answers the question or concludes the story.
5. Set the Hook
Now you're ready to write. The opening can make or break your article, so give it some love. The first sentence awakens the reader's curiosity. It introduces the opening anecdote, a time-tested way to hook a reader.
Select a mini-story from your research that reveals the issue you are writing about and use that as your opening anecdote. Keep the opening brief but grabby and work the theme, or reason for your article into the paragraph that immediately follows it.
6. Rough Out the Wrap
Jump ahead here and draft a rough conclusion. This should just be a sentence or two, or simply an idea or some notes about a strong statement on which to conclude. This will help shape your article as you write and ensure that your eventual polished conclusion refers back to the opening.
7. Write the Middle Section
The middle or body is the section is where you use all that excellent research to make a convincing argument or tell a memorable story. Think of the body of the article as a series of attention-grabbing scenes.
- Divide the middle into at least three parts - more if your topic requires it. Each part should have a different point as the subject.
- Use more anecdotes, strong quotes and solid data to keep the story moving.
- Keep the initial question or theme in mind as you write, so that every section expands on the opening hook.
8. The End
Go back to the conclusion and rework it to flow seamlessly from the body. You want to end on a powerful sentence that gives closure to the reader.
9. Review and Edit
Review the entire article, reading it through once for continuity. Correct any errors and address any omissions you find. Then read it again, aloud, to see if the writing flows or if there are any awkward passages or constructions.
10. Let it Breathe
If you aren't on a tight deadline, set the article aside for a few days or a week. Then re-read it with fresh eyes for a final polishing edit.
Feature Versus News
A feature article differs in significant ways from a news story. News stories follow the inverted pyramid model of directly stating the most basic information about a subject at the top of the article. A reporter answers the who, what, when, where, why and how questions up front, when the facts are available. Readers may not read deeply into the text, so the critical material is front-loaded.
In contrast, the feature article presents information from a particular angle, determined by the question the story asks. The opening paragraph is a seduction, to draw the reader deeply into the story with the hook of that question. The entire piece is woven like a tapestry, with every strand crucial to the final picture.
Feature articles have flavor - they are vehicles for the distinctive voice of the writer. They can't be confused with hard news due to that voice and their structure, which frequently includes:
- Colorful descriptions
- Subheads to break up the body of the article by separating ideas or introducing a new sub-topic
- An 'evergreen' quality to the information
- In-depth original interviews
- Complex or many-faceted subject matter
- Skillful serious journalism
- The promise of a good long read to savor
So Many Choices
Not all feature articles look alike and that is fundamental to their appeal. The purpose and the subject matter will usually determine which kind of feature you write. Examples of various types include:
- Analysis and opinion - Digs into the reasons for or consequences of a decision or event, or expresses the writer's interpretation (See Abroad at Home; A Different World in The New York Times)
- Interviews and personal profiles - Usually, but not always, will focus on a celebrity or notable person. (See Leonard Cohen Makes It Darker in The New Yorker)
- Explanatory or historical - Details the story-behind-the-story, current or past (See American Indian Sailed to Europe With Vikings? in National Geographic)
- Humor - A funny take on a revered or contemporary topic (See 7 Reasonable Explanations For Looking Like a Hipster in Cracked)
- Human interest - Quirky or interesting story about a topic likely to capture attention. (See Marfa, TX: A World of Art Way Out West in Travel)
- Instructional (how-to) - May be practical or philosophical. (See How to Raise an Environmentalist in Yes Magazine)
- First-person experience - Almost a news story but from a unique perspective with broad reporting and the writer's reactions. (See Consider the Lobster in Gourmet.)
Poetry and Purpose
Feature writing may be pithy, plainspoken or poetic but it is always persuasive. A good feature article gets you to think, to question, to ponder, to revisit its information or ideas. It convinces a reader of a meticulously sourced, precisely organized collection of facts; heralds circumstances that are unforeseen or entirely new; and examines known information from a new perspective, perhaps drawing new conclusions.
A carefully constructed feature article may have the power to change your mind or change your world. It will always convince you to consider the time spent reading, and possibly re-reading, it to be time well-spent.