Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds A great feature article should– theoretically– stop the reader in his or her tracks and make them think. From the opening paragraph to the final sentence, a well-written feature should challenge a preconception, and it should take you behind a story which is in the headlines and actually, in some cases, take you to places in the news and in current affairs that you’ve never thought of or dreamt of. Now, as we’ve seen, news is about, if you like, what’s happening now, or covering an event which is considered, in the editor’s eyes, to be newsworthy. News articles explain events and issues that have occurred or are in the process of occurring.
Skip to 0 minutes and 52 seconds These have been regarded as being important and, in somebody’s editorial list, have been decided to be something that’s mattered– that matters. But, by design, news tends to be brief, focused, and very much to the point. That’s the style; that’s what they’re meant to do. But feature articles are very, very different. They’re a completely different beast, journalistically, entirely. They range across not only what you want to know, but also what you need to know. They go deeper and wider into the topics that they cover, and they involve more facts and research, often using creative literary techniques to create very good, compelling narratives. They put a story on top of the news, if you like.
Skip to 1 minute and 42 seconds They also challenge us to process new facts and information. And, in the process, the outcome is, hopefully, that you will walk away from looking at the feature– reading the feature, watching the feature– and, maybe for the rest of the day, either have it in your head or look at the world in a completely different way. But, having said that, feature writing is, actually, required across all platforms. There was a time that feature articles lived only in print articles. In the United States, for example, long-form nonfiction narratives became a completely unique category of journalism. They were something which grew out of colour magazines.
Skip to 2 minutes and 24 seconds And, for example, someone like the great Truman Capote, who wrote In Cold Blood, did this as a series of in-depth feature articles for a magazine. People used to go out at 4 o’clock in the morning and queue up, just to buy each instalment of what, eventually, became that classic nonfiction piece of wonderful investigative journalism. Nowadays, features range across all different types of digital platforms. You can have long-form articles in glossy magazines, like the type that Capote wrote for; they still exist. Or you can have news features in daily newspapers, especially some of the midmarket tabloids, and also some of the bigger broadsheets. You could also have celebrity websites, with shorter features, looking at whatever they’re up to.
Skip to 3 minutes and 15 seconds And you could also have serious, in-depth profiles, published by a major news organisation, which uses an access-based interview in order to create a fantastic long-form piece of feature writing about an individual. OK, what makes a good feature story? First of all, for me, it helps if there’s a very strong hook, which means that the journalist knows that there should be an angle to the story. What is the reason for the reader even beginning the first paragraph? You need to find a way of pulling the reader in, with the first paragraph, and dragging them all the way through that feature.
Skip to 3 minutes and 52 seconds Quite often, a feature can be anything from a few pars; it can be up to, what, three, three and a half thousand words. You have to give the reader some very good reasons, first of all to start reading, and then to continue. For me, colour and human interest are some of the most important elements of a feature. Human interest– basically, you need a very, very good, strong, central interview. It could be a piece of reportage; it could be something as serious as an area of conflict that you’re covering, or your journalist is covering. Or it could be something quite flippant– you know, a day at the Barras, or something like that, in the east end of Glasgow.
Skip to 4 minutes and 32 seconds No matter what, whether it’s very dark or a lot lighter, you still need the human interest to pull people in. Obviously, a feature writer, you will have a little bit more latitude to describe– maybe to embellish, possibly to exaggerate. But essentially, you want them to have the same purpose as a good news story. You want them to make a difference. The best features– I mean, there are all types of features– a good interview ought to make you more interested in the person that is being interviewed and ought to make you have feelings about this person, whether it be negative or positive. It ought not to leave you thinking, well, I can take this person or leave ‘em.
Skip to 5 minutes and 27 seconds And a lot of that is within the gift of the interviewer. And then there are the very “human interest” stories. Good newspaper magazine journalism may shine a torch, or give an insight, through the story of an individual who finds himself or herself at the centre of a worldwide– a global– story, of global interest. And it may be the most simple story– the most simple human story– but it will resonate with people in other countries because, essentially, we are all the same. Very little separates us, in how we experience the world and the emotions that we have, between us in the West and somebody who’s starving in Africa.
Skip to 6 minutes and 17 seconds And if some of that feature writing can bring out the humanity of somebody in Africa who needs our help, or who doesn’t have our privileges, then it will have been a worthwhile piece of journalism. But most feature articles contain one or more of the following elements. Number one, they normally look at human interest stories. That means a story that has got wide connection– wide relativity– for most of the population; something that makes people stop and think about what it’s like to simply be a human. Secondly, they often focus on individuals through in depth profiles.
Skip to 7 minutes and 3 seconds Now, that can be individuals that are famous– somebody that we all know, in the public eye– or it can be somebody who we’ve never heard of– somebody who simply has got a remarkable story to tell– that tells us, again, something that adds to the sum of human knowledge, about what we are and who we are. Thirdly, they can tell us about an event or an experience. They can teach us something. It can be “a day of the life of.” It can be a story about somebody who would never make the headlines, when they were alive, but maybe they’ve passed on, so we’ll take you into their world.
Skip to 7 minutes and 38 seconds I remember, for example, once reading a remarkable story about a man who’d spent most of his adult life chasing the Loch Ness Monster. It sounds ridiculous; but, after he died, there was an amazing, rich story to be told, there. It wasn’t, really, about a man chasing a monster– mythical or otherwise; it was about an obsession. It was about somebody trying to define themselves by what they did. Fourthly, features can also link their content to dates in the diary. So, for example, in the last year, there’s been lots of articles about the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.
Skip to 8 minutes and 17 seconds So we find lots of stories about people who went to war, their relatives, and the hidden histories which are only emerging a century later. So you can have features that are tied to dates in a diary, and those can be planned ahead. Fifth, they allow the journalists to try out their narrative nonfiction techniques. Now, what I mean by that is that sometimes— although journalism is about factual events and must be verifiable, in every sense– they must check out; they must be true– you can, still, sometimes, steal the tools of great fiction writers and use those, without compromising the journalistic integrity of the piece, to write a great piece of writing.
Skip to 8 minutes and 59 seconds That was what I was referring to, with someone like Truman Capote. There are modern examples of that, as well, who are published every day. They use the great tools of fiction– plot, character, narrative arc, drama, characterisation, dialogue– you name it; they use all of those, in the articles, to produce an amazing piece of feature writing which, in America, would be called “literary nonfiction;” over here, it would simply be a great piece of factual, in-depth writing. And finally, they use creative and engaging structures to hook our attention and to keep us reading til the end.
Skip to 9 minutes and 37 seconds Now, that sounds a bit complicated, but what I mean by that is that in news, for example, they tend to tell the story by an Inverted Pyramid. You start with the most important information; you work your way down to– not the least important, but the least necessary, background information, the idea being, in news, you can cut from the bottom up to the top. So you could be left with the opening paragraph, and it still is a news article that would make sense. In feature writing, that all changes. There are rules, but there’s far more of them. And you can be much more creative; you can even be inventive.
Skip to 10 minutes and 13 seconds There’s different ways of beginning your article, there’s different ways of structuring it, and there’s different ways of ending it. You can play around, you can be creative, as long as you don’t challenge, as I say, the journalistic integrity of the piece. So those six rules– from what the stories can be about to the kind of research that’s required, to the different categories that you can look at, in the feature, right through to how you actually pull it together and write it– those are all what makes feature writing a unique, interesting category of writing. It’s a category of writing that should produce material– journalism– that’s memorable, powerful, and engaging.
Skip to 10 minutes and 53 seconds It’s the place where many journalists have started trying out their own literary skills and potential and gone on to great things. For example, Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, was a newspaper reporter from Pennsylvania, in the United States. He started off writing that series of articles for his newspaper. It became, eventually, a book and becomes, of course, a Hollywood movie. But the creativity that’s in the Hollywood movie– actually, many of the elements– started in his original press articles. There’s innumerable examples of how that can happen in feature writing.
Skip to 11 minutes and 34 seconds It’s also a form of feature writing– it has to be said– that lends itself really well to our age– the digital age– because it fosters, encourages, and trains a kind of writing which can go right across all the multiple platforms, categories, and subjects that are required for multiplatform digital output. So, whether you’re writing for a newspaper that produces the content on its own website– whether, then, that’s translated into some podcasts or audiocasts, or whether, indeed, it’s translated into a slide show, or it’s a simply standalone article– feature writing lends itself to that kind of output really, really well and quite elegantly.
Skip to 12 minutes and 19 seconds So therefore, it’s one of the most useful pieces of journalism– one of the most useful categories of journalism to get to know, to start to work on, and– hopefully– eventually to master.
What makes good feature writing?
Most feature articles contain one of more of the following elements. They often:
- Look at human interest based stories.
- Focus on individuals through in-depth profiles.
- Tell us about an event or an experience: They can teach us something.
- Link content to a date in-the-diary, an anniversary for example, that readers might want to learn more about.
- Allow the journalist to try out their narrative non-fiction techniques (for example, 24 hours inside an A&E ward) using styles and skills creatively in a factual context.
- Use creative and engaging structures to hook our attention and keep us reading until the end.
Feature writing should be powerful, memorable and engaging. It’s the place where many journalists have started to explore their own literary skills and potential.
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