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Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds Hello. We’re going to look at how you can continue to improve your writing for feature articles. The first thing you should know, and it bears repeating, is that feature writing allows for creative expression and experimentation. Now that sounds a bit lofty. But in reality, it’s quite true, because it’s one of the few forms and forums of journalism that delivers the opportunity for journalists, writers, to shine with their writing skills. It’s a chance for them to really show off what they can do. But your work, of course, even if you’re doing that, being creative and expressive and showing a bit of style even, must still be 100% factually accurate and verifiable. It’s important we say that from the outset.

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 seconds Being creative doesn’t mean fictionalising your work. That means that it also must meet all journalists’ highest ethical standards. There have been famous and infamous examples in the recent past of young journalists, for example, Stephen Glass in the United States of America, who decided it was easier to completely fictionalise their feature writing than actually do the hard work required to deliver solid work. It’s very sad. Shortcuts like that always end badly for everyone. And they’re completely unnecessary. This section of the course suggests some straightforward, classic techniques to consider when continuing work on improving your feature writing skills as important and appropriate. There are six of them.

Skip to 1 minute and 45 seconds And these are, one, description; two, structure; three, character; four, detail; five, research; and six, in-the-field research, as I’ve dubbed it. OK. Let’s start first of all with description. As stated before, using strong descriptions can lend your work power and resonance. It can make people remember it. The starting point is always in your original notes that you’ve taken during the early research phase of the feature. If you observe your subject or location closely and describe it or them memorably, then you’ll succeed. But a final tip, don’t rely on memory for descriptions. Write everything down as you go.

Skip to 2 minutes and 33 seconds This article on a world-famous Spanish academic who was inhabiting a terrible, stressful situation whilst under the threat of assassination by Basque terrorists hopefully illustrates some of these points about description. See what you think. Second, structure. This simply considers in what order and sequence have you decided to tell the story in. Why are you telling the story in that order? Is there another way you can unpack the tale? You’ve got to ask yourself all these questions when you’re considering structure. You must reflect very carefully on the best form and way to tell your story, because there’s always one more way to skin the cat. I structured this article that you’re looking at here about a wrongfully-convicted woman fairly simply.

Skip to 3 minutes and 30 seconds I used the chronology of the meeting for the interview for the article to form the backbone structure of how I planned out the final piece. It’s a simple and I believe often very effective technique. Third, character. Now, all great stories, novels, films, plays, whatever, have memorable characters. Now without overplaying the facts for your journalism articles, you should try and focus on powerful individuals for your features. Now that doesn’t mean that they’re world-famous or anything. It just means they’ve got something, that magic piece of ingredient, that will make them linger in the memory of your readers. And it’s for you sometimes to discover that, even if the person themselves doesn’t know they have it.

Skip to 4 minutes and 19 seconds You’ve got to think, why are they remarkable? You should list their characteristics, their voice, their appearance, their manner. Now this article that you’re looking at just now looks at Gerry Adams, the well-known president of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, and someone with deep historical links to the Provisional IRA. I wanted to render him as a fully-formed human being, not simply a character. But it was important that he contained memorable qualities of character. I spent months in his company trying to achieve that difficult aim. See if you think if I succeeded. Fourth, details. Details are the hidden gem in features. They imbue articles with depth and substance. Be sure you’ve done your homework.

Skip to 5 minutes and 7 seconds So look for the telling detail during the research process, the reporting process, the hidden fact in plain sight, for example, the small reality that may hint at the whole story. Consider yourself as a subject. This is a good exercise. What details make you you? Investigations like this one into the crash of a military Chinook helicopter in the Scottish coastline in 1994 required me to pay extraordinary, almost forensic attention to detail. You have to know all the facts. And you have to be able to verify everything. The devil is indeed in the details. Fifth, research. Research at the beginning saves times and energy. It shows that you’ve done your homework at the desk.

Skip to 5 minutes and 55 seconds So you’ve got to read widely on your subject. You’ve got to behave as a student, a beginner. You’ve got to be curious. Solid research is the bridge between you and your feature. It takes them into the world you’re writing about. Use it as a form for key questions, identify the main themes, and show that you know your subject through the research. The article here now that you’re about to see was about the deaths of four young Army recruits in Deepcut Barracks in England, all of whom died in very strange circumstances. I had to research this subject from back to front and inside and out, accessing every known article, documentary, and report.

Skip to 6 minutes and 35 seconds Feature articles like this stand or fall on the strength of this kind of research. Sixth, in-the-field research, or simply getting out of the office with your notepad and pen. This is the reward for doing the early phase desk research. It allows you to visit locations and get a sense of place and event. This is where you can take detailed notes when you’re out there. What intrigues you? What can you see, feel, smell, sense? And of course, in Hemingway’s immortal phrase, you’ve got to remember to tell everyone what the weather was like. Use field work to take notes which later allow you to take the reader with you to the location in the article. Be their way into the story.

Skip to 7 minutes and 20 seconds Act as their guide, if you like. This final example in the articles is about a British spy who went on the run in Paris after selling his secrets to a newspaper. To write about it, I had to travel to the French capital, track him down, and along the way avoid surveillance myself. Simply being in the field was a crucial part of the story. It could have been told from behind a desk, I suppose. Maybe. But I think not. Read it and make your own mind up. Always remember when it comes to in-the-field research, as one great journalist said, “it’s the reporter’s job to go to the back of the cave and tell us what’s hiding in the darkness there.”

Skip to 8 minutes and 2 seconds Remember that all these elements and approaches that we’ve looked at, the six of them, can be woven into your feature writing to add depth, nuance, and colour. Ultimately it’s about shaping and starting to shape your own very individual view as a journalist and your reporter’s singular voice. Make them remember, the readers, what you saw, who you met, what you felt, and what you heard. Then maybe in doing so they’ll remember you. Thanks.

Continuing to improve your writing

The main areas to focus on are:

Description is very important. This begins in research phases. Use your notes. Don’t rely on memory. Use vivid and powerful adjectives - but sparingly.

Structure - This is all about what order you choose to tell your story in. Beginning, middle and end? Or will you unpack it in a different order?

Character - Even in journalism the premise of a strong ‘character’ is important. What makes an individual special? Or different? Can you explain their unique characteristics? How would you describe them? All of these small details are important to note and convey.

Details - These are the hidden gems. Spotting a small ‘telling’ detail can focus the reader’s attention hard on something which you think is significant. They show that you have done your research and were very aware and alert when researching and then writing the final article.

Research - Is the foundation and glue which grounds your article and holds it together. Readers can spot good research. It informs your questions, priorities and conclusions. It gives the article innate authority. It adds substance.

In-The-Field Research - An article can succeed or fail based on the genuine research you have done outside the office. Whilst desk research is vital, the next layer is out-in-the-field. This indicates your hard work. It allows you to report ‘first hand’ from a location. You can describe it in detail and freshness. It’s one of the key elements that makes journalism special and distinct from other forms of writing.

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This video is from the free online course:

Introduction to Journalism

University of Strathclyde