Feature writing

A guide to help potential contributors develop their skills.

If you are considering contributing to Exeter Observer please see our contributors guide.

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Feature development

Feature writing encompasses a much wider range of possibilities than news reporting and is much more difficult to do well. It is a skill built on learning to write news reports well.

Feature formats cover just about everything other than news reports. This includes news features, analysis, briefing, comment, editorial, leader, opinion, profile, interview, report, preview, review, long read etc.

A typical feature development process might be:

  1. Idea (keep it manageable!)
  2. Brief
  3. Research (less required for shorter pieces)
  4. Interviews (may not be needed for shorter pieces - depends on format etc.)
  5. Plan
  6. Write.

Feature briefs

A feature brief should capture a story’s key elements:

  • Headline
  • Standfirst
  • Lead
  • Nutgraf
  • Angle
  • Scope/limits
  • Key questions to answer
  • Required research/information
  • Research resources
  • Sources (direct/indirect)
  • Required multimedia collateral
  • Any additional elements.

Feature plans

A feature plan should lay out a story’s outline structure.

There are as many possible feature structures as there are topics, so simplifying prescriptions have limited value, but one attempt follows:

  1. Intro/hook options:

    • statement - relies on impact via colour, contrast, surprise
    • anecdote - relies on compelling narrative
    • description - relies on vivid scene-setting
    • question - relies on intriguing reader and/or making them think
    • quote - can be very effective if done well (use reported speech to avoid typographic problems).
  2. Link = background/context so nub makes sense (only where needed).

  3. Nub aka “dear reader” = gist so reader knows exactly what feature is about.

  4. Body/content component options:

    • colour
    • information
    • description
    • advice
    • anecdotes
    • quotes
    • comment
    • analysis
    • statistics
    • detail
    • case histories.
  5. Wrap.

Additional elements may include infoboxes, tweets, pullquotes and accompanying visual collateral inc. photos, video and infographics.

NB sometimes feature research and/or interviews produce too much material for a single article, in which case they might provide a basis to produce two or even three.

Further feature guidelines (for more experienced writers)

Focus - know what your story is about and understand why you are writing it:

  • helps writers find the significance in their stories, the message that they want to convey to their audience, their reason for writing
  • helps readers understand the purpose of the writing - readers want to learn something new, to be surprised, to gain a new insight on an old idea, to view something from a new perspective or angle.

Organisation - the structure built on the foundation of focus to support the logical progression of ideas:

  • provides framework to help readers fulfil their expectations for the text
  • makes it easier for readers to follow writing, rather than leading them through a maze of confusion and confounded or unmet expectations.

Cohesion - the glue that holds the structure together - transition words showing the relationship between different sentences and ideas:

  • spatial - above, below, beside, nearby, beyond, inside, outside
  • temporal - before, after, first, next, then, when, finally, while, as, during, earlier, later, meanwhile
  • numerical - first, second, also, finally, in addition, equally important, more or less importantly
  • cause/effect - because, since, for, so, as a result, consequently, thus, hence
  • comparison/contrast - also, additionally, just as, as if, as though, like (similarities) but, yet, only, although, whereas, in contrast, conversely, however, on the other hand, rather, instead, in spite of, nevertheless (differences)
  • general/specific - for example, such as, like, namely, for instance, that is, in fact, in other words, indeed.

Support and elaboration - specific details and relevant information used to develop topics or construct mental images, should be:

  • sufficient for purpose
  • credible and accurate
  • relevant to purpose
  • strengthen achievement of purpose.

Opinion/comment pieces:

  • have something important to say
  • develop a convincing argument
  • are able to stand up to informed criticism
  • have a particular voice and personal style
  • are built on careful reporting, analysis and assessment
  • present new insights in a lively, even controversial, manner
  • stimulate readers to think and see a subject from a different angle
  • show rather than tell
  • use examples and stories rather than confront the reader with bare opinions
  • can be formal or informal.

Features:

  • evoke
  • tell a story
  • inform, entertain and persuade
  • contain strong, colourful images
  • explore issues, opinions, experiences, ideas
  • locate the reader at the heart of the story, as if the reader were looking through the writer’s eyes
  • contain depth of character and/or issues, offering background information about subject
  • provide the reader with an understanding of the writer’s attitude toward subject matter with the careful use of tone
  • provide a forum for ideas, attitudes, reasons and feelings about subject
  • contain objective material but often appeal to emotions.

Title:

  • highlights main idea
  • encourages reader to read.

Lead:

  • outlines subject/theme
  • usually two or three sentences long
  • first 5-10 words determine whether the lead will get attention
  • should include who? what? where? when? why? and how?
  • attracts the reader, reveals the central idea, leads the reader into the story
  • grabs the reader’s attention, lets them know straightaway why they should read this story, explains exactly the importance of the piece
  • may provoke the reader’s interest by making an unusual statement
  • may invite the reader to take sides by making a controversial statement
  • may heighten the drama of an event or incident to intensify its appeal
  • creates a relationship between the writer and the reader
  • orients the reader to the purpose of the writing by introducing topic, thesis or argument
  • establishes the writer’s tone, sets up expectations for purpose, style, and mood
  • can be kept spare by including only absolutely essential information at the top then folding in other key details in the following few paragraphs
  • provides any necessary background information.

Feature leads:

  • capture the mood
  • create an image and appeal to the imagination
  • instantly transport the reader to the location/heart of the story.

Lead types:

  • summary - summarise the main facts of the story and pack as much information as possible - usually used for news analysis
  • anecdotal - use a story or some colour to interest the reader and capture the mood of the story - common in features
  • delayed - try to entice the reader without giving too much of the story away
  • descriptive - focus on what it feels like to be at an event by highlighting sights, sounds, textures, tastes and smells to evoke clear images in the mind of the reader
  • direct address - engage reader immediately by asking direct question or to imagine something in particular, as though direct response expected
  • teaser - provocative, challenging statement to produce strong response in reader and involve them by building suspense before revealing story focus
  • narrative - short story, often from writer’s experience, often descriptive but also setting scene with characters and dialogue (like short play)
  • quotation - relevant, compelling direct quotation introducing article theme.

Lead emphasis - which is the most important W?

  • the who lead draws the attention of the reader to a high-profile name
  • the what lead is a better option when the situation is more important than the personalities
  • the when lead is used on rare occasions, when the time of the event is the most important point
  • the where lead focuses our attention on the place about to be discussed
  • the why lead is used in cases where the motive or cause of the event is the most important aspect of the story.

Body:

  • all material should be unified and belong to the same theme
  • though a feature might not be as rigid as a news piece, the structure still needs to be disciplined
  • a picture is being drawn: any information which isn’t relevant is going to lose the reader
  • avoid duplication/repetition, long quotes, non-sequiturs.

Overall structure:

  • can be chronological or develop by theme
  • when in doubt, use chronology: time is often the best engine for your narrative
  • can be sequence, description, cause and effect, compare and contrast, problem and solution
  • needn’t be completely linear
  • e.g. follow lead with 4/5 paragraph summary of entire piece then continue with deeper, more detailed material
  • e.g. use “summary break” paragraphs to summarise preceding 5/6 paragraphs and create minor tangent effect, writer having taken reader elsewhere briefly.

Body components:

  • facts and statistics
  • personal viewpoints
  • opinions from authorities and experts
  • quotes and interviews
  • anecdotes and stories
  • specific names, places and dates
  • photographs, tables, diagrams and graphs.

Conclusion:

  • ending should give a sense of finality, resolution: all loose ends need to be wrapped up
  • usually connects with an idea that has been developed in the lead
  • usually returns to the beginning to remind reader of main idea, why story is important and give feeling of closure
  • use conclusion to leave reader with one single significant thought and impression: this is your chance to leave a lasting impression
  • maybe include juicy quote, revealing anecdote, amazing fact, clever pun (!)
  • strongest words last
  • never a summary
  • may suggest an appropriate course of action
  • may encourage a change of attitude or opinion
  • may be explicit, didactic, dramatic.

Style:

  • maintain tone appropriate to context and audience
  • use informal, colloquial language and first person narrative to create personal tone
  • use third person narrative mixed with first person comment
  • use second person to involve reader by addressing them directly
  • use relevant specialist terms to add authenticity to information and opinions
  • use anecdotes to help maintain reader interest
  • use facts to validate writer’s viewpoints
  • use rhetorical questions to involve the reader
  • use emotive words to evoke a personal response in the reader
  • use images and description to engage the reader’s imagination
  • use direct quotes to personalise topic
  • choose concise and precise words
  • weed out unnecessary/extraneous/redundant words
  • choose the exact word to convey meaning and make vague words more specific
  • use precise words to help the reader visualise the sentence e.g. active verbs, concrete nouns, specific adjectives
  • use adjectives sparingly and adverbs rarely, letting nouns and verbs do the work
  • choose words that contribute to the flow of a sentence e.g. polysyllabic words, alliteration and consonance vs onomatopoeia and short, staccato words
  • use parallel structures within sentences and paragraphs to reflect parallel ideas
  • vary sentence length, structure and rhythm to avoid monotony
  • arrange ideas within a sentence for greatest effect
  • avoid loose sentences
  • use subordinate clauses and phrases
  • use short paragraphs (max three sentences) containing single idea
  • use transitions judiciously.

Checklist:

  • is the overall purpose and audience clear?
  • is the content adequate for the purpose?
  • is the idea clear and compelling?
  • does the form (structure and language) match the idea and the content and pass the readability test for interest, directness, pace and linkage?
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