Notes to accompany Exeter Observer community journalism courses.
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, spotlight, report, preview, review, long read etc.
A typical feature development process might be:
- idea (keep it manageable!)
- research (less required for shorter pieces)
- interviews (may not be needed for shorter pieces - depends on format etc.)
A feature brief should capture a story’s key elements:
- key questions to answer
- required research/information
- research resources
- sources (direct/indirect)
- required multimedia collateral
- any additional elements.
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 are not available, but one attempt follows:
- 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).
Link = background/context so nub makes sense (only where needed).
Nub aka “dear reader” = gist so reader knows exactly what feature is about.
Body/content component options:
- case histories.
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 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
- 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
- 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
- highlights main idea
- encourages reader to read
- 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
- capture the mood
- create an image and appeal to the imagination
- instantly transport the reader to the location/heart of the story
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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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