What do I need to do before I start writing? How do I write it? As a journalism student or trainee, you might even feel that feature writing is not for you — you prefer the hard edge and excitement of news. But with time and experience, many journalists welcome the opportunity to swap the straitjacket of news story writing, with its rigid adherence to objectivity and the pyramid structure, for the creativity and variety of feature writing.
In short, as David Stephenson, author of the useful handbook How to Succeed in Newspaper Journalism, suggests although whisper it within earshot of a news hack writing news can sometimes be boring Stephenson Feature writing, on the other hand, is almost always fun. In fact, Nick Morrison, features editor of the Northern Echo, says features are often used to provide background to an existing news story and to go into more depth. It is a deliberately wide-ranging definition because, although features, like news, are primarily about people, they may also explore issues or events, such as the tsunami disaster that, at the end of , claimed the lives of around , people in Asia and East Africa.
For several weeks afterwards both the tabloid and broadsheet press carried substantial features on the nature and scale of the disaster, its impact on the environment, and the implications for the economic futures of the affected nations. Note, though, that, even where a feature explores such issues or events, the focus is firmly people-orientated: how does this issue or event affect the people caught up in it? Features can be recognised by their length — they are longer than news stories and, typically, will be somewhere between and 2, words — and by their greater use of fact boxes, pictures, graphics and illustrations.
Perhaps, more importantly, features draw on a wider range of sources than a news story. Despite their length, features are not wordy rambles on woolly subjects. The best have interest, focus and purpose — and they are appropriate for both the audience and the publication in which they appear. Accordingly, the feature writer must focus on his or her readers and come up with a good reason or angle as to why the feature will be of interest to them.
He or she also needs to be clear about the purpose of their writing. A good question to ask is: what will the readers take away from the piece? But their sheer volume and variety means they are recognised as having a far more important job — that of entertaining, educating, informing, amusing, explaining and — not to be forgotten — giving the reader something interesting, new and, perhaps, enjoyable to read.
Was it compelling, interesting and different? Broadly, these can be explained as follows. This will be determined by the following. The news story serves the information function; the G2 feature provides information, entertainment and, possibly, persuasion. Most importantly of all, readers like features and often develop an affinity for individual feature writers — particularly personal columnists — and follow them loyally. Commercially, this is extremely valuable. But that is no excuse to let your writing slip. If you can write entertainingly and well, it will grab me and I will read the whole feature — even if the subject matter is not something I am interested in'.
Ian Reeves agrees: Evidence of good research is important; a feature should have interesting facts in it, but you could be the best researcher in the world yet still not write a decent feature. You have to have the writing skills as well and, sadly, not everyone has research and writing skills. Ninety per cent of it is down to the writing.
The various types of feature mentioned here will be discussed more fully in Chapters 7, 8, 9 and 10 but for now, a simple flick through a typical newspaper will highlight how they are used, where and why. Early news pages will carry news backgrounders that offer background, added information and, sometimes, colour to a news story. The leader page, on which can be found the leader — or main editorial comment column — will often carry a leader page feature, which generally reflects a topical news subject. Moving further into the paper, you will find general and specialist features.
General features are just that: features on general interest topics, while specialist features are those that cover specialities such as health, transport, Pape Feature-Ch Depending on their size, some newspapers will only carry one or two features of either general or specialist interest in each issue, others will have two or three pages dedicated to features. Profiles of personalities, characters or other people in the news, can be found virtually anywhere in the paper as they can fall into various categories of feature whether general or specialist.
As news is further left behind, pages reveal features on the arts and culture, and will include book, film, theatre and TV reviews; TV listings; horoscopes; quizzes and crosswords. Special interest subjects such as food and wine, rambling, antiques, property, gardening and motoring will have dedicated space — often a half page, full page or supplement. It is worth pointing out here that there has been considerable debate around the increasing number of column centimetres devoted to these Lifestyle, or, as they are sometimes called, consumer or service features.
In part, this upsurge reflects the fact that, as a society, most of us have more disposable income than at any other time in history, and, with more money to spend, these features provide a service by telling us how we can spend it more wisely, more prudently, more enjoyably. For media bosses, such features are the equivalent of economic manna from heaven, since they are almost always accompanied by related advertising — just look, for instance, at the pages of holiday, property and motor ads in the supplements padding out the weekend papers.
In fact, from the point of view of journalists employed in producing such features, they are undeniably a good thing since they help secure the financial viability of the publications for which the journalists write. Finally, personal columns are another part of the features mix. The Birmingham Post produces between eight and ten feature pages daily. Larger newspapers have a features department consisting of a features editor and one or more feature writers. Some newspapers will have specialist reporters, who also write features on their specialist subject, but often too, journalists from the general reporting pool will be asked to contribute features.
On smaller newspapers, where there is no dedicated features department, features are written by the general reporting staff. However on many larger Pape Feature-Ch Exercise We said at the beginning of this chapter that a lot of features are news-based. Which of these news stories all of which appeared in the Guardian on Thursday, 13 January could be developed as a feature for a regional weekly or evening paper?
What would be its purpose entertainment, education, information or persuasion and who would you interview? This is nowhere clearer than in the relationship between reporters and sources. The usual response is that ideas come from all around you — things you have heard, seen, read about or been told about. But it also means they tell us things without realising the potential of the subject and that it could just make a great feature.
Feature writers often find themselves interviewing someone for one story and coming back with an idea for another because the interviewee says something that sparks another idea. All the things we see, hear and read about come from sources. That sounds obvious.
But it is worth looking more closely at these sources and, by analysing them, learn to use them more constructively. They include the local newsagent, the barmaid, the bus driver, parents waiting at the school gate, the vicar, assistants scanning goods at the supermarket checkout, patients in waiting rooms — in other words, sources are wherever you find people. That kind of basic training never leaves you. Too many young journalists now expect story and feature ideas to beat a path to their doors.
They fail to grasp the importance of talking to people, building relationships, nurturing trust — and keeping contact books. Too many wait for everything to drop into an e-mail inbox. Experienced journalists like Pickles understand the importance of being known in their local community or on their patch. Being seen about the place and being recognised and trusted will lead to tip-offs.
Watching people and listening to what they have to say will offer up story ideas that will not have occurred to them — but will make great feature material for you. It either strikes a chord because it is relevant to an event, which has happened very recently and would therefore be topical, or is interesting enough to either research a little more or file away for the future. Freelance magazine writer Carole Richardson also stresses the importance of building contacts: A lot of people use the internet to source features but I find it really slow.
I spotted it as a tiny piece in a feature on people and their pets in the Mirror. A quick flick through a single edition of the tabloid Society Guardian 4 May produced adverts for a new chief executive director of Sheffield Racial Equality Council; a chief fire officer for Fife Council; a new director for Responding to Conflict, a UK-based charity working internationally in areas affected by violent conflict; a chief executive for Learning through Landscapes, a national charity that works to ensure that children and young people enjoy the benefits of Pape Feature-Ch Any, or all, of these could be the trigger for a variety of interesting pieces.
Feature Writing, A Practical Introduction by Susan Pape | | Booktopia
Clearly, you are not going to do a profile on a regional fire service, because we all know what they do and why — unless, of course, they are doing it particularly badly and the new boss is supposed to turn the organisation around, in which case, there is scope for an analytical, investigative piece on what has gone wrong and how it can be put right.
RESEARCH The journalist will probably spend more time researching the subject for a feature than for a news story and could find that they have too much information. The skill is to select what is appropriate, interesting and relevant to the piece. Facts that are included must be accurate and sourced. Facts that do not bring anything interesting to the feature, or that cause an unnecessary diversion, should be jettisoned. It is frustrating to interview six or seven different people for a feature and then find you only need to use quotes from two or three of them.
Do not feel that the time and effort put into the many and various interviews you conduct for one feature should be reflected in the length of the piece. If you have information and quotes that do not sit easily in the feature, could they be used in a separate explanation panel — or in a box as a case study? If the answer is no, let them go.
Writing about strong women defying society's expectations
Off-diary sources are like those we have mentioned already. They are literally anywhere and everywhere, and produce unexpected and unanticipated ideas for features. For example, the woman on the bus overheard talking Pape Feature-Ch On-diary sources are more predictable and include two categories. Although the feature writer will not be ringing these contacts with the same regularity as a news reporter might, he or she would certainly want to contact the police, for instance, if their feature was an in-depth look at the high level of accidents on a notorious local road or rising crime levels in the region.
Likewise, doctors, especially those in your patch who specialise in particular areas of medicine that would make an interesting feature.
It is also worth repeating that you should nurture members of the public — and these include your readers who phone or write in; people who come into the newspaper front office to talk to you; relatives, friends and colleagues who tell you things; people you overhear on a bus; and strangers with whom you strike up a conversation in the pub, on the street or anytime while out and about. Journalists sometimes get a bad press for abusing the trust of sources. But there is no need to be a push-and-shove, foot-in-the-door journalist says Debbie Hall, assistant publications editor with Hull Daily Mail Publications.
I went expecting one reaction and the family were really good to me and pleasant, even though I was delivering the most horrendous news. However, if you are new to feature writing and have somehow bypassed the general newsroom, it is worth stressing that a contacts book is one of the most valuable tools a journalist possesses. Names, numbers and details of valuable contacts and sources who will add authenticity, an authoritative voice, fact, detail and colour to a feature, should all be listed in your contacts book. Without those names and numbers being readily available, you could waste time scratching your head thinking of people to call, and thumbing through well-used telephone directories or scrolling down through internet lists looking for sources and numbers, which are sometimes not appropriate and risk being out of date.
Be warned though, some writers are extremely protective of their sources. Specialist sources come into their own for Chris Greenwood, assistant news editor of the York Evening Press, when he is working on crime stories and features. I started to collect background material right from the start of the murder case — talking to the proper authorities and my own contacts within the police force, and people who had called in about the case.
I chased up people mentioned in court, for instance, a tourist who was the last person to see the alleged murderer in York. But it was an important part of the background feature that I eventually wrote to go with the ending of the trial. Hardback, indexed books are best in our opinion because they are durable, classification is straightforward and, once entries have been entered alphabetically, they are quick and easy to use.
Ring-binder type books can be cumbersome and awkward to write in, while electronic organisers stand the risk of running out of battery or electrical charging power just when you need them. It would also be useful to log the national numbers of organisations that you will approach for background on particular features.
Exercise Check the listings pages of a local newspaper. Identify five potential features and make a list of the people you would need to interview for each one. Remember you will need to include an authoritative voice as well as human interest sources. Barber in S. Answer: Several hundred pounds an hour. Boom boom. The uncertainty surrounding how the interviewee will react and the surprise when they respond positively and say something new, interesting or entertaining is part of the delight of being a feature writer.
The importance of the interview should never be underestimated. News journalists are up against tight deadlines and under pressure to get their stories written up as quickly as possible. A lot of their interviews will be done over the phone. There are a number of reasons for this: they are often working on more than one story; they need to interview more than one person and it is not feasible to visit them all; further, they do not need to spend a long time breaking the ice and getting to know their interviewee because often they simply need some straightforward facts and a couple of quotes.
Gone are the days when feature writers could spend long hours thinking about their approach, preparing meticulously and then spending hours — if not days — with their subject. Stress is so invigorating. And ideally this will offer more opportunity to do interviews face-to-face. We say ideally because a face-to-face interview is Pape Feature-Ch While a news journalist will often have an interview thrust upon them with little time to prepare, one would hope that a feature writer, planning to write up to 1, words — and sometimes more — would give him or herself enough time to think through who they need to speak to and what they will need to prepare in order to ensure that each interview provides the information they require.
Some journalists say they never prepare for an interview; they treat the process as a conversation and, having asked the first question, pick up on the answers they are given. While this might allow for relaxed conversational flow, it does not necessarily get the journalist the information he or she needs — and it is unprofessional to return to the newsroom and find you do not have answers to important questions because you did not ask them. However, do not let this put you off contacting your interviewee later and asking politely if they would mind answering one or two more questions.
It could also be argued that in an unstructured interview, the journalist gets borne along and the interviewee is able to dictate the shape and tone of the event.
Anne Pickles agrees that interviewing is no more than conversation — albeit with a difference: You converse until you have coaxed out of the interviewee a piece of themselves which reveals who they are and what they are about. Any interview that fails to achieve that might as well be dumped. Everyone will read through the deception.
I belong to the minimal question school — ideally I want the subject to do all the talking, with only occasional interruptions from me. But other interviewers, usually men, want the interview to be more like a conversation or even a debate, which is effective for eliciting opinions, not so good for illuminating character. David Charters, a feature writer with the Liverpool Daily Post, always knows something of an interviewee before meeting him or her. Information from a book or a good paper is usually better than the stuff on the internet.
In setting the date, are you giving yourself enough time to prepare? In setting it for some weeks hence, might one of you be at risk of forgetting or of the feature idea going off the boil? Does the date of the interview tie in with the peg on which you are hanging the feature? In setting a time, have you given yourself enough time to find the location, do the interview, and travel there and back? Is it convenient for the interviewee or will it mean them dashing to join you from another appointment or rushing away after ten minutes?
Some interviewees will ask how long you want with them, in which case, work out how long you need. In the case of celebrity interviews, where an author, actor or singer is plugging their latest book, film or CD, chances are that a public relations officer PRO will have arranged the interview and you will be given a strict slot of about 20 minutes, sandwiched in between journalists from other publications. Camaraderie can sometimes develop when an interview is going particularly well — especially if the subject is one in which the journalist has a particular specialism or interest.
Very occasionally, there may be times when an interviewee falls for the looks and charms of an interviewer. However, occasions when these meetings develop into something more meaningful are rare, so maintain your professionalism and remember that you are there to get all the detail and information you need to write your feature. Also bear in mind that the interviewee could appear friendlier than might be expected because he or she is trying to flatter you into printing a more favourable piece about them than is, perhaps, warranted.
I think problems sometimes arise with inexperienced journalists, who often find it hard to be sufficiently detached in interviews. They are flattered that a famous person is apparently confiding in them even telling them things off the record! I always tell beginner journalists: look, all you have to do is be punctual, be polite, and ask questions. Barber in Glover Anne Pickles says: Arranging interviews is a simple matter of approaching with honesty, promising faithful representation, listening with humility and delivering to the best of ability.
What journalists forget is their one priceless gift. They have one purpose and that is to question and to present the reply. No decent journo should ever pretend to know more than he or she does. Meeting your interviewee and watching their body language also gives you something of an insight into their character and personality, and can give you material that adds colour to your feature. For example, consider the number of features you have read that begin with a reference to how the interviewee arrived at the meeting; how they were dressed; how they tossed their hair; how they played with their jewellery; or toyed with their coffee cup, and so on.
To some extent, inviting somebody into your home means you have certain obligations towards them — it evens things up a bit. Being at home also puts the interviewee into the position of a host, which, in turn, obliges them to extend the common courtesies normally reserved for invited guests — such as offering refreshments. All of which provides an opportunity to add colour and description. Towards the end, before he resigned, he looked very haggard, he was emotionally and physically knackered. If your interviewee feels comfortable and relaxed, he or she is more likely to talk freely and openly.
Check that the location is convenient for you too. Is it easy to get to and can you get there on time? Will you be interrupted? Will the interviewee be distracted a potential hazard if you meet in their office? If you are meeting outside, check the weather. Some interviewees might not have a thing about tardiness but it is rude to turn up late, no matter how good an excuse you have about getting caught in heavy traffic or abandoned on a broken-down bus. Apart from anything else, if you turn up late, the interviewee might have given up waiting for you and gone. If running late is unavoidable, use your mobile phone to ring the interviewee, or someone who can get a message to them, to let them know how much longer you will be.
Dress appropriately for the occasion, whether it is jeans and trainers to interview a local band during their rehearsals or a suit for a profile on a prominent businessperson. How you look will influence the interviewee and, therefore, help or hinder the process by which you gain their trust. It should go without saying that you must introduce yourself. The interviewee must know who you are, which newspaper you are working for — or if you are a freelance — and the subject area you are writing about.enter
Feature writing: a practical introduction
And, as part of the introductions, you need also to establish that the interviewee is the person you were expecting them to be. It should also go without saying that you must be polite, diplomatic and professional throughout. Getting irritable and losing your temper with an interviewee must be avoided even if the interviewee provokes you by being rude or hostile themselves. Whatever happens, keep your cool. Sometimes, it can help if you see it as a bit of a game, try and find the fun element of it rather than getting worked up. If you find yourself being led into an area that is of no relevance to your feature or your questions are being avoided, take a deep breath, rephrase your questions and put them again — politely but firmly.
Learning to control the pace and flow of an interview is a skill that takes time and practice to develop. It can sometimes prove difficult for younger writers, who may feel intimidated by, for example, an older, more experienced councillor or business executive with a clear political or corporate agenda. How you handle such situations depends to some extent on your own personality and the nature of the piece you are planning to write.
Certainly, there is no harm in letting somebody spout the party or company message — in fact, it can even be a good idea to get it out of the way early in the interview so you can use it as a peg on which to hang the questions you really want to ask. Sometimes, says Martin Smith, you just have to go with the flow: You have to let a conversation take its natural course even if that sometimes means people going off in the wrong direction.
Further, exercising too much control runs the risk of turning the interview into an interrogation. This is an important and significant distinction, since the power relationship between interrogator and interrogated has a different balance to that between interviewer and interviewee. Put simply, an interviewee has the option of walking away and refusing to answer questions — then you really will be left with egg on your face — while the interrogated does not.
So, while it pains us to admit it, someone who agrees to an interview is doing you a favour and deserves to be treated with courtesy and respect. That means listening to their answers, asking questions that flow naturally from those replies, and being honest about the purpose of the interview. Some journalists like having a photographer with them — they can be good company, they can help find the way, they can help break the ice and they can sometimes chip in during the interview with relevant questions and observations. Be careful though not to let them take over and ask them to stop if they are breaking in too often and spoiling your line of questioning or taking the interviewee off the point.
If you have a photographer with you, you can also direct and encourage them to take shots that tie in with what you will be writing about later. Problems arise if the photographer wants to take the interviewee to a location some distance away, if the interviewee has limited time, and if the photographer spends a long time taking the pictures — and it is often a lengthy process because the photographer is obviously working to get the best possible shot. It can leave the journalist kicking their heels because it is pointless asking any questions while the interviewee is busy concentrating on having their picture taken.
And by the time the photographer has finished, there might be little time left for questions. If it is possible, arrive at the job first and give yourself time — say, half an hour or an hour — to do the interview before the photographer arrives. ON THE PHONE There will be some interviews that a feature writer will do over the phone because the interviewee is not available for a meeting, or the journalist does not have the time or the resources to meet them face-to-face.
However, remember that phone interviews are more impersonal. There is also a danger that one of you might be misheard or misunderstood. This usually happens when a PRO has arranged the interview for you and asks you to dial into a certain number at a prearranged time. Conference calls are awkward as any number of people can join in. But this sort of interference spoils the flow of the interview. Apart from anything else, having someone else listening in can make the interviewee feel nervous and guarded.
Preparation for a phone interview should be just as rigorous as for a faceto-face interview, that is, do your research and prepare some questions. One of the advantages is that, having compiled background notes and listed your questions, you can have them in front of you as prompts if needed while you conduct the interview.
Make an arrangement to ring them back at a time that is convenient to both of you. On a practical note, when you then ring back, make sure you are put through to the right person and, if necessary, tell the operator, assistant or whoever answers the phone, that the interviewee is expecting your call. It is always important to check your spelling when writing for a newspaper and it is essential to spell names correctly, but extra care is needed when checking on the phone as an S can be mistaken for an F and a P for a B.
You might want the added security of a tape recorder for a long interview, but remember that batteries can run out, the machine might break down or fail to record for some reason, excessive external noise might drown out the interview, and the tape you use might not last the length of the interview. You will then have to allow time to transcribe a lengthy interview from tape — and find somewhere in the newsroom to do it where the noise is not going to bother other journalists.
Even if you use a tape recorder, always make a back-up note — not least, says Martin Smith, because it is much easier to trawl through pages of shorthand notes than it is to go backwards and forwards through a tape recording. The NCTJ and most other training bodies insist on words per minute.
Pitmans and Teeline are the two most popular systems. Before giving an interview many interviewees will want to know how long you need; how long will the interview take? The length of time needed will depend on the type and complexity of the feature being written, the nature and character of the interviewee, and the time you have got available. National newspaper feature writers can spend days with an interviewee, for instance, meeting an actor at his or her home, taking them out for lunch, and then possibly spending time with them on location. However, a local journalist will not have the time or resources to do this.
Often you will be expected to write up an word profile having met the interviewee just once for about 45 minutes. This is even more reason why you need to do your research and have a clear line of questioning ready. For Barber, interviewing is definitely not an ego trip. Keep the questions on a separate page so that you can keep referring back to them easily and without Pape Feature-Ch But, importantly, having made a list, do not be blinkered by it.
Listen carefully to the answers you are given and respond to them as appropriate — it could lead you somewhere more interesting than along the route you had originally planned. Ignoring a gem of an answer because you were concentrating on the next question could mean the difference between a dull feature and one that could be an exciting read. As the interview is going on, the intro and angle of the feature should be bubbling in your mind. But particularly useful quotes and bits of information will be easier to find if you foreground them in some way.
Score a line beside, or highlight in some other way, nuggets as you write them down. When you get back to the office you will be able to find them quickly and easily, which is important as, with deadlines looming, you might not have time to transcribe every word of your notes.
Was it from your own background — and was that a happy time — or did you have to do a lot of research? If the interviewee talks too much, goes off the subject, avoids the questions, waffles or simply becomes boring, ask questions that pull him or her back on Pape Feature-Ch As we said before, throughout the interview you must stay cool, calm and in control. But, at the same time, avoid long pauses.
You might be frantically scribbling down your shorthand note or floundering to think of your next question but the interviewee will become bored, restless or embarrassed by the silences although there are occasions when journalists leave a conversational gap deliberately so as to allow their interviewee to fall into it and say something else. And extremely important — avoid interrupting unless the interviewee is going off in a meaningless direction. You might try and present the reason for your visit as offering the interviewee some sort of gain, although this should not be done in a clumsy, dishonest or insincere way.
Be interested — or at least, give the impression of being interested — during an interview and use lots of signs such as nodding and smiling to encourage the interviewee to talk. You might be faced with a reluctant, nervous or genuinely shy interviewee, in which case they need handling with care. During the interview with a reluctant interviewee, you might find this is another occasion when a short pause between the last answer and your next question will help. Nod encouragingly and hope that the interviewee will fill the silence.
At all costs avoid being arrogant, angry, facetious, sarcastic, diffident, shy or vague. There will be times when you are tempted to show off — especially if the interviewee flatters you or the subject matter is a particular specialism of yours — but avoid putting yourself centre stage. There may also be times when you feel tempted to argue with your interviewee — because of his or her views on a subject — but remember, the interview is not about you and your opinions.
Where appropriate show sympathy, empathy and respect. Well, yes and no. But the purpose of an interview is to extract information and the only certain way of doing that is to ask lots of questions. It is not, as Barber pointed out earlier, an ego-trip either — or at least not for you. Nor is an interview a two-way exchange of information: it is a hard-nosed deal between two people, you and the interviewee, who each hope that it will realise something tangible — you want a good story and they want a vehicle to promote themselves, their product or their latest idea.
So, forget whatever your mother might have told you: it is not nosey to ask too many questions, rather we prefer to think of it as gainful curiosity. Do not think that, as you close your notebook and put it away, this is the end of the interview. Often gems are to be found when the interviewee thinks it is all over. This is when they relax and often say something more. Pick up on this if it happens. Take your notebook out again — you could even ask if the interviewee minds if you make a further note.
Interviewees also sometimes save until the end of the interview those gems which they had not realised were all that interesting. But a throwaway remark can often lend a feature the drama, humour or colour it needs to lift it out of the ordinary. A good idea is to ask the interviewee if there is anything he or she wishes to add.
Leave your contact number in case they think of something and check that you have their number in case you think of something else you want to ask. Many interviewees ask you to send them a copy of your questions in advance. You do not have to do this, but you could offer them an outline of the subject areas you want to cover in the interview.
This might even be useful in the case of an interviewee who needs to do some pre-interview Pape Feature-Ch Few of our colleagues have ever sent questions in advance apart from those about to interview royalty, senior politicians or, increasingly, celebrities. In a similar vein, many interviewees will ask to see the written article before it goes in the paper.
Do not show it to them. Many interviewees are suspicious or have a fear of seeing their quotes or facts about themselves in black and white and want to edit them. Their interference will add grammatical errors, ruin perfectly good quotes, and knock the shine of what was a sparkling gem of information. And the time it takes for them to meddle and send the copy back will make you miss your deadline.
A compromise might be to explain to the interviewee that all editorial control lies with your editor but you would be prepared to give an outline of what you have written over the phone. Of course, there are exceptions. For instance, if your interviewee is a specialist, such as a doctor or scientist, you might want to send him or her certain paragraphs of a highly medical or scientific nature to check for accuracy. The other exception, and the only time an interviewee should automatically see the copy before it is printed, is in the case of an advertorial for which they have paid.
More of which in Chapter 7. E-mail interviews are increasingly common. They are quick and easy, and some people respond better to e-mail questions than they would to a faceto-face or telephone interview. They work best where the information you need is factual rather than contentious, and where you are expecting lots of detail but not planning to put your interviewee against the ropes. The problem with the e-mail interview is that you might have to wait longer for answers.
However, the e-mail interview does give respondents time to think about their answers and it could be argued that those answers will be better for the eventual feature. Using e-mail answers will also avoid any accusations of misquoting, and it is easier to cut and paste e-mailed remarks into your copy than to transcribe your shorthand notes or tape recording. And be aware that you have no way of knowing if your intended interviewee composed the answers — they may have been provided by a PRO acting on his or her behalf — or by a committee. Three canoeists were rescued by firefighters and police from the water behind the derelict Slater Engineering Works.
Ms Dale abandoned her canoe and swam back to free Mr Rowles, who was trapped in his overturned canoe. Mr Windrush managed to escape from his canoe and swam to the bank and alerted staff at the nearby Beauchief carpet factory who dialled Mr Rowles and Ms Dale were treated in hospital for shock and hypothermia. Mr Windrush did not require treatment. Both Mr Rowles and Ms Dale were discharged from hospital this afternoon.
I think she deserves a medal. It might not be a subject that the reader knows much about or even cares about, but if it is well written, it will carry them along, informing, entertaining or simply amusing. There are some journalists who are blessed with an innate sense of how to write features; others believe they can write well but produce something that is somehow lacking; and there are many, particularly when first starting out, who find the prospect daunting and are unsure where to start.
Be assured, whatever your writing style, there are rules and guidelines that can be learned and followed to help you produce a feature worth reading. Freelance journalist David Bocking, who writes for the Sheffield Telegraph and the Times Education Supplement, started out as a photo-journalist writing picture captions before gradually moving into features.
To some extent this background is reflected in his writing style, which tends towards the observational, foregrounding the people at the heart of the story and allowing them to speak for themselves. Just because you are writing a feature does not mean you can leave out what has happened to who, where and when, how and why. PEG Just as a news reporter needs a peg to hang their story on, the feature writer needs a peg on which to base their feature.
Avoid writing an article on a particular subject simply because the subject is there. Rather, find a reason for writing it; give it a peg on which to hang it. Student journalists in particular seem to struggle with the idea that a story must have a peg — and that the peg must be appealing and relevant to their readers. It is the same with readers: offer them what they want to read and not what you want to write. And that means getting the peg right. A good journalist, in tune with the wants and needs of their readers, will have an almost instinctive sense of how to peg a story.
ANGLE Next, every feature needs an angle, that is, the main slant or the way in which you will interpret and approach the content. To use the non-surgical facelift example, the angle would be that a local beauty salon is offering treatment deemed unsafe in certain circumstances. The angle must be appropriate for the subject matter, and one that the reader will find interesting. The angle might be suggested by your features or commissioning editor and should be explained in the brief that he or she gives you.
This in itself will help you frame questions and start to develop the direction the feature will take. Sometimes, editors may already have a contact lined up and willing to talk. But, more often, they will determine the angle or focus of a feature perhaps because a particular issue is in the news and leave it to the feature writer to come up with the goods in terms of sourcing interviewees.
For rookies, that can be daunting see Chapter 2 for more on sourcing the feature. Interviewees and interviews do not always follow the expected path and you may find on occasion that the facts you elicit do not support the theme or angle pre-ordained by your commissioning editor.
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It is not a good idea to try and make the facts fit. Instead get as much information as you can and go back to the newsroom and explain why the feature does not stand up. Suggest alternative angles or scenarios. In fact, facts make a feature more interesting. But as freelance journalist Lynne Greenwood says, a feature writer must never assume the readers know the background — even if the piece follows a news story.
Make it a lively and interesting read. This requires a more discursive style of writing using linking words or conjunctions, to give them their proper name and phrases to provide a bridge between one paragraph and the next. An experienced writer will use them instinctively, but those new to feature writing may have to make a conscious effort to do so. Useful words and phrases include: on the other hand, at the moment, right now, in fact, but, and, nevertheless, however, perhaps, again, although, and, but … and many, many more.
Wherever you use factual information, it must be just that: factual and correct. In other words, get your facts right. You also need to check and double-check every other piece of information. Just because it is a feature and there are more words to write, does not mean you can be vague, that you can generalise, that you can be approximate or that you can misrepresent or libel someone.
It is a good idea, advises Sarah Carey, a senior reporter with the Cornish Guardian, to ask interviewees for a contact number in case you need to check any facts. A word or two of caution though. First, make sure that the telephone number you are given is one where you can reach a contact out-of-office hours as well as nine-to-five. If possible, a mobile number is best. Second, never ask for a contact number during your introductory preamble. Can I ask you a few questions about … and do you have a number I can ring in case I get anything wrong?
Instead, make your request as you wrap up the interview. It is best, if you can, to avoid ringing an interviewee with follow-up questions. They lift a piece of writing, substantiate and bring authenticity, add to the facts and explain, and bring human interest, colour, drama and humour.
However, they should be selected wisely and used with care. Quoting too heavily can be boring and a block of several paragraphs contained within quote marks can be daunting for the reader. At the same time, too many short, pithy quotes can break up the flow of the feature.
In other words, good quotes have to be coaxed out of an interviewee through deft questioning and patient listening. Bocking emphasises the importance of listening — and observing: I sometimes think I have a bumbling sort of approach. Because I started out as a photo-journalist, I still see myself as a bit of an observer. I rarely go with a list of questions. I prefer to sit down with people and let them chat.
Sometimes, they go off in different directions and, from time to time, might need to be steered back on track, but rambling can also lead you into interesting directions. For style purposes, we are following the academic convention of using single quote marks in this book, but double quote marks for quotes within quotes. They should be introduced with a colon and placed within quote marks.
They are used to save space and time, and to summarise what a speaker might have said in a long-winded or complicated way. For instance, if Ms Smythe found the most tedious way of explaining the agony of a week spent deciding whether or not to have the beauty treatment, the feature writer could summarise it thus: Jane spent days agonising over whether or not to go ahead with the treatment.
Partial quotes are useful, but avoid littering your feature with too many of them as they can look bitty and irritate the reader. However, where they are used, they should be attributed and must be accurate, and they should be placed within quote marks. Note too that the full stop comes after the final quote marks because this is where the sentence ends, rather than inside the quote marks as in a full quote, which is a sentence in its own right. For instance: The New Look beauty salon, on the High Street, started offering non-surgical facelifts three months ago.
Where a news story seeks to present facts impartially, without offering an opinion one way or another, features offer much more opportunity for a writer to reflect their own views about a person, issue or event. Sometimes this opinion is expressed explicitly, as in this Guardian extract from Salam Pax, the infamous Baghdad blogger, which positively drips with sarcasm: A few nights ago, a small local hospital in the town of Musaiyab was hit with a rocketpropelled grenade.
Luckily, no one was hurt. The guy shot a hospital by mistake and went to apologise. I bet his mum is proud. Now the tragic part. He misses the convoy and the RPG lands in the local gas station. He is full of self-doubt, surprisingly at odds with the reputation of the Culkin family, which, at the zenith of its fame in the s, was splashed repeatedly across the front pages as a symbol of dysfunctional celebrity.
Brockes The descriptive prose and, tellingly, the satsuma anecdote speak volumes. What is clear from both these examples is that the writers are not simply reporters, impartially recording facts and comments. Instead, they are sizing up their subjects, considering what makes them tick; and, finally, offering an opinion or view about how the reader should see them. Adam Wolstenholme, deputy news editor of the Spenborough Guardian, relishes the opportunity to expose absurdities: The main difference with features is that, rather than merely reporting facts, you respond to them with your thoughts and feelings, often with a particular effect in mind — to cut through the irrelevancies, expose non-sequiturs, praise or Pape Feature-Ch Research is not only essential for legal reasons but can give extra clout to your arguments.
Forcefully expressed, subjective opinion can be a turnoff. Instead, most feature writers allow their subjects to reveal themselves through the judicious use of quotes, anecdotes and asides. A good example comes in this extract from a David Bocking profile of a pair of collectors who run a business selling household objects from the s and s.
Bocking The anecdote, which Bocking allows the pair to relate in their own words, paints a vivid word picture that spells out just what happens when a couple get carried away. If the photographer goes with you on the job, you can let him or her know what angle you are taking and what type of picture will best illustrate the piece. In fact, such devices are useful for anything that needs foregrounding, highlighting or that does not sit easily or could be lost in the main body of the text. They also have the effect of breaking up a page of print, thereby, making it easier on the eye and more readable.
They can also illustrate in graphic detail a point that might be difficult to convey effectively in words. A piece in the Independent 21 March , about the inch waist of actress and singer Kylie Minogue, for instance, was accompanied by a line drawing of a inch circle.
The star is often described as diminutive or tiny and that circle demonstrated the real meaning of those words. A writer might start a feature with a reference to time gone but only to make more of what has gone on between then and now, as in: Five years ago Jane Smythe was happy with her looks. COLOUR Adding colour to a feature does not mean sprinkling copy with adjectives and metaphors to make it sound more dramatic or exciting.
It means adding detail and description that help to explain the facts, paint a picture and bring in background. More importantly, colour allows the reader to experience what you are experiencing, whether it is meeting a personality or individual, seeing a show or tasting a meal. Take this description from an A. Gill Clearly, the waitress is no oil painting.
Obviously, skilled use of colourful phrases and imagery comes with experience but good writers become good writers by reading and learning from other good writers. So read a range of publications, identify the work of writers you admire and respect, and keep a little notebook by your side, and whenever you come across a phrase or description that you particularly like, jot it down.
Over time you will build up a bank of colourful metaphors and similes that you can draw on whenever you get stuck for words. This is not plagiarism. The context and situation in which you employ these phrases will be different and they will take on new meanings — meanings that belong to you and not the original source. Too many would-be feature writers including those fresh from writing university essays confuse rhetoric, literary embroidery and fine prose for well-expressed writing — sadly, they are wrong.
See Chapter 6 for more on writing style and language. Newspapers have their own style and it is important that your feature matches it. Newspaper style is also about presentation, that is, the way stories and features are presented on the page, the use of grammar and punctuation, and how words and phrases are used. A new writer needs to learn what approach his or her newspaper takes to the way it presents quotes, abbreviations, names, ages, titles, capital letters and even swear words. It is worth checking if there is a house style book that details the fundamentals.
Give thought to the type of feature you are writing and judge the best style in which to present it. See Chapter 7 for a more detailed look at different types of features. TONE Most journalists, as they become more experienced at writing features, will develop a flair for writing in a particular tone or voice.
It will not be the same every time, rather it will reflect the subject matter, for instance, if it is serious, sad or humorous. Some feature writers are better at the solemn or stern stuff while others have a lighter touch. To some extent, the features you choose to write given that you might sometimes have that choice and the tone you adopt, are likely to reflect your own personality. Somebody who is naturally serious-minded and thoughtful will be less inclined to write an amusing, light-hearted piece than Pape Feature-Ch This is not a problem, as many newsrooms encourage a diversity of style and personality within the features department where every writer can play to their strengths.
It means a features or commissioning editor, while understanding what tone they expect a feature to take, will have considered the writing style of the person they commission to write the piece. Also, as someone new to feature writing, it is a good idea to tackle a broad range of subjects whatever your particular likes or personality profile. And it does no harm for an experienced feature writer, more used to writing of weighty matters say, to have a go at something of a lighter nature. He or she could find previously untapped talent.
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Broadly speaking, tone refers to how you say something while voice relates to the words you use. There is a distinct but subtle difference. Your headteacher, on the other hand, conveying the same information about your colleague to the school at large, will adopt the same serious tone but his or her voice, in terms of language and structure, will be more formal, reflecting the more distant relationship he or she has with the student body. The language is direct and uncluttered, with little use of colour and imagery, and tends to be employed where the subject matter is serious or considered to be of particular importance to the Pape Feature-Ch It has been a discreditable display of low politics.
It is no wonder that politicians no longer command the respect they once did. Guardian Note how both language and content leave no room for doubt about what the reader should think. While the paper is careful not to lecture or hector the reader, the voice is that of an authority figure leading or guiding a less wellinformed junior partner or colleague. As such, the expert voice is not confined to editorials or even to broadsheets. The instructions for a kneeling leg crossover begin: Get on all fours with your hands and knees shoulder-width apart, head facing the floor.
FEATURE WRITING: A PRACTICAL INTRODUCTION
Slowly extend your right leg straight behind you, angling it slightly to the right, with your toes still touching the floor. This is the starting position. Once again, the language is direct and authoritative. The reader knows exactly what he needs to do. The Online Journalism Handbook. London: Routledge Hennessy, Brendan. Writing Feature Articles. Oxford: Focal Press, 4th ed Clayton, Joan. London: Economist Books, 11 th edition. Franklin, Bob, et al. Key Concepts in Journalism. London: Sage Hicks, Wynford. Writing for Journalists. Interviewing for Journalists.
London: Routledge, 2nd ed McKay, Jenny. The Magazines Handbook. Magazine Editing: In Print and Online. The Universal Journalist. London: Pluto, 4th ed. Sanders, Karen. Ethics and Journalism. London: Sage Smith, Jon.