Feature Writing 101

20 04 2009

In earlier post I introduced feature writing as a beneficial skill for PR practitioners to know. Often the news about clients can be considered as feature, therefore it is essential to know how to write one. This week in Dr. V’s class (@prprof_mv) we will be editing features and putting together the Clemson Communication Studies Department Newsletter.

I interviewed Stephanie Harvin, features editor of The Post and Courier, to get some tips on writing features. The interview is as follows:

Q: What makes a good feature story?

A: A good feature story is just like a news story, it contains elements of news, but is generally an expanded version giving more about what the news means. For instance, a news story about recycling will tell you the hottest tip on recycling, but a feature story will incorporate more people, more facts, and more context for the story. It will also have more photos and graphics attached to it to give it a reader-friendly approach.

Q: What is the most important thing that all feature stories should have?

A: An element of surprise. Features don’t have to be read by anybody, so the language and the idea should engage the reader’s emotions or interests quickly and reward them for reading.

Q: How do you come up for ideas for stories?

A: They come from all kinds of sources, but they should be about something that is happening in your community. They should go from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Q: Some people say that you should never put yourself in your stories. Is this always true? What is your policy at The Post and Courier on first person features?

A: No. With the impact of social media on print, we are relaxing some of the first-person rules to be more reader-friendly. More readers want to engage with a person they recognize rather than an impersonal and remote reporter. But you still have to tell the story from a balanced perspective.

Q: What is the best way to structure a feature?

A: The structure comes from the way you decide to tell the story. Some stories are narratives, some straight news structure, some intros plus bullets or Q&A’s. There are also good charticles – articles done in a chart – that make good features. There is no one structure that fits feature stories so you have to master a number of them.

Q: Do you believe subheadings make for a good feature structure?

A: Subheadings are just one of the tools we use to break up masses of gray type. They should add to the value of the story, though. Again, these should follow the structure, and not be a worry by themselves.

Q: Some people like to insert bullets and other punctuation devices to make their stories “scannable” at times? What is your policy on this?

A: The more you break up a long story into boxes, briefs, bullet points and easy to scan points, the better it will be. The main thing is to have different information in all these various forms, and not repeat the main story in them. You should choose one of these devices per story, though, so you don’t confuse the reader.

Q: What makes or breaks a feature story?

A: A good feature story should engage the reader from the first word, and a good one uses a strong theme and clean writing to make its point. It should never vary from its task, although the path can meander a bit. What breaks a feature story is a lack of clarity on the writer’s part. If the writer doesn’t really know why they are writing the story, it doesn’t matter how much they write or interview, it will still be a mess.

Are these tips useful? Why do you think feature writing is an important skill for PR practitioners to have?

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6 responses

21 04 2009
Bill Bennett

As a long-term newspaper feature writer, one of the issues I’ve come up against with the move from print to online is length.

A 1000 word feature doesn’t seem too long in a newspaper. Magazine features can happily stretch to 5000 or more words. Online, 1000 words seems to be the upper limit of acceptability.

21 04 2009
amaute

@Bill I agree. People seem to have a smaller attention span online. One thing that Stephanie Harvin pointed out in our interview was that bullets, charts and anything to break up text is helpful. I think features online will become less and less blocks of massive text and include more graphics. I have even seen online features with videos embedded to help further explain the article. How do you feel about the use of embedded videos in features?

21 04 2009
Bill Bennett

Actually I hate embedded videos when I’m expecting to see words. Though it does a place.

Part of the problem is that I live in Auckland, New Zealand and my local broadband connection isn’t good enough for video streaming.

You can read text at your own pace, video requires ALL you attention and, while it is possible to stop and start video, generally you have to sit through the whole thing in one sitting. What’s more, if you want to quickly recap something in a text page, you just scan your eye up the text column. With video, scrolling back and forth for a recap is much harder.

21 04 2009
amaute

@Bill I find that when an article contains an embedded video I often do not watch it, especially if it is longer than 3 min. My journalism teacher seemed extremely surprised when we told him we don’t watch the videos and skip right to the text of the article instead. He figured that sense our generation is such a media savvy group, that we would prefer video over text, but I find this untrue. I agree that videos are often much harder to navigate.

23 04 2009
billbennettnz

@amaute I prefer text online and video on a TV screen. Short clips can be OK, but not if they are heavy-duty content. The worst kind of clip is of someone standing in front of a white board lecturing. It’s worse than sitting through Powerpoint.

Which reminds me. In the early days of the web people used to embed Powerpoint in pages — that practice has died out. I suspect ’embedded’ video will go the same way. There will be online video delivery, but not mixes of text, images and video clips.

5 07 2009
yvette

i agree i really don’t like videos much and i especially hate long articles or articles that i’ve been asked to re3ad instead of them catching my interest.

i did not read all of this article because it started geting technical and i don’t know much about feature writting seeing as my mom asked me to do some research for her

i really do think when forced read material people tend to dislike said material

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