Writing and Critiquing Features

Do not fear- features are here!  Sometimes reading general news story after general news story can let your thinking get dull and creativity dusty.  Feature stories however bring a whole new light to the right side of the brain.  So how do you begin?

1.  Let’s get an outline together.

I’ll be honest- I’m type A.  I love my planner and I love making lists, so an outline is second nature for me.  But even if you’re type B, C or E, an outline will help you put your thoughts in order and give you a structure of the story.

For example, a persuasive outline might look something like this: (from The Art of Feature Writing, p. 273)

  • Introduction to the issue and your stance
  • Arguments in support of your position
  • Arguments in opposition to your position and a refutation
  • A reaffirmation of the stance taken in the opening paragraphs, but phrased differently.

Do you see how this helps your story flow?  Now take this general guideline, and make it specific to your persuasive story.

2.  Now let’s write:

Good writers craft every element of their work, down to the joints between the words.  During this meticulous process it’s nearly impossible to step back and experience the text as a new reader would,” said Mark Kramer and Wendy Call in Telling True Stories.

This is such a true great piece of advice.  Keep that in mind when you begin to edit.  Here are some other great tips for perfecting your writing abilities:

  • Embody ideas in the nature of language
  • Restore worn-out words
  • Take an art class
  • Use concrete detail
  • Compose the pace
  • Experiment with form
  • Cultivate your own style
  • Get someone to read and critique
  • Raise the bar through each story
  • Each year choose three skills to concentrate and develop on


Take these tips and apply them to each story you write.  Perfect your feature and see how far you can go!


It’s Just An Outline

I remember taking speech class a couple years ago at Jones County Junior College, and we had an assignment that required us to make an entire outline of a five-minute speech. Easier said than done. What I took from that experience is that when delivering a story, whether it’s written or verbally, there has to be some element of organization to keep a steady flow in whatever is being delivered to the audience.

As writers, it can be easy for us to become frustrated with so many thoughts circling our mind when we are composing a feature story. The reading shares several tips on how to avoid that along with making the writing process easier. Whether it’s a simple outline with main topics and subtopics or an inverted pyramid, your story deserves some type of organization to help make it more compelling. The last thing you want is for your story to read off as a cluster of words with no meaning.

I’ve learned from past experiences with composing stories that it really helps to map out the sequence of ideas even before working on my rough draft. It’s like playing a game of spades. You set your cards up, see what you’re working with and play to your advantage in order to win. The same concept (sort of) applies to writing a feature story, set your main topics up, see what additional commentary and notes you’re working with and write to your advantage.

It never helps to immediately start writing a story with no sense of direction.

Better writing comes from learning to edit yourself

If you really want to improve your writing, spend some time as an editor. Being an editor makes you read a story differently. Rather than seeing the story as a collective whole, editors see it as pieces (words, sentences, thoughts, ideas.) They learn to compartmentalize, reading for content first, and then going line by line to spot mistakes, clunkiness, lack of flow.

The best writers learn to use these editing tools on their own work. They distance themselves from their writing by “letting it gel,” or writing and then leaving their work before reading it again. Then they put on their editors’ hats and spot the problems.

You can give it try here by editing each of these sentences.

Outlines Will Save Your Life

Forgive me, for I have sinned. I have never written an outline for any of the stories or articles I have written. Outlining was always my least favorite part growing up and going through public-education English classes. I get it’s useful for some people, but I always ended up changing things from whatever was in my outline. It was all just a waste of time for me.

I might jot down a few short notes that make sense to me and only me, but I have never done a formal outline, which is apparently very helpful when writing and makes your writing better. See, a lot of people like organization. Even people who think in a very disorganized way (myself included) like organization when it comes to writing because it is all just easier to follow and understand. If the story is disorganized,  no one will understand what it is about and lose interest in the story.

So outlines are really good for keeping stories organized, apparently. First, you have to make sure you know what kind of story you are hoping to write, because you can’t outline a short feature story the same way you would a long news story. Then you can figure out what parts of the story are going to go where to make it a coherent story.

I know as I improve my writing it would probably be in my best interest to start outlining my stories instead of just diving in and writing it. It’s just quicker that way, so I like it better, and I rearrange the story as I go along. That’s the wonderful thing about using a computer with cut and paste capabilities. Essentially, if someone wants to be a good writer, they should not follow my example. They should outline.

What’s In a Lead?

Leads to a story can be tricky.  Sometimes, I’ll write the body of the story first and the lead last.  Leads should be enticing, interesting and compelling.  The reader should be drawn in to read the rest of the story.

The dramatic lead.

“His classmates called him “the leper,” because measles had left his 12-year-old body scarred.  His mother said children tended to blame him when things went wrong.  One day, distraught, the boy in Tromsoe, Norway, took a rope and hanged himself.”

This lead is from the Associated Press in 1983.  The story is about suicide among children, but aren’t you enticed?  They could have begun with statistics- which would be interesting- but doesn’t this really impact you?

The question lead.

“Acid rain- how much is falling and where?  Where does it come from?  Is the problem getting worse?  Are its effects cumulative?”

This is from the West Virginia University Alumni Magazine.  When I read this, I’m genuinely concerned about my area and I want to know if acid rain is coming near me.  The biggest rule about a question lead- it needs to be clearly answered in the article.  Again, CLEARLY answered.

The setting lead.

This lead should really set the scene.  The reader should have a vivid picture of where the story is and what’s happening.  These are generally filled with descriptive verbs and adjectives.

The combination lead.

Alright- let’s throw it all together!  Combine two and be creative.  Try something many different ways and see what you get.


Don’t forget your amazing heading!  A good title will draw in a magazine editor and the general reader.  Make your reader have to read the article- make them need to know the story.

Lead them away from the zombies.

The only thing I know for sure is how to create a lead. I could write you any type of lead any type of way. I mean we have only been practicing writing leads since we began our education here. If you leave this school without knowing how to create a lead then that is on you as we have basically been brainwashed with leads.I love that Leading the Way was not really teaching new leads, but offering tips on how to create fantastic leads. It is time to stop learning new leads and time to start making our leads catch our readers attention. I can not tell you how many leads I have read from my local news station that makes me want to scream. Leads are one of the most important parts of the story. A terrible lead can make a reader run faster than if they had a herd of Walkers chasing after them. Your lead has to be the best thing you have ever written or you can forget about your reader even considering finishing your story. Trust me if the lead is awful I just cannot go on with the story.
Writers should also learn to speak simply to their readers. Do not pretend that your readers are stupid, but do not think they have the same vocabulary as you do. Your job is to make a story interesting, informing, or entertaining. Do not confuse your readers, because you enjoy big words. No, bad. If you can read your paper without going, “oh yeah I am a genius,” then your reader will probably enjoy your paper.

P.S. They should teach continuing education classes for journalist in how to perfect the lead.

Finding the English Major in You.

The more I do in this class, the more I realize that I’m just unlearning what I have been taught in the rest of the media writing curriculum.

In media writing there seems to be a lot of value put on simple sentences. Subject, verb, object and move on. We have deadlines to meet and the editors have not slept in two days. Now this book is giving radical ideas such as inverting the sentence for emphasis? Crazy.

Though there is something to changing up the sentence structure in even the hardest news stories. If the goal is to get the reader to the bottom of the page and across the break then adding diversity is important.

At the same time, the content of the story may be all one needs to carry a story. What’s scary about features is that split between content and style is much closer to 50/50. I know I have opened some poor written, but interesting, feature stories and quit after a few paragraphs. That also holds true the other way around.

I have gotten really comfortable hiding behind the content of a news story lately. This chapter has really made realize I need to rediscover my English major if I want to do well with features. Though now that English major is a little less likely to drone on due to writing on deadline, so maybe that won’t be a bad thing.

Useful info to look back on

The readings from Chapter 7 of The Art of Feature Writing titled The Echo of Words proved to be very beneficial and offered tons of tips for adapting a unique writing style. One section that I found particularly useful was Pretentious Writing. When writing a paper I sometimes go into this mode that I can’t explain. I start to use language and vocabulary that I don’t normally use in real life. I guess it’s because I figure adding a little bit of word fluff never hurt anyone, but then I almost always go back and edit these words out later. This section makes it clear that using words that are too formal can create a barrier between the writer and reader, and only makes things more complicated. It becomes harder for the reader to understand what the writer is trying to communicate to them, and I know now that these words should be avoided.

The second part of the reading that I got the most out of was the section titled Wedding Sense to Sound: The Echoes of Words. As stated above, I tend to put a different voice into writing by adding fluff words without even realizing it. This section instructs that avoiding that and using a natural voice (the same voice used when speaking to someone casually) is encouraged. The sense of what we say, and how we say it, can be sensed in things that we write and it’s because we say them in our head before it goes down on paper. This is important to have because it builds a relationship with the reader, and allows the piece to flow naturally.

Leading Them On…

How many lectures have you sat through and had to constantly listen to your professor stress the importance of a good lead? Let’s not all raise our hands at once. The readings represented everything I’ve basically had shoved down my throat over the past 3 years as a student journalist. From giving examples of every type of lead to showing the do’s and don’ts of an effective lead, the readings gave me this sort of epiphany (a bit dramatic) but that’s how I felt. Especially after reading Leading the Way where it offered me several tips on how to avoid the common mistakes most journalist encounter when constructing a lead. The reading discusses how writers should deliver what they promise or else the reader will feel betrayed. I naturally click to descriptive leads, but the readings showed me that sometimes too much detail could cause the reader to lose their mind or become lost in a clutter of adjectives – some of which may be unnecessary. Leads are like the first impression on a date. You want to present your story with confidence, and each word acts as the ensemble. One of the best examples from the readings was the surprise lead, which started off describing this all-star athlete, but it quickly shifted to him being behind bars. Those kinds of leads are the ones we should aim for – the memorable ones. If a reader has to constantly go back to the beginning of the story to see what it was initially about, you may be in trouble. 

Magazines: Specialization is Good?

It seems to be the case that magazine writing isn’t much different than writing features for a newspaper. If anything, writing for magazines allows the writer to specialize with their articles.

Interestingly enough, while the journalism field in general is racing away from specialization, the same cannot be said about magazine topics. People are gravitating less toward the general interest magazines and more toward specialized publications that concentrate on topics such as fashion or sports or video games.

Magazine writing allows the author to get more in depth and in detail with their topic than they would be able to with a newspaper because the audience has more of a background with that topic. For instance, a magazine about astronomy can go into a lot of detail about the make up of stars and planets, far beyond what the average person would know.

The great thing about these types of articles is that the write is able to tell more of a story. It’s not so much about spitting out facts and just giving a report of events. It’s about grabbing the interest of the reader and giving them a narrative. People take time when they read magazines. They are more willing to sit down and be given a story than if they were reading a newspaper. Feature writers would actually probably feel more at home writing for magazines in their topic of interest than they would writing for newspapers.  At the very least, it could be another source of income to have in mind for stories.