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!

Advertisements

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.

Titles

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.

Let’s Talk Commentary: Preppy

Why should I care?  This is the question you most explicitly have to answer and make the author feel a need for.

Commentaries are unique, but the writer needs to do them correctly.  First, you need to prepare and have guidelines to follow.

1.  Collect facts, ideas and thoughts that need to be included in your piece.  Set aside time to really focus on them and realize what is important.  Then, compose your outline.

2.  Be curious.  When you write feature stories and articles for magazines, you develop an innate foundation of asking, “Why?”  Curiosity and sensitivity to your subjects life and experiences are an absolute must.

3.  Feel the story.  Don’t let yourself get in the way, but develop emotions about your story and your subject.  If you want your audience to be drawn, you must be overdrawn (just not in your banking account).  Think of Pocahontas when she sings, “Paint with all the colors of the wind.”  I don’t care how old you are, you can’t watch that and not have compassion for Pocahontas and want to smack John Smith in the face. Every word should just flow through you like it does through Pocahontas.

4.  Become best friends with your local barista.  Writing takes time, but commentaries take even more time and energy.  This will most definitely require caffeine.  There are certain people in our realm we don’t want to piss off- our editors and our baristas; they both hold the key to our career.

Think about your different types of commentaries.  Editorials, columns, essays and reviews.  Think about what you’re writing about and which style of commentary that will fit best into.  Then read several examples of that particular style.  Sometimes, the best work is mimicked and gathered from other great works.

Good luck and have an awesome day!

Writing Writing Writing: Profiles and Travel

Writing can be overwhelming at times especially for beginners (such as myself).  It’s important to take a step back, and focus on one assignment at a time.  Remember the general beliefs we all share and the real world isn’t as nice as we would like it to be.  These general facts of life will help guide and focus some of your writing and make it impactful.  Today, we’re going to focus on writing profiles and travel pieces.  Ready, set, go!

Profiles:

Your reader needs to look up from the page feeling like they’ve met that person.  They need to know that individual on a personal level.  Think of it this way, a celebrity stalker can feel like they have a relationship with a person, and have never met them.  In a strange way, that’s the idea you need to give your reader.

Now, you’re not just describing the person- but the place as well.  Put the person in a scene and paint the picture for the audience.  To be able to do this, you must know what questions to ask.  Ask abstract questions and then get more specific.

For example, you ask a doctor, “What is your motivation?”  They say, “Well my mom.  She died of Leukemia and that’s why I want to cure cancer.”

What a story you have now.  With this, you can give your readers emotion and a nugget to the story.  They have compassion for this doctor and by the end- they want to donate to his fund and give him a long big hug.

Emotion is key in all writing.  Even in a general news story, your readers want to gain knowledge and feel something.  Your job is to give it to them.

Travel:

Think about travels close to home.  You don’t have to write a piece on India to be a travel writer.  Sometimes the most unique and attractive pieces are those about a place close by that most don’t know about.  The example Telling True Stories gives is a random Manhattan paper writing about South Bronx.  Most in Manhattan don’t know much about South Bronx and readers will be interested in what’s going on there.

With travel writing, give a unique unusual nugget about something general.  Or the exact opposite- a general fact about a place unique and unusual.  Be the best, and make the magazine unable to say no to your query.

 

Good luck writers young and old!  Focus on the task at hand- you can do it–well!

Research: How It Can Change Your Story

“The message is clear: the way to construct your writing’s house is to build a deep, sturdy foundation of solid research that prepares you to ask probing questions when interviewing and develop the freshest angle possible when writing.  You accomplish this by taking as much care to refine your research skills as you do to improve your writing- being aware, always, of biases in your sources.”

 Before you ever begin to write, you need to do some research- and a lot of it.  Now, the first thing you need when researching is an inquiring mind.  The Art of Feature Writing gives great incite on having an inquiring mind and going beneath the surface- far beneath. 

 For example, you’re interviewing President Bennett’s daughter about how it is to be his daughter.  You also ask, how was the move, how is the house, how does school compare, have kids picked on you, do you see you’re dad as much, do people speak to your dad and ignore you.  You go well beneath the surface and before you know it, you know the latest teen trends and what teens are facing psychologically.

 Then, after this interview, you research teen psychology.  What the norm is today, what it was 20 years ago, and how things are progressing.  You use libraries (personal and public), you look into search engines such as Google and Bing.  Then, you go to teens Facebook and Twitter pages and observe what they’re talking about and the type of language they use. 

 Now, you’ve not only got a story on the president’s daughter- but you’ve got a series of stories on teens in the area, what they’re facing, and you include a tip in each article for parents and how teens can get help.

 Above all, research before and after an interview.  Use every outlet possible, and above all- give credit to work you used and do not plagiarize.  Good luck- and have a great day!

Keep Calm. and Query On!

“The benefit is the time to do something you really care about.  The sacrifice is that you must prove to everyone- your sources, your editors and your readers- that your story is worth their time.  You must believe in yourself and in your project, because you have a lot of big people to convince.”

Marketing your work is not an easy feat.  Authors are rejected on a regular basis- even the famous ones- for good books.  James Lee Burke’s Lost Get-Back Boogie was rejected 52 times from publishers across New York.  When he finally got it published by Louisiana State University Press, the novel was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and he even got a movie contract.

So first things first, as a freelance writer, you need to embrace rejection and just let it go.  “The road may be long and hard.  But let’s hit the road.”

When you’re deciding who to give your work to, go to a magazine first.  They pay more than a newspaper.  However, the good thing about a newspaper is they need a lot of copy- so they’re not a total loss.

When you’re trying to sell your story, you’re going to need to write a query letter to sell your idea to the editor.  You query should include the significance and timeliness of timeliness of your article.  You’re letter should include the proposed length of the article and ultimately, why it should be printed in this particular magazine or newspaper.  Don’t forget to include your qualifications, your sources, and self-addressed, stamped envelope as well as your e-mail address.

You should also include a cover letter.  If in a few weeks you haven’t heard a response, you can also send a follow-up letter as well.

Now, each story should receive a unique pitch.  Also, write about something that you’re an expert in and you’re the only one that can write about it.  If you prove that to an editor- then they’ll have to hire you.  When you send you’re query letter, include clips of something else you’ve written that pertain to your idea you’re pitching.

Good luck!  Keep calm, and query on!

Chapter 2, Feature Writing continues

Well, first things first- how is a feature story different from an ordinary news story?  Well they both rest on the foundation of reporting- you have to report what’s going on.  Well, a news story is the ordinary news.  A feature story is the extra-ordinary news.  Features take it a step further in structure and in subject matter.

Features generally take much more time.  More time in writing, preparing, interviewing, and gathering information.  Features aren’t for the weak at heart, and features aren’t a phone call and done. They take time and energy.

Finding a good idea is key.  First, an unfolding action must take place.  The story has to have somewhere to go.  Something needs to happen to keep the story unfolding and the readers intrigued.

Telling True Stories gives great incite on some questions to ask yourself on how to get the story and keep the readers attention.  One question is, “What’s the big idea?”  Lane Degregory states, “If you can find a universal truth in a story, even if it’s as silly as ‘people like to be entertained at a bar,’ that’s important.”

Jan Winburn also gave an excellent list of questions to ask ourselves.  A time-saving tip she gave is, “Where would it be worth going deeper?  Where is the close-up on a story?  Where does mystery remain?”

This is where we need to go to get the story.  This is where the feature is.  Also, what is going to intrigue your readers?  What do they want to know?  This is how you select the “award winning” topic.