Organizing chicken-scratch and starting from scratch

The section I found the most useful in Chapter 9 of Writing Feature Stories was sifting and sorting through raw material. I am the most unorganized mess that ever existed in the journalistic world. Whenever I conduct an interview, I scribble chicken-scratch on the front, back or corner of whatever medium I have handy to write on, which always leads to unnecessary amounts of time sifting through information later. The chapter gives really good advice on how to organize and pick out the important pieces of your notes to cut the time it takes to extract the good information and write the most successful feature story. One of my favorite pieces of advice is to note the themes that emerge as you read back through the notes. Picking out clear themes can help you determine which direction to take your story.

In Part IV of Telling True Stories, Deneen Brown made an interesting point on beginning a feature story. He said to successfully begin a story, the writer must decide what larger meaning the story represents and lead the reader to that. Even though I sometimes struggle with doing that, I completely agree with him. That’s why it is so important to identify major themes before attempting to write a feature. A theme helps you determine what mood you want to set from the very beginning, which is important because that shapes how the entire feature is written.

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Chapter 10: Leads, Closes and That Big Lump in the Middle

Sometimes the lead can be the hardest part of your story, but once you get it, the rest falls into place. This chapter reminded me of some important things to remember when I write a lead for a story, especially a feature. A lead should let readers know what your story is about, even if they read nothing else. A lead should also be relevant to the feature’s theme and simple to understand. There are, of course, different types of leads: summary, suspense, descriptive, anecdotal, and surprise. I normally use summary or descriptive for my leads. After reading this chapter, though, I noticed that I’ve used anecdotal leads, as well. I haven’t heard much about types of leads other than summary. The chapter also discusses the “big lump in the middle,” or the story. The story itself needs to be organized and flow. This is a big deal for me when I’m writing ANY piece. It doesn’t have to be in chronological order, but it does need some sort of flow. The book offers this advice: Keep related material together, let what you have written suggest what you write next, try to isolate material from one source in one place and, finally, digress often, but not for long. Features differ from news in a lot of ways, and creativity is one. It’s much harder to be creative in a news piece, but features allow us the privilege to really set the scene and make a story interesting, so an interesting lead and story structure is essential.

Best newspaper leads

In class Monday, we will be discussing writing leads — one of the most difficult  parts of any story. Leads are difficult because they frame the whole story, and sometimes when we are writing them, we do not yet know what the story is really about. Plus, they are the first part of the story, so without a good lead, we know our readers will quit.

Here are some examples of compelling leads from the Poynter Institute. We will be discussing why they work — and what we can learn from them — in class.