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.
I liked Anne Hull’s take on editing in Telling True Stories. She said successful editing means you are in a fierce competition with yourself and no one else. I think this couldn’t be truer since in essence you are the only person that can hold your story back from being awesome. I also love the advice she gives about listening to your editor’s critique of your story. She says, “Love the subject, not your rendering of it.” Sometimes you get so invested in a story that you can’t tell what it lacks or needs. If another person who reads it with a fresh perspective gives you advice, you should listen. Your ego isn’t worth ignoring what is most likely good advice that will make your story better.
Chapter 12 of Writing Feature Stories also makes good suggestions about editing. One of my favorite that I have found most useful recently in improving past stories is to edit line by line. Although this is painstaking and takes up a lot of time, I think it’s the best way to take your story to the next level. I was recently revising a story to turn in to be judged for competition, and I found that using this technique vastly improved my story. The main change I found myself repeatedly making by analyzing sentence by sentence was the verbs I was using. When writing a story, it’s often difficult for me to continuously crunch out sensational and appropriate action verbs. But when I’m finished writing the story, it is easier for me to go back and think of better verbs when I look at the context of the sentence.
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.
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.
As I read pages 35-45 in “Telling True Stories,” I realized that the common trend in our readings is to be with the subject and quietly observe. As writers, we shouldn’t allow our questions to dominate in feature stories, because we can learn so much more when we silently observe and become part of the scene.
One quote stood out to me, “If the reporter can walk in another person’s shoes, why not do it?” If we can become as close to our subject possible, we will have a better understanding of our subject.
I enjoyed the tips in Anne Hull’s section “Being There.” One tip I found interesting was go to church. I have never even thought of that, but you can learn a lot about people and a community as a whole through attending church. You learn how people communicate with each other and how they dress and behave on one of the most formal places in their town. This can also give a sense of how the people feel about each other and if they are giving or not.