Fly Too Close to the Sun and 11 Other Guidelines for Writing Hot Magazine Features

Article excerpt

Here's raw material for a feature writer's nightmare factory: What if readership were the basis of payment? What if unread company-magazine articles meant unpaid company writers? Whew! Talk about a read alert...

Unfortunately, reality is no less alarming; it's just more complicated. Down the hall from you are people who tweak numbers in a room where spreadsheets billow skyward like champagne geysers on New Year's Eve. They may not read magazines, but they know the letters MBA, CPA and ROI (return on investment). Tomorrow, they're going to ask if your magazine is a profit center.

If your magazine is read -- really read -- you have good ammunition. Chances are you're building shared vision, boosting morale, increasing productivity, and reducing absenteeism.

But unread magazines? The handwriting is on the wall -- and it's probably livelier than the committee-stirred broth of words it condemns.

Magazines aren't the dark side of the moon. Your readers already enjoy People, Parade and Sports Illustrated -- maybe even Harper's, The Economist, Maclean's or Punch. They want to like your magazine. So give 'em a nudge with features good enough to appear in their favorite magazines. How? These 12 facetiously worded guidelines may help.

1) Ignore the following guidelines: As a young man, Ben Franklin composed a list of personal qualities designed to lead him to moral perfection. A tolerant friend suggested that he add humility -- a lesson for anyone presumptuous enough to suggest a set of guidelines.

Remember the ubiquitous '80s bumper sticker Question Authority? Challenge these and draft better.

2) Mind your business. Whatever kind of widget your company produces, you should know the product and the process from beginning to end -- or at least know who does know.

Such knowledge does more than protect your credibility; it suggests new features or new angles for scheduled features. A former editor of one of the U.S.' most-honored university-alumni magazines periodically booted his staff out to tug at tweed-jacket sleeves and ask what was going on.

But there is more to minding your own business than knowing your company. You're also a feature writer for an important magazine. Performance reviews from superiors can tell you how they think you're doing, but what do your readers say? Are you minding the business of giving them what they want and need? How many reader focus groups does your magazine staff conduct -- and how often? How often do you survey your audience? (If you just winced, welcome to a club that's bigger than it should be.)

3) Stop writing. In his essay "The American Scholar," Ralph Waldo Emerson lists three essential influences on the creative mind: interaction with nature, knowledge of the past and familiarity with society. It's a scholarly way of saying that good writers stockpile knowledge and experience. They crick their necks at operas and inhale rodeo dust. They know Byron and they read Batman on the sly.

Playwright Ben Jonson -- a tankard-hoisting buddy of Shakespeare's -- called such experiences "timber": the splintery beginning of literary constructions. So how's the inventory in your personal lumberyard?

4) Do a lot of useless research. In other words, gather more research than will appear in print. There's never been a prose style good enough to bridge a fissure in reporting. Collecting more than enough research illuminates what should and shouldn't be in the article. It creates present options as well as ideas for future features.

You probably keystroke your stories on a computer that has more power than you usually need. Why? Those extra megabytes speed things along and support other occasionally useful programs. Think of comprehensive research in the same way: power in reserve that boosts the efficiency of your features.

Extra research isn't always as daunting as a safari to the darkest jungle in the corporate archives. …