Feature Writing

Feature writing is the "news that you don't need to know, but you want to know." Alternatively it is what "we do need to know about, even if we don't know it yet" (Abraham Aamidor, 1999).

You can find feature writing in newspapers, magazines and newsletters, in regular print and in electronic format. The writing, while factual and informative, tends to use a narrative style, and is more creative, subjective and entertaining than straight news stories. Features often use active voice to grab the readers' attention. Feature stories often bear the characteristics of short stories such as plot, story line and characters, and have a beginning, middle and end. Feature writing seems to fall somewhere in between straight news and short stories.

There are many types of feature stories. Features can be classified in several broad categories. There is the "color piece" that describes a scene, or sheds light on a theme. Another is the "fly on the wall" piece in which events are shown candidly as if the reader is present, watching the event. The "behind the scenes" story is similar to the fly on the wall, but the journalist is present as an actor in the event. We are familiar with this format from the extras included at the end of many videos that reveal what went on during the filming that the camera did not record. An "in disguise" piece is the story that results from the journalist going under cover to get the side of the story that can only be told when the subject of the feature does not know there is a journalist (or reviewer, or critic) present.

The "interview" is a conversation between an interviewer/journalist and an interviewee that records the thoughts of the people being interviewed, be they celebrities, politicians, witnesses, criminals or others. The "my testimony" feature tells a person's story in the first-person narrative style. The "profile" is a story that examines a particular person, place, thing or historical event in some depth. This can include an interview, but with more background filled in. The "vox pop" or "expert roundup" piece collects impressions from a variety of people, both regular citizens and experts.

A "factbox" simply lists facts, often in chronological order. The "backgrounder," also known as "a history of," is simply a more elaborate factbox. Another type of feature is the "full text" in which sections of books may be extracted or interviews transcribed. An "analysis" piece probes the factors that contributed to an event.

The "opinion poll" surveys the views of a representative sampling of the public on a particular issue. The results are often subject to statistical analysis. A "review" is a critical evaluation of a product or service, of a recent publication, film, musical offering or game, or of a current event or trend in the news.

What characterizes a feature story? Researchers have identified some basic elements that go into this type of writing. Features must appeal to people or meet their needs in some way; they contain facts about a subject; they spotlight an unusual personality; they portray themes from a particular angle that ties the subject together in a unique way; they show the action to make the story come alive; they should be both unique and at the same time have universal appeal; they accentuate something significant in its timeliness, prominence, relevance or proximity to the event; and they must contain the same energy and enthusiasm that compelled the journalist to write about the subject in the first place.

How do experienced feature writers come up with the great topics for their stories? Bruce Garrison (2004) offers his suggestions of sources and locations for the best story ideas. These include: personal experience, personal and professional contacts, college campuses, websites featuring community organizations or local institutions, listserv sites from specific interest groups, your own neighborhood, other publications, community bulletin boards, meetings and conventions, libraries and museum exhibits, historians, TV shows, telephone recordings, calendars and datebooks.

Feature writers are unique personalities. Aspiring feature writers have to like people and be willing to spend time with them. They have to be prepared to work hard and for long hours. They must be driven in order to see their piece through to publication. They should not expect to earn much or indeed anything at first, until they develop a reputation as a writer. They must be willing to make professional and personal sacrifices. But in return they produce compelling works that engage their readers, provide personal satisfaction and have the potential to make a name for themselves.

Feature writing is a field with enormous opportunity, with great prospects for work with magazines, newspapers and private organizations. It is particularly suited for intrepid writers with a unique view of the world, and a strong drive to succeed.

Feature Writing: Selected full-text books and articles

Professional Feature Writing By Bruce Garrison Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004 (4th edition)
Media Writing: Print, Broadcast, and Public Relations By W. Richard Whitaker; Janet E. Ramsey; Ronald D. Smith Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: Chap. 9 "Feature Writing"
Interviewing: A Guide for Journalists and Writers By Gail Sedorkin Allen & Unwin, 2011 (2nd edition)
How to Make Our Own News: A Primer for Journalists and Environmentalists By John Maxwell Canoe Press, 2000
Librarian's tip: Chap. 9 "Feature Writing"
The Sports Writing Handbook By Thomas Fensch Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995 (2nd edition)
Librarian's tip: Chap. Eleven "Developing a Sports Feature from a Sports News Event"
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