Feature writing can be a lucrative skill, since feature stories can be used in client publications, such as programs or magazines, as well as in what we used to call advertorials but today are known as custom content in print or online. Elements of feature writing are also effective in shorter pieces like the ones in brochures, websites, blogs and even in the captions below photographs.
Of all the writing my clients hire me to do, I consider feature writing the most rewarding and enjoyable. Since features were the first stories of mine to be published decades ago in my college newspaper, I’ve learned many ways to write them effectively.
Before You Write
Feature writing requires more skill from a writer than other genres. The best feature writers are imaginative, creative and show a deep understanding of people and the human condition.
1. Discover the human element behind the story
Feature writing is easier if you like people. Readers love reading about people. Whenever a client asks me to write a feature story on a program, department or plan, I hone in on the people that are being served by the program, the people leading the department or the people who developed the plan.
2. Interview and Research
I enjoy getting to know people, which comes in handy as I interview them for feature stories. Because most feature stories require a series of quotes and information from at least one person, I’ve come to enjoy conducting interviews to enhance my story research ? such as observations, reading and online research.
So, before you begin writing, interviews with the right people and research/reading must be completed. After all, before you can write a relevant story, you need to be well-versed in the topics you’ll be covering.
As You Write
When you begin a feature story, ask yourself what the key points are that you want to share. Consider writing an outline to ensure all your ideas are included and determine how the story will flow.
1. Develop a head-turning lead
Describe a conundrum that your subject experienced. Offer a then-and-now comparison. Write in descriptive, visual terms about the story subject’s condition. Discuss a news development. Lead with a subject’s desperate plea for help.
Still, keep your lead brief. One of my editors always told us to keep our lead paragraph to 35 words or less. Unless the story is complicated, that word count is about right for a punchy, interesting lead.
2. Write in a natural, conversational tone
Remember, you are telling a story. Think about the way you’d tell this story to a friend. Use descriptive language, active voice and action verbs.
3. Determine the placement of your research
As you write, weave in your research and interview information to establish credibility with your reader. Show readers how hard you have worked to tell the story well. Include quotes from your subject throughout the story to keep it lively. Bolster these quotes with bits of critical information you’ve gleaned from official sources, background interviews or other online or in-person research.
4. Don’t ignore transitions
Great writers keep readers engaged with cliffhangers. Think carefully about stringing your thoughts together from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph in a logical fashion.
5. Consider subheads
Especially if your story is more than 350 words, subheads do two things. They keep your reader engaged in the story, and they keep you, the writer, on track.
At the End of the Story
I would argue that the ending of your story is just as important as the lead. The end provides the lasting impression your readers retain. It must support all the other things you’ve said in your story while having a dramatic or emotional impact.
1. What are the last words you want to leave with your readers?
Ending the story could involve a summary paragraph that ties up the loose ends. But for me, the most impactful way to end a feature story is by tying the last paragraphs to the first ones of the story: How has the subject received necessary aid; how has the conundrum been solved; what is the subject’s condition now; what has happened since the news development broke?
2. Reemphasizing the key point(s)
Alternatively, end your feature with a quote from your key subject that sums up the story’s most important message.
Double-Checking Your Story
It’s best to set your story aside for at least a couple of hours and preferably overnight. When you read it a day later, transitions can be strengthened. You’ll have new ideas to insert. You’ll see verbs that can be stronger.
Most important, as you read you will proofread to avoid typos, misspellings, poor grammar and awkward transitions.
To become your own best editor, read other writers’ works. Read the daily online news, read bestselling novels and absorb good nonfiction prose. You’ll pick up tricks for shortening your sentences and brightening your language – and you will note how capable writers have mastered the feature story.