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Like news, features are underpinned by facts and news sense, they may however deal with events that are not expressly current but still of broad public interest. Features are written in a longer, in-depth style than news and use description and detail to elaborate and give context to the facts. They employ creative writing, abundant quotes and anecdotes. Features also often include emotion, incorporating how people feel about and perceive events rather than a straight run down of what happened. Feature stories cover everything from frivolous lifestyle articles to serious in-depth investigative exposes, and span all topics, from news to sports to finance. So definition is less about content and more about depth and style.
Feature Story Components:
Many of the essential ingredients of features are just the same as news:
Headline – Similar to a news headline, a feature headline should grab the readers attention, convey the main gist of the article and incorporate keywords if it’s for online publication.
The Lead – Just like hard news we start the lead, but feature leads can be way more inventive than news. Instead of summarising the story and giving everything away in the first sentence, feature leads typically use creative devices to hook and pull the reader in to the story.
Feature leads are often longer than the single sentence preferred in hard news. There are a number of different types of feature leads, try them all! You could use a summary lead much like a news story, or you could be more creative, leading in with a quote or anecdote. You might choose to lead with a descriptive account of a place or person. You could even start with a question. The lead sets the tone for the story – sombre, sarcastic or awe-inspiring, so choose your words carefully.
Nut graph – While the lead entices and hooks people in, the nut graph gives an overview of what the story is about and why it’s important. In hard news the crux of the story is generally summarised in the lead, while in features you may want to tease your readers a little. Fairly soon into the story however, your audience will want to know that the story has substance and relevance to them – because no matter how well written, readers need a good reason to spend their time reading your article. Your nut graph is where you put the 5 W’s and draw the focus of your story.
Writing a good nut graph is important, it clarifies the angle of your story and the reason for writing it. It’s often good practice to write your nut graph before you start writing everything else, (this holds true for other mediums too). If you clarify what the story is about, the most important message you want to convey, and why it’s important it’ll be easier to write your story. A single story can’t cover all angles, so by writing a clear nut graph it’ll be easier to select the best and most relevant quotes and facts.
Body – like a news story, your body will contain all the quotes, facts and information you’ve gathered, the style however will differ.Journalists reporting hard news don’t have the time or copy length to include much context or description. But with features you can liberally employ creative, descriptive narratives. You also have time and space to give background and context.
Quotes - Gaining interesting, emotional, informative quotes is crucial; you’ll generally paraphrase most of your interviews but it’s the juicy, direct quotes that will make your stories compelling.
Take for example this evocative quote from The Wall Street Journal’s A Solitary Jailhouse Lawyer Argues His Way Out of Prison
The prison greenies of a convicted murderer, he says, were “overly starched in the beginning, but as time wore on, and after repeated washes, they were worn and dull, like so many other things on the inside.”
Anecdotes - Anecdotes bring features to life, illustrating key points and getting readers to relate to them. Human interest is often at the core of feature articles and anecdotes can be used to illustrate human experience as well as give insight into the human impact of drier hard news facts, statistics or trends.
For example, while a news story might report statistics that show a trend that the economic crises has led to an increase in people unable to afford medical treatment, a feature story might depict a family struggling to find appropriate services.
Description – Vivid description is important to hold your readers attention. After the headline, lead and nut graph, you’ll need to use narrative hooks, such as characters, action and surprise to compel the reader to move through the story. Colourful description brings these narrative elements to life. Engage your readers, draw them into events and atmosphere with mental images or details and observations that they can relate to. Describe characters, scenes, smells or sounds in a way that evokes mental images, plays on imagination and brings them into the story.
Background information and context - Background and context are crucial components of features, well-sourced quotes and colourful writing is only meaningful if you have sound information and convincing points to make. You should provide enough background information so that your audience can follow your topic, even if they are not familiar with it. With more copy room and time to research, you can also use more sources to cover a story comprehensively and give important analysis and context.
Ending - Unlike news stories where the ending happens when there’s nothing left of importance to say, the close of your story is hugely important. Think of it as the take away, what do you want your readers to go away feeling or thinking about? Be careful not to simply summarise the story without making a real point. If you’ve written a good nut graph the ending should be fairly obvious, you’ll want to drive the focus home in an impacting way, perhaps with an amazing fact, quote or twist. Something your readers will remember.
Types of features:
Features can cover any topic and style including, news features, human interest stories, profiles, analyses, reviews or travel. If you are serious about feature writing the first thing to do is start reading – publications known for great feature stories include Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic.
Style & Structure:
As we’ve discussed features are more expansive than news stories, there’s more time to research and more space to get into depth. Features contain more background, diversity of sources and analysis. Instead of compressing as much information into the fewest words, you can deliver the information you select with rich quotes, anecdotes and description. With all this time and information however comes a danger, if you lose focus or interest your reader will move on. You’ll need to carefully construct your information in a way that drives the narrative forward and uses transitions to ensure a smooth flow. This excellent resource from Inside reporting from Tim Harrower showcases some of the most common alternatives to the inverted pyramid structure as well as essential guidance on style and editing.