“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
“Who can write features?
The short answer is, “Anyone who writes.”
I don’t mean you have to be on the staff of a publication or newspaper to exchange writing for money. Really, all you need is creativity, tenacity and the desire and ability to see stories in every person you meet and each situation you experience.
Sounds simple, right?
I have since 2004 taught feature writing at Ohio State University — first as an adjunct professor while I was the editor of Hoof Beats magazine, and now as an associate professor of clinical communication.
One reason the class is often full is that students are often seeking real-world journalism experiences. In this class, students come up with story ideas, pitch them to an editor (me), research, report and write them, and then pitch them for publication.
Finding feature success begins with thinking and seeing the world as would a writer.
Let’s start with these four tips:
- Think like a reader: Articles are not written for writers, editors or publishers — or professors. They are written for readers. To determine whether an idea is worth writing, think like the reader you wish to serve. What would you find compelling or interesting? What questions would you have that this article could answer?
- Be a good reader: This is perhaps the most important advice for prospective writers and the one that seems the most difficult to fulfill. You have to see writing —good, bad, mediocre — in order to recognize the same traits in yourself. Many young writers skip this step and immediately start trying to put sentences together. Good writing, however, is developed, not inherent. Let others be a guide.
- Look for story ideas everywhere: To find those ideas, you have to train your mind to look for them — in every store, at every party, every day on your way to work, in every experience.
The key to finding features is to understand what gives an idea “feature value,” basically, why people would care enough to read a story about this topic.
“Finding the right story is 70% of it; the other 30% of it is telling it,” Tom Reed of The Athletic said. “I think it is coming up with the idea and hopefully one which hasn’t been told or hasn’t been told in the way you want to tell it. Once you find the idea, then everything falls into place.”
He cited an example from 2009 when, as a sports reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, he approached an Ohio State staff member about any interesting stories on the track and field team. The response: Did he know that a shot-put thrower had, four years earlier, inadvertently killed a judge in a track meet at California?
“It was an older gentleman who was hard of hearing and … walked across the course and he didn’t know the event was going on,” Reed said. “I ended up getting ahold of both families. It took [the student-athlete] years to get back into it. He felt horrible killing somebody, even though it wasn’t his fault, and he really struggled with that.
“So finding the story, again, I’d say is 70% of the battle.”
In addition to finding the idea, a story has “legs,” “teeth” or both, according to Mitch Hooper of (614) media group. “Legs” mean the story is functional and can walk on its own — its feature value is clear and evident. Having “teeth” means it has an interesting angle or relevance as to why it’s being written about now.
“A lot of the times it’s kind of looking for these angles that are unique or interesting, and maybe it hasn’t been tapped into before or has been told yet in this way,” Hooper said. “I think that’s ultimately our job a lot of the times, to be the gatekeeper for what story deserves to be told and what story doesn’t deserve to be told. That can be kind of hard but I think for the most part our job is to find these untold stories, not necessarily rehash something that’s been told over and over again.”
Reading to Be Read
No matter the feature you wish to pursue, every writer must start their quest for publication the same way: Read.
While many people believe themselves to be readers, they are actually more superficial observers of words and messages. We need to be consumers, immersed in language and storytelling techniques that help us understand writing good and bad, and to emulate styles to develop our own.
Reading will help you identify:
- What makes writing worth reading?
- What appeals to you?
- In which pieces do you lose yourself? (For some examples of some such pieces, skip to the back of this book.)
- In which pieces are you compelled to turn the page and just look at the headlines and pictures?
- Where in a story do you start jumping over paragraphs?
- What sentences help you glide through the story, like driving down a smooth, pristine highway vs. the jarring, stop-start confusing journey that’s like bouncing along a rutted, dirt road?
From this point forward, imitation can become the sincerest form of flattery. When you find writing that you appreciate, see what you can use stylistically in your own writing.
Even more importantly, reading the publication to which you hope to pitch provides you with insights you can get no other way. I have never sold a story to a publication that I have not read — and I mean more than once. It is crucial to get to know the style, format, who writes for it, the readers and what topics they seem to cover.
Transitioning from Reader to Writer
The primary challenge beginning feature writers face is simple: They think of topics and not stories. Students will come in every semester and say they want to write about domestic violence or competitive running. Those are not yet narrowed to ideas.
“Those are like a Wikipedia entry,” former journalist Misti Crane, assistant director of Ohio State’s research communications, said. “What you want to do is to find some nugget to have a driver of this story. There is research coming out that is shedding light to show how common it is for people who have been abused by their intimate partners to have traumatic brain injuries either from being hit in the head or from being strangled so they have had oxygen deprivation. All of that makes sense when you hear it, but in the domestic violence world, they really haven’t talked about it until now.”