27 Learning Features with Kristen Schmidt
Kristen Schmidt is a longtime editor and writer with 20 years of experience in magazines, newspapers, who currently serves as associate editor of the Ohio State Alumni Magazine.
What were your biggest initial struggles/challenges with writing features?
For me, the hardest thing about writing features is the writing and creating the necessary creative headspace to do that effectively.
Research and reporting are easy tasks to wedge into daily work, but the writing requires more space and time of a quality that is difficult to find in any workplace, but especially scarce in wide open newsrooms and, if you work in an office that was built recently, wide open office spaces.
How have you worked through them and what advice do you offer students to do the same?
I’m grateful to have spent my entire career thus far working for editors who don’t particularly care where I’m doing my job, as long as I’m doing it.
I start by building a good relationship with my editors and explaining to them what I need to do my job. When I worked at a newspaper, there was no break from the daily grind of two or three stories for each edition.
There was no time off the beat to work on a big feature story. There was only meticulously carving out time and space where you could. Over the years, I’ve shifted from working too-long hours for too-little pay to “make time” for feature writing toward becoming a dedicated planner and organizer of my time and tasks.
Now, I have the luxury of blocking off hours in my schedule for “maker” time. That often happens on Fridays, which are light on meetings and quiet in the office. Planning this time makes me more willing to put in the daily grind stuff earlier in the week (so many meetings, so many tiny tasks) and look forward to the big think stuff later in the week.
I’m more at peace with having my schedule chopped up in dozens of pieces if I know I’ve reserved some time for myself and the work that is “important,” rather than “urgent.”
What is an example of where features went well or went badly, and what did you learn?
Ugh. I wrote a terrible feature for Columbus Monthly several years ago about Columbus School for Girls. It was super one-sided, and I fell into a trap of allowing the school to refer alumnae to me. Well, all those alumnae, as accomplished and impressive as they were, sang pretty much the same song about the institution.
I missed out on a lot of perspectives because I was trying to write a big feature while also being publication editor, and getting help with sourcing was, well, helpful. I was not thinking as critically as I should have because I was so pressed for time and I was treating the feature as something “urgent” rather than “important.”
Skepticism and seeing holes in reporting and writing takes headspace! Critical thinking! Distance! I found none of those things, and the story wound up being mostly surface material, nothing deep or particularly interesting.
I had no business writing a feature, given my other responsibilities, and the best thing I could have done for the publication was to do my job and hire someone who had the time and ability to do the story justice. I think it was a great story idea with a poor outcome.
Being brutally honest with yourself, learning to say no, learning to ask for reasonable deadlines, asking for help. These are all humbling, valuable tools to have when taking on a feature.
What is one story experience where your growth in the genre showed?
Years ago, as a courts reporter at a small daily newspaper on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, I was at the clerk’s office digging through the day’s docket when the regular clerk said something in passing. She said she was seeing a bunch of cases based on something called doctor shopping. People were being charged with trying to obtain prescriptions for pain meds.
That passing comment caught my ear, and I started looking at these cases. Then I started researching oxycodone, which was pretty new on the market at the time. I kept branching further and further out, gathering little pieces of the story, while also stopping to think about what was missing, whose voice needed to be represented, how we wanted to tell the story.
So the reporting was building but it was also being managed through conversations and status checks. (Are we there yet? Have we gone too far? What are we missing?) The story, a Sunday cover piece, wound up winning a statewide Associated Press award.
Much to my surprise and dismay, it was among the first wave of stories about what has today become a crisis of opioid use and misuse. I had good editors on that story, and I had solid footing and sources on my beat. I was good at tracking people down, and people were willing to talk about the issue, from cops and prosecutors to people in recovery.
The success of the story was a symbiosis between a reporter who was prepared to find and pursue the subject and editors who were able to direct and correct. I love it when these conditions recur — especially because now I’m on the editing side, and I am driven by a love of facilitating the work of others.
Any other advice you’d like to add?
Screw up many times. Buy too many planners. Try too many apps. Find a method of time and task planning and management that works for you and use it. Adapt it when your life changes. Evaluate it every so often. Be willing to change.
Only you can decide how you approach and execute the tasks of work and life. If you don’t find a way to harness those tasks, they will certainly harness you.
Also, use your drive home every day to review the day. How did it go? What could you have done differently? Why? How would you handle the situation if you could do it again? How will you prepare to make a better choice next time? What will you work on tomorrow?
Great work follows a long line of work that ranges from awful to mediocre — and the ability to process failure into lessons learned, bridges crossed, mistakes understood and acknowledged.