Monica DeMeglio is a former features writer with Gannett Newspapers, who is currently a content strategist at The Ohio State University.
What were your biggest initial struggles/challenges with writing features?
I attributed too much in the beginning. It’s very disruptive for a reader who is trying to lose herself in a story to constantly have “said Jane Doe” and “according to her best friend” popping up. It’s weak sauce. Establish yourself as the authority on the topic you’re writing about, trust yourself as the narrator of that story and develop that voice.
How have you worked through them and what advice do you offer students to do the same?
Great feature writing rests on the bedrock of solid research and reporting. You cannot be the voice of authority on the topic otherwise. If your copy is all frosting and no cake, you won’t fool an editor or a reader.
What is one specific story experience where your growth in the genre showed?
My editor asked me if I was interested in writing a story about a man who was reunited with a daughter decades after he and his teenage girlfriend gave her up for adoption. “A nice Father’s Day story maybe?” he suggested, hesitantly.
Lesson 1: Editors don’t always have the time to thoroughly vet a story idea, and that’s OK. Frankly, you want to do that part yourself anyway.
I told him I would check it out. As I recall, the guy’s daughter found him and wrote him a letter. She was a grown woman by this point. He was an older man, with grown children of his own, too.
Lesson 2: Before you start asking questions, you have to start thinking like the narrator you’re going to end up being. Which central character might you follow? If you don’t know, then you need to think about the story from different perspectives.
In this case, it was really brave of her to write a letter to a man who, as far as she knew, had already “rejected” her in life, right? What if he did that again? That’s a big risk. What road did she take before leading to that decision? That’s a potential story.
In his case, the story could begin at that point and go on after — does he respond and forge a relationship with this lost daughter? How does he handle this new relationship and integrate it with the existing ones he has with his wife and children today?
Or should we go back in time and explore the motivations for why he gave her up for adoption in the first place? And what road he’s been on since? Has he longed for this relationship, and is this letter the happy ending as much as a new beginning?
Lesson 3: Approach the interview with empathy, but don’t be afraid to ask the questions that need to be asked. Even if it makes everyone squirm.
The daughter was lovely, but the interview was not very interesting. The people who adopted her were kind, and they always made sure she knew that she was wanted, even if she wasn’t their biological child. She knew that someday she would search for her parents.
The father, however, proved much more interesting of a character. He and his high school sweetheart had intended to get married, and their parents forbid them from continuing the relationship and raising their daughter together. He drove her to a “home for girls.” After he dropped her off, he was to never see her again. That was the arrangement. That was the way things were handled back then. He spent a good part of his adult life being heartbroken over a lost love, a lost daughter — assuming he would never close the loop on either of those.
To get at the heart of that loss, though, I did have to ask him some tough questions. Having a child so young would have had an impact on his life forever. Isn’t there a part of him that sees he was sort of able to drive away from that and not look back — literally and figuratively?
To this day, I remember the pain in his eyes, how he was quiet for a moment and then how he nodded his head. Yes, in a way, he was able to build a life and a family he never would have had without that decision being made, whether it was made by him or for him.
In the end, the story was about forgiveness.
Forgiving himself. A daughter forgiving a father she never knew but was getting to know. Forgiving his own parents.
Lesson 4: Always look for the universal theme.
It was more than a Father’s Day story. And that’s the goal of a good features story, I think: taking a yarn and spinning it until it touches the heart of the reader and makes it something they care about and relate to on a personal level.