As a sportswriter, Todd Jones covered everything from the Super Bowl to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. As a news reporter, he covered homelessness from the street level. Now a writer for the Ohio State Alumni Magazine, he digs deep on features that help bring people come to life for readers.
Jake Rahe sat down with Jones to get his secrets on feature writing.
How do you go about finding something that’s feature worthy and then also how do you go about pitching that?
With the alumni magazine, I am always scouring different news items for things that catch my eye. We do personality profiles of people so we are looking for alums that represent different colleges of different ages.
I might see a news nugget and just throw it in a file. I call it a “toy box.” It’s funny, because right now we’re looking for a younger alum. We want a woman who’s from out of Ohio. So that’s kind of like a directive like hey let’s see if we can find somebody interesting along those lines.
I’m always looking at anything that catches my eye even on public bulletin boards and online different things, Twitter.
Once a person catches my eye then I’ll just do a deep dive into researching that person, finding any past articles or anything I can find information about them. Then I try to do a one-pager with highlights on why I think this person fits what we’re trying to do with our particular story. Then I talk to my editors about it, have them read that, and then have a full-blown discussion about it and go from there.
How do you go about finding those sources and getting them comfortable?
I make it known upfront that I’m going to need a lot of your time if you’re willing to participate. I’ll usually have a meeting with them at the start and lay out what I’m going to try to do, what I envision, what I’m going to try to do with the story, what kind of access I need.
I want to try to be in places that shed light on who they are. It’s the old idea of showing something, not telling.
The initial conversation is not so much of an interview but a getting to know each other a little bit in a conversational way. Then you can usually determine pretty quickly whether or not they’re going to be willing to give you enough time.
I did a feature on Pete Edwards, an alum, a doctor who helped save the Columbus Crew and his family became part owners of the Crew. He’s a doctor, so I went one day to his work, and that was one of the scenes in the story. Another scene was on the morning of the first game of the season, the fans joined at dawn to toast the start of a new year, and he joined them. He told me he was going to join them, and I said, “I will go with you.”
That scene showed me how he interacted with people. And it was much better to depict that than it was to have somebody just tell you, “Oh he’s a great guy, blah blah blah.”
Do you write out the structure of your story in your head before you go about writing?
I think about what’s been written about them, how it been written, what hasn’t been written about him, what strikes me as a small anecdote that might be better to explore a little bit.
I do a lot of thinking along what am I trying to accomplish with this story. What do I think it’s going to be about? Not that it is what it ends up being about, but sometimes just thinking about what you’re trying to do beforehand. It makes the outlining and writing process easier because you’re kind of working on it as you go.
Do you think of it like scenes?
I try to write scenes. If it’s a longer piece, I’ll try to write in three parts. If I get 3,000 words, I’ll try to or I’ll try to write three 1,000-word sections or maybe an 800 and 1,200 and 800.
When I do that, I try to write three different little stories and each one has a lead. The finish of the first scene leads you into the second scene.
When I was younger and I would try to write 3,000, I would just start my first sentence and start rambling. The next thing I know, I’ve got 2,500 words but where am I going? Breaking things in chunks is easier for the reader, but it’s also easier to conceptualize what you’re trying to do.
A lot of the writing process isn’t really involving the writing on the keyboard. Most of it involves trying to figure out how to put this together like a film director would storyboard.
If I had to sum up the story in three words, what would the words be? I did one recently where to one the word was “fear.” It was about [artificial intelligence] and a woman who is involved with IBM and AI. A lot of the stuff about fear was stuff that she had overcome as a woman rising through the business ranks.
But it was also the idea of A.I. and what’s going on with that. So it all fit together as a theme. It was just more about writing about people, but it started with the idea of what kind of is a central theme here? What’s a universal theme that other people can relate to?
How do you go about asking your questions to bring that out in your words but also when you’re hanging out with someone you’re really not sitting down and having an interview like this. So how do you go about structuring your questions?
I do have sit-down interviews with them. I have the initial one where I try to just kind of set the parameters of what we’d like to try to do. And there are some questions I’m getting in there, basic ones like where are you from or things I want to make sure I’m accurate with.
Then I’ll also have another interview. Maybe it’s an hour of just sitting and talking, like an old-fashioned interview and then other times I’m hanging out with them.
It’s kind of a fly-on-the wall approach, trying to pick up dialogue they’re having with people, but also ask some questions. Oftentimes that’s where you get the best quotes, because they’re comfortable with you and it doesn’t feel stilted.
It’s really difficult in a one-on-one interview to make somebody feel comfortable because they know they’re being interviewed. You’re often dealing with people who may not normally be dealing with reporters or questions. So it’s just uncomfortable.
When you do spend more time, and you’re in a place where they’re comfortable, they are more apt to have a conversation with you. The whole goal for me is to make it seem like we’re just having a conversation. Ultimately, I want to write in a conversational way, so when people read it they feel like they’re just hearing a story because that’s what it is.
So how do you go about outlining and why do you think it’s so important?
There’s no right or wrong way to write. Some people write differently. For me, it’s just a way to organize my thoughts. I tend to over research and over report, and I end up with so much fish in a net that I get a little lost in the process.
There’s always a point in writing these things where I get a little freaked out like I don’t know what to do with all this. Outlining, for me, is just trying to figure out which fish to throw out of the net. I don’t need these, I don’t need these, oh this one is pretty good.
So how do you go about starting your writing process once you finish your outline?
I’m not necessarily starting with the first paragraph. I’ll just start cutting and pasting basic facts where I know they need to go. It’s like a puzzle.
Once I get to the point where I’m ready to start writing, I won’t say it’s easy, but the actual typing it up I have been through it in my head, and then it’s a matter of trying to fine-tune the words themselves. That’s the fun part — when you’re trying to figure out the best way to say it.
The hard part is figuring out what you want to say and where you want to say it in the story.
What is your editing process as you write?
I edit as I go. I’ll write the first section, and then I’ll keep working on that and I’ll rewrite things. I don’t sit there and write all 3,000 words and then go back. I break it down and focus on certain parts of the story that need some more fine-tuning, so I’m rewriting a lot even as I do it.
To be honest, sometimes I do all of that outlining, but sometimes it changes as I start to write it, because what I thought I was going to emphasize a lot, the more I got into it, the more I realized maybe that’s only a paragraph. It’s not gonna be 400 words of what I thought was really going to be in the story.
I’m always kind of refining even as I go through the typing process.
Another metaphor I use is the outline is really the Christmas tree that you cut down. It is the tree. But the writing is the ornaments you put on it.
If I have a tree I know what the shape is, I know what it looks like, then I’m free to hang ornaments wherever I want.
How do you get tone and voice in your features?
I’m constantly just reminding myself to write with my ears. What does it sound like? Does it have a lyricism to it? Does it have a rhythm to it? I’m trying to fit a conversational tone.
I want people to feel like it’s just you and I sitting down at a bar, and I’m telling you a really cool story about something that happened today. I don’t want it to read like an academic paper or a lawyer’s paper. I want it to be just a story.
What makes feature writing so difficult?
The challenge is to take something that people think they know about and try to present it to them in a fresh way, in a different way that makes them stop and think or learn something or understand something better. That’s a real challenge, especially when you’re dealing with people who are well-known.
But even then when I do all the research on somebody, if it’s somebody that is well-known, I think to myself, “What nuggets are there that could be blown into a story itself or what is it that hasn’t been written about this person.”
It’s trying to look for a fresh angle or a fresh way to go about it.
What is the secret to good feature writing?
Curiosity. It’s keeping your mind open, your eyes open, your ears open. Put people who read this story in a place where they can’t or don’t normally go and make them feel like they’re with you on a journey.
That takes a lot of openness. I don’t ever go in with preconceived ideas. I’ll have thoughts about something, but I don’t go in rolling out anything when I need somebody to talk. Sometimes what I think is going to be the story ends up not being the story at all.
Being open to any possibilities and willing to follow those paths is the key.