How to get better at writing features

If I had a pound for every time I’d told a reporter to base an intro on the way they’d tell a story to their mates down the pub, I’d be able to buy my own hostelry.

Identifying the one thing you’d blurt out as you hit the bar is often the best way of working out the best line for a straightforward news story.

But how do you start a news feature?

There may be all kinds of fascinating information, angles and insights.

But a decent, intriguing, enlightening and incisive feature is not just a very long news story.

So it’s more a case of finding the right theme, the narrative spine running through the piece that will hold the reader’s attention.

There’s a dilemma for people writing profiles which involve extended interviews.

Use a notebook and shorthand, and you can edit as you go, marking up the best quotes and putting your pen down when your interviewee is less than compelling.

Use a dictaphone or phone, and you can have a more natural conversation, maintaining eye contact when talking face to face – but end up having to wade through loads of material.

Whichever way you do it, I do think that starting out by transcribing all your quotes can be a mistake.

As with a conventional news story, spending some time nailing the right intro before you write anything else can pay dividends in terms of setting up a piece with the potential to flow beautifully.

With features, it can make sense to also nail a decent pay-off line, a way of rounding off the piece which completes a circle started with the first few words.

In my more anal (and time-rich) moments, I have also done mini-feature plans, ordering quotes and topics using annotations in my notebook to chart the best way of leading the reader from A to Z.

Other guiding principles when writing a feature include:

* Paint an enticing, intriguing picture

* Grab the reader with an element of surprise

* Make it personal – draw out general themes through people

* Focus in on details which allow you to make points about larger truths

* Use short sentences in dropped intros, building up a picture smoothly and relatively quickly

* Be authentic and avoid self-indulgence – readers aren’t too bothered about your battles with PR folk

Putting together a decent feature is all about being directly indirect – or possibly indirectly direct.

There’s a delicate balance between gently intriguing the reader, reeling them in with an enticing hook – and testing their patience.

Getting that right is the key.

One of the best ways of improving your feature writing – or any kind of writing – is to read other people’s.

Learn at the feet – or pen – of writers such as Janice Turner in The Times, and Zoe Williams and Simon Hattenstone in the Guardian.

And while you do, I’m off down the pub.


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