In this, the third piece on writing for newsletters, we’ll look at writing feature articles.
Feature articles discuss issues. They may start from a news story and investigate its background: what happened before, how things have changed, the reasons and context of the events.
Unlike news stories, feature articles can take a very wide variety of approaches and structures.
The first thing to do is define what kind of feature you are writing.
Defining the type of feature
In The Universal Journalist, David Randall suggests the following categories of feature:
Describing a scene and throw light on its theme(s).
Fly on the wall
Observing an event (without being seen)
Behind the scenes
Similar to the above, but with the journalist a part of events.
Pretending to be another person
A transcript of a conversation
An examination of a particular person. Will often include an interview.
Factbox / Chronology
A simple list of facts, perhaps in date order.
Backgrounder / A history of
An extended factbox.
Extracts from books or transcripts of interviews.
A first-person report of some kind.
An examination of the reasons behind an event.
Vox pop / Expert roundup
A selection of views from members of the public or experts.
The results of a survey among the public.
An opinion about a new book, article, film, TV show…
All of these categories may suggest items that you could add to your own newsletter. If you are searching around for something to include, run through this list and see what it suggests to you.
Finding a theme
Features can be structured in a host of ways. The basic structuring principles that we explore on JustWrite – the pyramid principle, and SPQR – will both be useful to you. But the key to an effective structure in a feature is finding a strong theme: what journalists call an angle that governs the approach you will take in the feature. The theme will then supply you with ideas for ‘hooks’: linking elements that will attract the reader’s attention and pull them from one paragraph to the next.
Here’s a list of themes. You can probably think of more.
· Past, present and future – tell a story. Take three points and contrast events at each point.
· Three decades.
· Three eras.
· Before, during and after. Variation on the time theme.
· Three places: around the world, around the country, around the region.
· Three continents.
· Three points on a journey.
· Three points of view. Owner, worker, customer; government, organisation, client.
· Three functions. Three ways of doing things.
· Three aspects of the issue. Planning, creating, reviewing; the issue according to…
· Three levels. Global, national, regional; broad, specific, in detail.
· Opposites. On the one hand; on the other hand; where is the middle way?
· Benefits. What’s in it for the reader?
· Risks. What are the dangers for the reader?
· One person’s story.
· Multiply stories and what they tell together.
· Dialogue. Organise the whole article as a dialogue between individuals.
· Letters. Organise the story as a series of letters: either from one person or between people.
· A journal or diary. Break the story into bite-sized diary entries.
· Questions and answers. FAQs. Often put in a box. An increasingly popular way of making information digestible.
· A lesson. An expert explains to a pupil in a dialogue. (Like ‘Sophie’s World’ or the books of Carlos Castaneda)
· Jigsaw chronology. Break up the story and tell it in a broken order.
· Flashback. What’s it like now? Now go back a number of years.
· Investigation. Tell the story of how you followed the case, like a crime story.
· Start with a belief. Maybe a well-known belief or a controversial one. Challenge it.
· Use all five senses. What do the different senses tell you about the matter? Imagine the situation from the point of view of a person lacking one sense.
· Film technique: imagine the story as a film script.
· Use the equivalent of camera movements. Pan from one side to another – of the country, the city, the factory, the landscape…
· Zooming. Give the big picture then gradually close in on one revealing detail.
· Outward zooming. Start with a tiny detail and show how it relates to a bigger picture.
· Cutting. Surprise the reader by cutting from one aspect to as seemingly unrelated one – and then show how they fit together.
· Suspense. Present clues but keep the reader wondering how they add up.
· Freeze frame. Show a picture and describe it in detail. Then carefully explain how the situation came to be. (A road accident, for example: describe exactly what you see after the crash has happened, then unpick the sequence of events that led to it…)
· Personal experience. Tell it entirely from your point of view, including your feelings and surprises as you explored the issue.
· Memory. I remember when…
· Play on the negatives. What didn’t happen? Who wasn’t there? When didn’t it happen? Where does it not happen? How did it stop happening? Why doesn’t it happen?
· Butterfly wings. A tiny event on one side of the world, through a web of unseen connections, has a consequence on the other side of the globe…
· Conspiracy! Everyone loves a conspiracy theory. Maybe there is a conspiracy.
Finding the point of entry
The first hook is perhaps the most important. We could call it ‘the point of entry’.
All the themes listed above will suggest different points of entry. Once you’ve got the idea, you can let your imagination play with different points of entry and see what works best.
Let’s take a simple example.
Here’s a short feature that a JustWrite participant sent me a few weeks ago.
Mango is one of the most famous fruits in Bani. Its taste and nutritional qualities make of this fruit an important element in the nutrition of Dominican people.
Every year, during the month of June, the State Directorate of Agriculture organizes a Mango Fair in Bani. The event usually lasts 4 days. Several mango farmers take part and every night musical groups animate the festival. As part of the event, there are seminars on mango production, dialogues among mangoes farmers, exhibitions of mangoes and of food made with mangoes. The national and international people who take part in the event buy mangoes and other products made with mango. The universities of the Dominican Republic also take part, including students who are specializing in food preparation. Most importantly, there is a competition among the mango producers and the best mango in term of quality wins the trophy. This year, a variety of mango called “Banilejo” won the first price.
It’s not bad, but its approach and structure are not very inspired. We read nothing much more than a list of what happens at the festival. How could we make this feature a little more interesting?
We can create about 180 words. (The current feature is 158 words, and I have cut some words from the original.)
Let’s pick a few of the themes listed above and apply them to create some ideas for points of entry. (I shall shamelessly invent material; of course, any feature writer would need to check their facts!)
· Past, present and future
Fifteen years ago, Bani saw its first mango fair. It was a modest affair, lasting a couple of days. Today, the festival is four days long and attracts thousands of visitors.
· Benefits. What’s in it for the reader?
What’s the most nutritious fruit you can buy in a Dominican market? The answer: mango. It’s also one of the cheapest. And it’s more versatile than you might think. If you want ideas on how to make more of the mango in your shopping basket, look no further than the Bani Mango Fair…
· One person’s story.
Domingo Sanchez has been farming mangoes for twenty years. He started with a small farm ten kilometres from Bani. This year, one of his mangoes won the first prize at the Bani Mango Fair.
We can keep the core material from our original, but add in some ‘hooks’: transitional devices to keep the reader moving. And we also need a neat ending.
Let’s take the ‘benefits’ angle. Suppose we think of it as ‘a day in the fair’?
What’s the most nutritious fruit you can buy in a Dominican market? The answer: mango. It’s also one of the cheapest. And it’s more versatile than you might think. If you want to make more of the mango, look no further than the Bani Mango Fair.
For four days every June, Bani becomes the mango capital of the country. You can attend demonstrations of cooking using mango, and ask local farmers about the hundreds of different varieties. Students from Dominican universities are on hand to offer more specialized advice, and companies from home and abroad will offer you tempting products made with mango. If you are inspired to start growing your own, you can even attend seminars on mango production. And in the evening, musicians transform the fair into a celebration of the Dominican Republic’s most important food.
Most importantly, mango producers compete for the coveted title of best mango variety. This year, a variety called Banilejo won the trophy. So now, Bani is famous, not only for the mango fair, but for the country’s finest mango.
An effective feature, then, needs:
· a theme;
· a strong point of entry;
· a set of ‘hooks’ to pull the reader through the feature; and
· a neat ending.
Beyond those four key elements, you can let your imagination fly!