Trust your instincts as a reader
In this blog, we will look at what makes a good feature.
In order to understand what makes a good feature you will need to trust your own senses - as a reader.
Take a moment to think about a particularly enjoyable article you read recently.
What was it that made you want to read beyond the first paragraph?
What made you want to read to the end of the page or the end of the screen?
Was it a feeling of satisfaction - a feeling you had been given new information?
Perhaps you felt the article shocked, horrified, saddened, uplifted, or amused you?
Did you turn to that article to add to the knowledge you already had on that subject, or was it because you knew nothing about the subject and were intrigued?
Perhaps you liked the style of the writer - found him/her engaging or authoritative?
As a writer it is important to think about this when you are looking at articles. You need to stand in the reader’s shoes and see the story from their perspective. What do they want to know, what will interest them and get them to read to the end of your story?
You can try the same exercise with an article you don’t like. Think what it is that doesn’t make that particular article work for you. This will help you to be objective in your writing, to stand outside your words and see whether or not they work.
All the papers this weekend have been filled with columns of words describing the horrors, tragedy and losses of the floods that have swept Pakistan. Neil Tweedie in his piece for the Daily Telegraph - Pakistan in Crisis: left to help themselves - recounts recurring stories of bitterness and betrayal. He builds a picture of starving families grieving for their dead, their homes lost and livelihoods swept away, there's pending disease, a fractured aid programme, and anger mounts while the country’s prime minister continues his controversial visit to Britain.
Tweedie uses his words to paint a picture of what has happened, how it has affected the people of Pakistan, where the floods are to strike next, how people are coping with their suffering, why this disaster happened and who is helping. His words answer the key questions the reader wants answering and put the disaster in context and make it relevant by associating it with the Pakistani Prime Minister’s visit to the UK.
So what are the magic ingredients for a feature or an article? Well, it upholds the best reporting traditions of solid, clear, accurate and visual storytelling.
In Saturday’s papers I particularly liked the feature: Women of the new Afghan Army.
I found the subject matter intriguing, the concept of women in the male dominated Afghanistan regime taking on perhaps one of the most macho roles conceivable was fascinating, and the article itself was well put together with a mix of personal stories, emotion and hard facts.
Then, on a completely different subject, there’s Jeffrey Kluger’s article in Time magazine: Inside the minds of animals? Kluger tells us about a study in the States to determine the linguistic intelligence of animals. The article tells us about his conversation over a cup of coffee with 29-year-old Kanzi, one of the main contributors to the study. Nothing unusual about that - except Kanzi is a monkey with a vocabulary of 384 words. This is a cleverly executed article with all the key facts woven around Kluger’s face to face with the formidible Kanzi.
Trainee journalists are always told to write their articles as though they were telling the story to their mates in the pub or the bar.
Standing among their friends, the young journalist will tell their story in a way to capture and hold their friends’ attention. They will start with the most important details. They will add description, more than likely mimic some spoken words, repeat some conversation. They will describe what happened, why and when it happened, to whom, where and how.
This is storytelling and they will be storytellers.
Just as the young journalist pitches his story to his friends, when you write, you will relate to your readers - they are your market, your audience. Your readers may be women, men, the young, the elderly, professionals, specialists or academics. Whoever they are, you will write with them in mind and have a written ‘conversation’ with them in their ‘language’.
What you write will be relevant to your readers. What you have to say will connect with them on either an intellectual or emotional level - or both. And most importantly you will never leave your reader asking any questions.
And to ensure your article doesn’t leave the reader wanting; you as the writer will always make sure your article answers the questions: Who, what, why, when, where, and how?
Who is the article talking about? What happened? Why did it happen? When? Where? and lastly, how?
When you have dug deep to get answers to those questions - you will have mastered the basics to writing a good feature or article.
Sally Ballard is the tutor for the accredited 25-week online certificate course, Writing for Publication, run by Warwick University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning starting in October 2010. For details see http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/study/cll/open_courses/certs/writing_features/