Feature writing – what is it, how does it work and is this really journalism?
Let’s begin by taking a look at one of my all-time favorite features. Sylvia Slaughter of The Tennessean in Nashville, Tenn., wrote this gem of a story, which is a combination of personality and place feature.
Does it have traditional news values? No, not really. It’s not timely, the people aren’t prominent and there’s no real impact on the reading public. It is a bit unusual. Apart from that, there’s no compelling reason for this to be published in a newspaper. But it’s an absolutely lovely feature story, crafted with great care and including elements that are appropriate for any journalistic style piece.
I suggest you read it twice. The first time, merely savor. Enjoy the story, the pacing, the wording, the people you meet there.
The second time, read it with purpose. Look specifically for the following:
- Nontraditional lead: Do you know the theme of the article from reading the first paragraph alone? Is it common in a lead to identify by name an unknown person?
- Sources: How did the reporter get this story? With whom did she speak? How did she get such minute detail?
- Quotes vs. paraphrase: Note the strength of her quotes as compared to non-quoted material. How did she choose which material to quote?
- Detail: What status detail do you spot in this story? Does it really matter to the reader that the shop uses a rotary phone? Why does the writer show us that? What other telling bits of observational detail do you see?
- Literary devices: Look for some lovely alliteration, playful word usage and carefully chosen terminology.
- Nontraditional paragraph structure: Look for a couple of very short, one sentence paragraphs. Why are those used? Do they “work”?
- Ending: Traditional inverted pyramid stories simply fade away. When the facts are told, the story stops. What is different about this one?
Once you’ve re-read the story, go to our JN21 conference page to discuss. I’ll be there on and off throughout the day to read comments and interact. Toward the end of the day, I’ll post a summary of feature characteristics and techniques based on our discussion.
So is feature writing really journalism?
A well-written feature story will adhere to basic journalistic principles. It may not be written in inverted pyramid style, and it’s very likely to have an alternative-style lead, but it will still look and sound like good journalism in terms of objectivity, basic use of material and basic sources of material. Let’s take a look.
The lead: Traditional news stories use one-paragraph leads. The leads only mention names known to most readers, and they inform the reader about the nature of the story right up front. Feature stories often follow a different format.
— Although many feature articles have multiple-paragraph, alternative style leads, this is more traditional than most. We do get a sense of what is going on right away.
— Virginia Robinson, although she is no celebrity, is mentioned by name in the very first paragraph. The writer is making an introduction: “Meet Virginia.”
Sources: Any journalist is likely to use three types of information:
— stored (previously written and reference)
— observational (what he or she has seen.)
This feature article is no exception. While stored sources would be hard to come by for a topic like this, interviews and observation abound.
— In addition to Virginia, Slaughter quotes an employee and a patron. It seems fairly obvious though, that she did much more than that. To get all those stories — the patron who broke her hip, the one who got a death threat – she must have sat in the shop for quite awhile just listening. Good journalists are good listeners. Good listeners get good stories.
— Observational detail abounds. That second paragraph, which shows us a walker, cane and wheelchair, sets the tone. We see Virginia unlock the door, make coffee and fold towels. We know exactly what sort of phone she uses, how many hours she worked and how much hair she styled. Why do we need to know this? We’ll talk about that later.
Quotes vs. paraphrase: Journalists paraphrase facts. They choose quotes to convey opinion and emotion, especially when those quotes are colorful are worded in an interesting or unusual way:
“I work because I want to. Retirement is for sissies.”
“Mercy, I don’t know what I’d do without her.”
“A hot dryer will cool any conversation.”
Detail: Using lots of small detail is not purely a journalistic device, but it certainly works well in this story.
So why do we need to know that Virginia uses a rotary phone, that she worked 10 hours or that she did “12 sets, two color jobs and one perm”?
None of these bits of information is newsworthy, but each is a color in the pallet used to paint a portrait of Virginia. Slaughter does not draw conclusions for us. She lets us see that Virginia works long and hard, that she stays busy, that she sticks to old equipment. She is a grandma who doesn’t even stop for lunch as she eats “a piece of jam cake on the fly.”
Detail is packed into this story like the tasks in Virginia’s day. They give us a window into another world, something any good feature story should do.
Literary devices: Any journalistic story could make use of literary tricks. Feature stories are much more likely to use them.
— Playful rhymes: “an unspoken, hardly broken rule”
— Alliteration: “… Virginia Robinson is the queen of backcombing, big hair and blue tints.”
Nontraditional paragraph structure: Journalistic style allows for very short, even one-sentence paragraphs. Best practice is to vary both sentence and paragraph length. This story makes use of very short paragraphs to emphasize key points:
— “Virginia Robinson herself is 81.”
— And this gem in the third full paragraph of the last column: “Few people can.”
These punchy, very short paragraphs vary the pace of the story.
The end: Feature stories often have “real” endings rather than just fading away as inverted pyramid style stories do. This story is no exception. Virginia may be 81, but she is still working with no plans to stop.
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