Ode to the feature story

Last night I finished teaching a 10-week adult school course titled “Writing the Feature Story.” The class was a great group of San Franciscans. They turned in stories that ranged from the true tale of Brazilian immigrant’s unsuccessful bid for asylum in the United States to a homily about importance of family dinner as as a way to keep teens from drinking or taking drugs. Teaching writing is a fraud. All the work gets done by the student. Teachers can lay out some do’s and don’ts — but who does all the doing? Well, judging from last night’s misty goodbyes, I fooled this group into thanking me for giving them 10 weeks of lectures, questions, criticisms and exhortations. I will miss them. Grownups that gullible are difficult to find.

But in partial recompense to them and to aspiring writers everywhere, let me lay out some of the thoughts I tried to pull together summarizing what I tried to get across in 30 hours of classtime — that the feature story is a discretionary read. It finds an audience because it is informative, useful or inspiring. Or perhaps because the reader is trapped in the Department of Motor Vehicles’ office and a copy of the magazine with your piece is all that separates them from boredom, and they read it distractedly. Because the feature story is something that’s nice to know. It simply not in the need-to-know category. And that fact dictates every step of its its creation, from the germination of the idea, through the reporting and organizing, to the hoped-for sale to the editor who will put it before readers. And it is those readers who put the feature story to the test: what the hell is this, and is it worth finishing?

Feature story defined: All stories share characteristics. They have beginnings, middles, ends. They have characters and conflicts. They have, one hopes, a point or lesson or focus. A feature story is an in-depth look at some person, situation or place. It is not news, as in the latest-breaking headline. Instead it is some overlooked or underappreciated tale. Our class used a book called “The Art and Craft of Feature Writing,” by Wall Street Journal editor William E. Blundell. He used a mantra I repeated often. The feature story makes the familiar new or the new familiar. The feature story could be the unknown personal side of a public figure. Or it could be the first time you’ve every heard of a newly-diagnosed childhood behavior — and the controversy about whether the malady is real or a symptom of societal hypochonria.

Where do ideas come from? Everywhere. Scratch any person or situation and you’ll find interesting or overlooked tales. I tell one true story about interviewing a fellow once who was a county supervisor from Humboldt County by the name of Irv Renner. Talked to him for an hour. Got grunts and nods. In desperation I asked about some picture on the wall of his office. Turned out it was of his wife, who had been a nurse in World War II. They had met when he’d lost both legs at the knee in the Battle of the Bulge. There he was, a guy who was in the public eye and most folks didn’t know he was walking around on two prosthetic legs. Sold that piece for $10 or $15 to a weekly called the Ferndale Enterprise. But I learned a lesson worth lots more about digging until you find the thing that is unique — the angle that makes a feature story.

How to proceed:  The idea for a feature story is not a flabby thought. It is a concept with washboard abs. It is a two or three sentence tightly focused statement that will guide your research and writing and point directly to the market — that is the publication and the editor — to whom you plan to sell this work. This is called the “nut graph” (nut graf if you’re a gnarly newspaper type), or theme statement or topic paragraph. A version of the nut graph will be high up in your story because the reader also wants to know where the story is going. For this piece the nut graf might be: What’s a feature story? How to find, research and write it. And how to sell it, too.

Reporting proceeds understanding; understanding proceeds writing: The feature story is not fiction. It may have elements of drama and emotion that make it more like fiction than news. But it must be factual. In fact, the power of the feature derives from collecting the salient facts — the details, quotes and anecdotes that illustrate the inner workings of whatever is being featured. How does the person really think or behave. What is at the heart of the dispute. Get the details. Facts are persuasive. Don’t say it’s huge. Say it’s as tall as a three-story building (or whatever may be the case). Use quotes to capture the voice of the person, or the emotional intensity of their feeling. Average quote: “We came out in the second half and scored three goals.” Better quote: “Our kids didn’t give up because they were down two at the half.” The score is something that’s probably in the headline. What needs emphasis is that the winners came from behind. Finally, realize the power of the anecdote. It is a story within a story. The action or the lesson of the anecdote should teach us something true and important about the subject. There is a story about Sir Walter Raleigh, who once laid out his cloak over a mud puddle so Queen Elizabeth wouldn’t soil her feet. Depending on how you see the overall story and the way in which you weave the anecdote into the article, you might portray Sir Walter as a gentlemen or a synchophant.

What about point of view, and objectivity. Good time to tackle that. All the rules of writing are in flux, so the degree to which you, as the writer, inject yourself into the story will vary depending on the style of the publication and the editors for whom you write. But in general I suggest you adhere to the classic rules: in a sense the writer creates the feature story. Remember this not “news” but a detour. You as the writer have already taken the privilege of putting the spotlight on something. Having done so, be very gentle about trying to force the reader to adopt whatever understanding you take away from your reporting. In a sense this is another fraud. You as the writer decide what to write about. You pick every detail, quote and anecdote that goes into the story. Yet you absolutely cannot make people think the way you want. And if you create a story that is perceived as opinionated you will turn off many readers. People aren’t stupid and they know when they are being fed the party line. So here’s the art of feature writing — you have to capture the story. That is, you have to provide a version of events that will seem fair to people with differing points of view. And this is not as difficult as it might seem if you are a good and open-minded reporter. Complex situations generally have good arguments on all sides. Your job is to get to the right people, ask the right questions and get the strongest, best arguments into print. Let the readers decide how they want to think. The writer should be concise, because who has the time for rambling; precise, because details are most persuasive; and level, because as soon as you seem to tilt, the reader will wander off.

How to sell the feature story: That’s the tough part. Every aspect of story creation you can and will improve through practice. Selling involves more work but also contacts and luck. First off, it helps to specialize. You have to know a lot to write, and since no one can know everything, focus your feature writing on topics where you are expert enough to impress an editor. And it’s really an editor you’re trying to reach. Yes, you have to write with a publication in mind. If you have a story about a new hammer it might be better to aim it at a men’s magazine, while the piece about how to care for your elder parent might be best sold to a women’s magazine because women tend to be the care givers. Not that women never swing hammers or men never take care of their ailing parents. But even after you find the target publication, realize that there is a person making the decision. An editor who has many choices for how to fill their pages and who to pay. You have to find these editors, by reading the magazine, or by consulting a reference book like “Writer’s Market“ (check your library; it’s a reference guide with capsule descriptions of publications, what they buy, how to pitch them, etc.), or by networking with friends who may be writers. Once you get an editor’s attention, listen to what they say. They’ll tell you how long to make the article; what tone to adopt; when to turn it in. Eventually, if you’re good and lucky, you’ll get to determine your own terms. But when you’re starting out your position is weak. Have you ever seen those places where immigrants line up, outside lumber yards or other blue-collar settings, hoping that some contractor or homeowner will pick them up and pay them for a day’s work. Well that’s what a freelance writer is like in relation to the editor. The editor can buy your piece or something from someone else. They can assign a story to you or someone they know. The editor like the reader has discretion. So you are looking to find an editor, and ideally a circle of editors, who will regularly assign you work. I remember back when I was getting started as a science writer, getting a significant amount of work from Anna Gillis, who was then editing at a magazine called BioScience. I met her once, face-to-face, and she later told me she was impressed by my energy. Another editor who was quite helpful to me when I was getting started was Scott Veggeberger. In the early 1990s he worked for a publication called The Scientist that gave me thousands of dollars of work and many critical clippings — published works that eventually helped me land a job. I haven’t spoken with Anna or Scott in years. We’ve all moved on. But they were the core of the small cadre of editors who bought my early works — and I remember every one of these folks and remain forever in their debt. Scott once told me why he liked working with me. It wasn’t any of the things I imagined or hoped — like my reporting was good or my writing impressed him. I like you, Scott told me, because whenever I call you answer the phone. It turned out he could get hold of me if he had a question that he needed answered quickly — and my virtue was that I never slowed him down or held up the production process. He could depend on me. That was what distinguished me from the other freelancers whom he had the discretion to employ. That was a lesson I never forgot.

(This is necessarily incomplete. Please add and thoughts, suggestions, or criticisms. Stuff like this tends to get picked up by search engines and circulated by teachers looking for help in writing a syllabus or writers looking for tips.)