Breaking down the feature writing process

The Bigger Picture: Elements of Feature Writing.
Ivor Shapiro, ed.
Emond Montgomery, 2008.

Marc Edge

Reporters who go into teaching as a second career can sometimes find themselves at a loss to explain how to do what they did, especially if they learned not in a classroom but, like most Canadian journalists of a certain age, on the job. The basics of assembling a news story are simple enough to impart, and after a few tips it’s mostly a question of pointing students in the right direction and training them not to repeat any number of possible blunders. More creative, longer forms of journalism can be more challenging to teach, however, especially for old deadline reporters who got extra time to work on a feature article about every other leap year. Luckily, a resource is now available that draws on the insights of some of the top feature writers in Canada, who have actively reflected on the process of putting together long-form journalism.

The Bigger Picture methodically takes you through the feature writing process, from coming up with ideas for articles to pitching them to editors, researching, interviewing sources, and even navigating some of the ethical minefields inherent in creative non-fiction. Taken step by step, the often daunting task of putting together an article comprising thousands of words and dozens of column inches thus becomes a lot more doable. Each of the ten chapters is written by a veteran freelancer whose very livelihood has often depended on mastering what they are writing about. The best part about the book is that because it is written by master journalists the writing is a lot more accessible than your average textbook and the authors are able to provide examples from their own writing careers. To top it all off, each chapter is followed by a noteworthy published feature selected to illustrate points made by the authors.

The book starts fittingly at the conception stage in Chapter 1. Philip Preville provides tips on how to turn nagging questions and contrary opinions into ideas for features. The trick, he tells readers, is not to force inspiration but instead to be ready when it arrives. Keeping an “ideas” notebook allows the writer to connect with her curiosity by recording insights and searching for linkages and connections. The most fruitful of the 5 Ws for feature writers to ponder, notes Preville, are the two least often explored by daily journalists – why and how. Matthew Hays then counsels on learning to love rejection, as that is the inevitable byproduct of pitching story ideas to editors. Reading the target publication and studying its competition to make sure a story hasn’t been written yet can help improve your chances, as can checking the writer’s guidelines usually found on a magazine’s website. Focusing your pitch letter tightly is the key to gaining an editor’s attention, as succinctness is Hays’ “iron rule.”

The bigger PicturePart Two deals with gathering material for your feature article. Sue Ferguson, a former research chief for Maclean’s, quotes Globe and Mail writer Michael Valpy as estimating that every hour of writing should follow 20 hours of research. David Hayes describes how to reconstruct scenes, which he calls the “crack cocaine” of feature writing, that take advantage of print’s unique ability to provide the reader with detail. Don Gibb provides interviewing tips, such as asking open-ended questions and using silence to prompt subjects. Linda Kay explicates immersion reporting, where the writer gets as close to the truth as possible in a process so rigorous it is almost akin to scholarship.

Part Three deals with the actual writing of a feature article. Paul Benedetti identifies the “Big Lie” of writing as the old saw about starting with a great lead and just writing until you’re finished. Instead, he says, a good feature needs an outline and should hook the reader like a three-act play does, with a complication, some development, and a resolution. Susan McClelland explores different types of leads and provides some interesting history of the “nutgraf” method developed at The Wall Street Journal in the 1940s.

The ending of a feature, in which resolution of the story can be made explicit or left open for the reader to ponder, is just as important as the lead, she argues. Moira Farr covers some style basics and illuminates the fine line between brilliant feature writing style and self-indulgence that backfires. Finally, Ivor Shapiro, the book’s editor, outlines some legal and ethical considerations the feature writer must keep in mind while in pursuit of the truth. [Disclosure: Ivor Shapiro is also editor-in-chief of J-Source]

By drawing on the synergy inherent in the experience and writing ability of its authors, The Bigger Picture provides invaluable advice for the aspiring feature writer, not to mention welcome relief for the journalism instructor struggling to inspire creativity in students. It should quickly become a standard text for courses in feature writing, and an essential addition to the reading list of journalism faculty members.

Marc Edge is an Associate Professor in the Department of Mass Communication at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He was a journalist for the Vancouver Province and the Calgary Herald from 1974-93 and is the author of Pacific Press: The Unauthorized Story of Vancouver’s Newspaper Monopoly and Asper Nation: Canada’s Most Dangerous Media Company.