How to write a feature article journalism

If a hard news story conveys the facts, what is a feature article?  Feature articles tell a story, adding depth and colour to a newsworthy topic or event. Delving deeper than the “what”, “when”, “where” aspects of a hard news story, a feature article provides detailed information in addition to the facts and fleshes out the “how” and “why”.

Feature articles focus on a person, event or place and appear in almost all newspapers and magazines as the ‘featured’ item promoted on the front cover to sell the publication. They are also largely featured in online formats. With a variety of different types of feature articles, the most popular are personality profiles, trend stories, in-depth stories or ‘backgrounders’. Human interest is the substance of a great feature article and any great feature will leave the reader feeling like they can relate to what they have just read.

Preparation

A high quality feature takes preparation.  An important step in the process is pre-planning the message to be conveyed and the way it will be communicated. What’s the purpose of the piece?  Once a pitch has been commissioned, it pays to investigate the publication’s style and its readership and take note of any reoccurring themes. Are the readers seeking entertainment, knowledge or an investigation?

The key to a great feature article is a unique angle.  Think outside the box and focus on the most interesting part of the story, not the most important. Consider if the story been done before, is it of interest to the target audience, does it have emotional appeal, and what makes it newsworthy?

After brainstorming and researching the subject, it’s time to start your plan. Everyone approaches writing differently, but creating a rough outline of where the piece will start and where you want to get to with your feature article (within the word count), should guide your writing. Regardless of the flavour and spice individual writers add to their work, features will always follow the same basic structure.

Structure

The most important aspect of a feature, and the glue that holds it all together, is its structure: introduction, body and conclusion. For hard news journalists, the inverted pyramid dictates that all the juicy details should be covered in the first few short paragraphs before the reader’s interest drops off. A feature, on the other hand, requires a journalist to engage the readers with their storytelling abilities and keep them reading until a rewarding conclusion.

There are many structural options though and these include chronological, narrative, suspended interest, spatial, alternating viewpoints and scene by scene. A quality feature article will have a common thread that weaves the structure all together; a link between introduction, body and conclusion that highlights its theme. This can be a single person, event or thing.

Introduction

10% of the overall word count, a strong introduction will mean the difference between an article being read or not. A great introduction captures the interest and intrigue of the reader and entices them to read on.  A strong lead will provide a smooth transition from the headline.

The introduction presents the idea that will be explored further in the body of the article and discloses the “who” and “what” of the piece. This is the journalist’s opportunity to strike up a relationship with their reader. It sets the tone and develops the scene. An introduction needs to be compelling and justify why the reader should use their precious time to read on. A talented journalist will bait the hook with a clever lead.

There are many variations of how to write a good lead sentence for your introduction:

One method is in the proposal of a question valued by the reader. Pick the right question and the reader will feel compelled to read on, knowing that the article contains the answer.
Example: Is risk-taking is contagious?

Another option is to state an unknown fact that might surprise the reader. It’s human nature to love facts and to learn something they can share.
Example: An adult can have up to 4kgs of bacteria in his or her body.

An introduction that explores a descriptive scene with strong imagery is perfect way to place the reader in the action.
Example: It was a bitterly cold day on October the 4th. There was an eeriness of silence as the snow fell softly.

An anecdotal lead is also popular and sets a conversational tone that draws a closeness between the readers and characters of the story.
Example: For five days, Bruce Cooper lay stranded at the base of Mount Kosciuszko.  His leg, in an unnatural position.

Other options involve the application of humour, well-known quotes and intriguing statements. Learning to pick the right introduction for the style of the story is a technique journalists must master.

Body

With the readers hooked, it’s now time to take them on a journey and unveil the “why”, “who” and “how” of the story. In other words, a strong body establishes what happened, to who, and why it’s important and newsworthy. The paragraphs following the introduction should support it by providing all the facts, evidence and background information. As a rule of thumb, a journalist should aim to have at least one point of interest in each paragraph to keep the reader engaged.

Depending on the selected structure of the piece, the feature may include subtitles, statistics, personal viewpoints, quotes, anecdotes and details of specific names, places and dates. Features often include expert opinions, which, along with the writer’s ‘voice’ set the tone. The addition of information sidebars, breakout boxes, photographs and diagrams can further reinforce the feature article’s message and they will assist to break up large chucks of text. When done well, they can also add interest to the page and grab the attention of people flicking through the publication.

Features are all about description and it’s up to the journalist to provide this in the most creative way possible. The inclusion of stronger verbs and less adjectives is a sure fire way of showing, not telling. Adjectives don’t evoke an emotional response from the readers. Instead, animated verbs such as “gulped” and “devoured” spark imagery.

An active voice has the ability to bring the story to life. With a sense of immediacy, it delivers the information faster. The feature is the journalist’s playground to experiment with figures of speech and sentence lengths.  The incorporation of clever similes and underused metaphors really set a scene, while varying sentence lengths evokes rhythm.

Conclusion

To produce a quality feature article, the conclusion must be as important as the introduction. It has to tie everything together and therefore, the journalist should spend as much time on this as the other sections of the piece. The readers have followed this far, they deserved to be rewarded.  This is where a skilled journalist provides answers to any questions that were proposed within the article.

Strong and concise, a conclusion is the final statement that reminds the readers of the main message and the evidence that has been provided. Thought provoking conclusions that spark debate or comment are highly sought after by editors.

Post writing

Writing is a four part process – planning, writing, editing and rewriting. Perhaps the most important part of the process is the act of editing and rewriting. Poor grammatical errors and sloppy sentences won’t win the affections of a busy editor and therefore it’s imperative that journalists review and tighten their work. Spelling of names and places should be double checked, better words need to replace poor ones, and unnecessary words should be cut.

Click the image below to view our How To Write a Feature Article infographic
How to write a feature article - journalism infographic

Understanding the basics of a feature article allows you to unlock the creative exploration of factual storytelling. There is much more to learn about this writing technique. The Morris Journalism Academy’s Freelance Professional Journalism Course offers comprehensive instructions on how to write a feature article for almost any topic and gives insight into the world of freelance writing. With the guidance of an industry professional as your tutor, you will be ahead of the competition and can be well on your way to writing quality professional freelance feature articles in as little as 12 weeks.