The Art and Craft of Feature Writing

By

William E. Blundell

Read in
May, 2021
My rating:
7
/10

Summary

Incredibly useful and actionable piece on writing feature-length articles, provided with accompanying articles (in full) that help you see what Blundell means in context. Cut from the cloth of newspaper journalism, so if you're writing anything else you'll want to think carefully about how it might apply across different media.

Notes

Raw Material

You need to raw material to fashion stories with. You can increase the amount of raw material by consuming voraciously and keeping files/notes on what you consume. It needs to be high quality stuff, mind, and not just everything and anything. Garbage in, garbage out - so be sure to curate.

But don't just stay home and read; talk to people, cultivate relationships all over from high to low, far and wide, then keep in touch with those people and keep those relationships warm.

Extrapolate from simple events: what's the cause for this happening? Is this cause a common driving force having an affect in other places?

Look at the big picture, but don't neglect the small story. It becomes more about meaning than magnitude.

'A mountaintop would have provided a wider view, but from there we could not have seen the faces of the people.' (Page 19)

Many stories unroll in this way, over time:

  1. Main development happens
  2. There are impacts to this development
  3. There are countermoves to those impacts

'Juvenile' stories are made up of the first stage only. Those that have stages 2 and 3 are 'mature' stories.

'By helping to broaden story themes and unify scattered developments, extrapolation and synthesis can give the reporter a jump on competitors who are lolling about, waiting for news to jump up and bite them.' (Page 8)

Shaping Ideas

Range

Possible to think too small or too big, unaware that the story is the opposite. Most of us try to embrace stories that are too big for us, though.

'A limited tale well told has more impact and persuasiveness than a sweeping story that can't be adequately illustrated.' (Page 24)

Consider the logic of cause and effect in a story - what happens next? And in what way?

  • Time - development
  • Distance - geographical
  • Constituencies - groups/parties

Theme

Carve out a piece of the story map and express it in a couple of sentences. This is your 'main theme statement'.

'If the whole finished story is an oil painting, the main theme statement is the initial quick sketch, the few but telling lines that delineate key shapes, from which the finished work eventually develops.' (Page 28)

Profile

'General' profiles are chosen for their inherent interest and cover differences between the individual and others. 'Microcosm' profiles are instead chosen for their similarities to other things, so thus need to cover what things are similar amongst them.

Story Dimensions

'Someone once said that the ideal 'Reader's Digest' story would be titled, "How I Had Carnal Relations with a Bear for the FBI and Found God."'

Time

Setting people and events in historical, chronological context is often and important missing puzzle piece and often neglected. This means looking backwards into the past of your subject, but also forwards to see where things might go.

Scope

Scope cuts across four possible areas.

The first is scope: how big is this, anyway? What's the scale of the story we are talking about?

The second is locale: is this thing happening in a neighbourhood, a city, or in the whole world?

The third is diversity: what are the different ways in which a story and its developments reveal themselves?

The fourth and final way is intensity: how much and to what degree do people care or are affected by this thing?

Variety

Keep things mixed up, otherwise you run the risk of bland repetition.

One way to do this is provide different source types. Don't just focus on actors and analysts, switch to different levels. Talking to a university professor for an entire story is boring, getting gritty 'street level' reporting is just as important.

Another way is to give different internal proofs. For example, you may wish to provide a statistic, a quote and an example. One of each, not three of the same.

Movement

'Readers love action, any kind of action, and the story that does not move, that just sits there stalled while people declaim, explain, elaborate and suck their thumbs is justly labeled by some editors as a MEGO–My Eyes Glaze Over.' (Page 54)

Just as with variety, movement is important too.

Obvious: from story point A, to B and C etc..

Less obvious: small to large and back again, specific to general, abstract to concrete.

You

Blundell identifies three archetypical under-performing 'wayward reporters':

  • Lawyers: repetitive, uses lots of figures and stats, shrill, keen to paint in terms of right and wrong
  • Scholastics: do far too much research before writing and never get it done (this is me)
  • Objectivist: 'fact funnels', regular, but lacking depth.

'A feature story without the reporter in it, without his strong presence in interpretation and conclusion, without his calling a spade a spade instead of bringing in someone from Harvard to solemnly declare it a long-handled personal earthmoving implement, is a weak, flaccid story. The reader expects the reporter's presence and misses him when he's absent.' (Page 64)

Planning and Execution

'...the specific techniques you employ aren't important. The only important thing is that you have a plan, however loose and informal, and use it to good effect.' (Page 70)

Step 1: Noodling Around

You have a nascent story idea and look at it from various angles to shape it into something more. Blundell recommends looking at things from six different 'story dimensions':

  1. History - breaks, continuations, details that are relevant to today
  2. Scope - quantitative information, what's the locale, diversity and intensity, different perspectives
  3. Reasons - economic, social, political, legal, psychological
  4. Impacts - the consequences, namely who is being helped, who is being hurt, how are the emotional responses of the people involved
  5. Countermoves - who is complaining, what is being done in response, with what scope
  6. Futures - what could or might happen, are there any formal studies or projections, informal opinions, your own opinions

He also includes a version for profiles that differs slightly from the above.

Step 2: Setting Priorities

Which one of the above six elements are you going to focus on the most? You also need focus points and people to latch onto in your story.

Who are you going to talk to? How are you going to frame 'reasons' or 'countermeasures' around them?

Step 3: Reporting

There are many archetypal sorts you may interview or talk to for your work. Blundell identifies 3+1:

  • 'Wise men' - rare, broad knowledge, tight opinions
  • 'Paper men' - knowledge, detail, technical
  • 'Rabbis' - operators near the action, on the scene
  • Real people - need time to create a conversation with them, build trust, otherwise you scare them off
'I'm only saying that storytellers must treat sources as something more than data banks. The reporter who can't or won't is probably better off programming computers for a living.' (Page 91)

Organisation

First reading: scan through all your documents, reading over things quickly, sketch out your story plan, list your conclusions, identify a possible ending.

Second reading and indexing: read through things again but slowly this time, indexing and ordering your notes and documents under the six story dimensions.

Narrative lines: block progression, time or theme:

Block progression: going through the story dimensions on after the other, keeping related material broadly grouped together. Try to isolate material from one source in one place - this stops overquoting, helps keep the story flowing.

'KEEP RELATED MATERIAL TOGETHER IN YOUR STORY This means that the bulk of the material bearing on one section, as defined by the guide, ought to be assembled in one place when you write the body of the story-a' (Page 101)

Timeline: a simple chronology, perhaps in following a profile through time. Digress often, but not for long. Useful if there is no big specific message or event, bur rather to give a sense and feeling. Not suited for news, really.

'most of a typical story's content consists of digressions. The only elements that are not are those in which something is actually happening that pushes the story forward.' (Page 120)

'If a story is indeed a river dotted by reservoirs, those still waters are the passages of digression within it.' (Page 120)

Theme line: used to hammer away at specific messages, but can include elements of a timeline if needed, too.

Handling Key Story Elements

Handling the Lead

You are interesting someone enough to get them to make an investment of their time in reading your piece:

  • Keep things simple, clear and immediately understandable
  • Keep it relevant to the theme: it needs to make the same point as the rest of the article
  • Give it intrinsic interest: if the lead itself is boring, you're lost
  • Give it focus, the lead should illustrate a key section of the story
'...many of the leads I like best have one quality in common–mystery. The first paragraph leaves the reader dangling with an unanswered question on his mind, propelling him into the next paragraph and sometimes beyond for an answer.' (Page 128)

Handling Numbers

Numbers are important, but should be used sparingly for the most effect. Rations like '1 in 4' are common and work for a reason. To do anything else is likely to lose the message or, worse, bore the reader.

'In placing numbers in a story, the good writer tries not to stack too many in one paragraph; this builds a wall of abstraction difficult to breach.' (Page 141)

Handling People & Quotes

All too easy to be seduced into including too many people and quotes to show how much good reporting you've been doing ()especially from a place of anxiety about your story). This slows the story down.

Good reasons to use quotes are:

  • Credibility: experts, weight, gravity
  • Emotional response: feelings matter
  • Trenchancy: punch and pungency
  • Variety: spice, construction, missing pieces

'Too many stories are cluttered by the inclusion of too many people. The few doing or saying something interesting are buried by the many who are just beating their gums, and the reader quickly gets confused trying to keep track of everyone.' (Page 143)

'When choosing among quotes, favor the short and sharp over the long and dull, and trim the statement down to its nubbin of meaning. You may find yourself directly quoting only a single phrase or just one word. Never mind.' (Page 148)

Handling Endings

'A good ending is an enormous help in meeting the reader's last demand: Help me remember it all.' (Page 148)

There are a number of broad ways to do this:

  • Circling back: reminds us of the central message or key themes, overtones and echoes of the body of the story
  • Looking ahead: let the readers imagination have something to play with. Speculation works better here.
  • Spreading out: use the end to raise the topic of something else entirely, raise curiosity, broaden horizons.

'To use this kind of ending you must deliberately violate a rule stated earlier, the one about restricting the range of the story so you can tell some of it well instead of all of it poorly.' (Page 151)

Handling Yourself

'When there's too much reporter, there's not enough story.' (Page 157)

A story without the journalist/writer in it somehow is missing something.

Summariser/Concluder: toe the line between not drawing conclusions in areas you are not expert in and not being too timid to state the clearly obvious when so confronted with it.

Referee: no ping pong, instead favour artillery salvoes one after the other, you are the organiser at the centre of this.

Observer: your own observations, common sense. Not every little thing has to be connected back to a source or a quote. How much do you 'just know'?

Wordcraft

'when superior wordcraft is added to a story well wrought in other respects, the results can be arresting. A so-so piece becomes a good one, and a good one may become a piece of work that lingers in the reader's mind for a long time. This ought to be every writer's ultimate goal.' (Page 158)

Use strong, specific terms. But don't go overboard. Strive to be specific wherever possible.

Be 'mean' with your writing. That is, apply your own criticism to it. This usually helps with concision if nothing else.

'The mean storyteller becomes two people, acting alternately as he works. The first is the sensitive artist-creator, the second a savage critic who eradicates every weakness in the creation.' (Page 161)

Evocative descriptions can at once be entertaining, artful, interesting AND central to the story, helping to progress things. They let you build precise, evocative images, focus on the people first, and make people animated. People prefer to see people, and they prefer to see those people moving (in their mind's eye).

'Nowhere is the writer's ego more troublesome than in his handling of description. Gripped by his muse, he reels off a passage slathered with pretty adjectives and plops it into his tale like a cannonball into a kettle of soup.' (Page 164)

A 'conversational' quality is good. This is NOT being 'folksy', but rather just being plainspoken. Don't over do it on the jargon. Something else a good conversationalist does? They ask questions from time to time.

'Would this be the way I'd tell it over drinks with an interested, intelligent friend? I don't suggest that we should always write exactly as we speak, unless we always speak with precision, economy and correctness. I don't. But most of us benefit greatly by coming closer to normal conversation as we write.' (Page 171)

Flow is important. Transitional passages help especially here, where you say what you mean and get to the point combining sentiments into one sentence

Self Editing and Style

'...the most important parts of this book deal with the writer's attitudes toward himself, the reader, and outsiders that intrude on their conversation. If the writer fails to dismiss these strangers because he's fearful of offending them, if he then models his expression to suit a roomful of people instead of one, writing tricks and devices won't help him. He'll never develop an individual stamp to his work.' (Page 224)

Edit for content: is anything missing that needs to be added?

Conclusiveness and flow: do summaries and conclusions make sense? Does everything flow well?

Pace and precision: word by word edits to keep things moving and succinct will do more than cutting out whole chunks.

'Style can't grow where fear taints the ground.' (Page 224)

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