By Wendy Dager
While straight news is as essential as your morning coffee, the feature article is there to shed light on a serious issue that needs attention. A feature article can also be a human interest story that’s heartwarming, tragic, or just plain entertaining. This is true of both magazine and newspaper features.
In writing features, I’ve covered a variety of topics, met some interesting and truly gorgeous and brilliant people, and learned to write what I believe is the purest form of creative nonfiction, the feature article. I’ve done celebrity profiles, fashion news, and author interviews. I’ve also written health, home and food (my favorite!) features.
Admittedly, it was a stroke of luck that got me writing feature articles for the Ventura County Star’s “Life” section. Luck and knowing someone-in this case, the assistant opinion pages editor, for whom I was already writing a freelance opinion column every other week. The assistant opinion pages editor was the one who referred me to the lifestyle editor. During a staff meeting at the newspaper, the discussion turned to a story idea on vintage clothes. The editor remembered that I collected vintage clothes (something I’d mentioned in conversation), so she told the lifestyle editor to give me a call. And that’s the topic that got me started writing feature articles.
Sure, I was lucky to get into “Life,” but I am also reliable and a decent writer-an “easy edit”-a trait that kept me on the lifestyle editor’s list of dependable freelancers. Being an easy edit is of the utmost importance as you venture into the realm of freelance writing. That’s because long gone are the days when an editor-with-a-heart-of-gold would nurture a writer who had potential, but required a lot of editing. Today’s editors are too busy doing their jobs to play mother hen. They want someone they can count on to jump in, do the research, conduct the interviews, write the story, rewrite it if necessary, and turn it in, preferably before deadline.
If you can do all of this, you’re halfway to being able to write a feature article. Now all you have to do is become an “easy edit.” Here are some guidelines to help you on your way.
Familiarize Yourself With the Publication. Study several weeks worth of the newspaper, or several issues of the magazine for which you want to write. You don’t have to write like everyone else, but you do have to match the style of past articles. We’re talking mimicry here, not plagiarism. (Please don’t copy anything, unless you have permission to do so and you credit the source.) If your style is too different from the status quo, your work may never make it to print. While editors encourage individuality among their feature writers-and are well aware of each writer’s strengths and weaknesses-the bottom line is readership, and, generally speaking, subscribers don’t take too well to change. Another point to remember is that many newspapers and magazines use “wire service” items, which include feature articles provided by news organizations (like Associated Press or Scripps), as well as “syndicated” features written by folks like Ann Landers, Dear Abby and Martha Stewart. There may also be regular feature columns by staff writers or other freelancers. Don’t try to infiltrate these areas, particularly when it comes to well-established columnists.
Approach the Editor With Care. Some editors are easily approachable, but others have veritable guard dogs at their door. The best way to communicate with a newspaper editor is to call her and ask if she’d be interested in an article on a particular topic. Tell her about the story, what approach (or “slant”) you are taking, the approximate word count, and if you will require a staff photographer to shoot pictures to accompany the article. For magazine editors, the general rule of thumb is to send either a “query” letter or the complete article. (See a current issue of “Writer’s Market” or “The Writer’s Handbook” for names and addresses of magazines, as well as submission guidelines.)
Go For It. When the editor gives you the go-ahead, make sure you are prepared to hit the road, either by car, telephone, e-mail, or all three. If you are going to do an interview, gather your notebook, extra pens, and, most important, if you aren’t too adept at taking notes, bring a portable tape recorder. People tend to get surly if they are misquoted. Always be polite. You are a freelancer (also known in newspaper lingo as a “stringer”), but you are still acting as an agent for the newspaper and owe it to them as well as your interviewee to be nice.
Feature Articles are Fun to Write. Not that every topic is a bunch of laughs-for instance, I’ve written articles about breast cancer, cystic fibrosis, and head lice-but feature writing means you get to use a little color in your story. Adjectives are welcome here, as opposed to the hard news department, where too much description is taken as editorializing. However, you may wish to pump up your descriptive main story with a statistical sidebar.
-This article is excerpted from Wendy Dager’s booklet, The Gorgeous and Brilliant Guide to Freelance Writing, http://www.gorgeousandbrilliant.com.