Feature and Column Writing MCM 514
THE NEWSPAPER FEATURE STORY IDEA
What newspaper readers want to read!
Newspapers try to perform five roles. There are lovely formal names for these roles--names such as the
commercial, information, opinion, public forum and entertainment functions. But readers, who are not at
all interested in the functions' fancy formal names, call the various parts of the newspaper package
"advertising, news, editorials, letters to the editor," and "the comics."
The names the readers use are self-explanatory, with the exception of "the comics." What readers really
mean when they talk about comic strips is the newspaper's ability to entertain and emotionally and
intellectually intrigue with material ranging from column to the crossword puzzle to the funny feature
story about the local issue or a person.
Comics, columns, crosswords and features are extremely important to readers.
The basic secret to writing features that readers will like is to recall that although features come in both
news and timeless varieties, they are, more importantly, also thing- or people-oriented. A feature about
how tombstones are manufactured would be a "thing" story, of course, but an article about the woman
and her wondrous bird would be essentially a "people" story.
Which would you rather read?
Probably reader will select man and dog story because strong features are almost always people stories. In
addition, the story has some traditional news characteristics that add to reader appeal.
News characteristics: qualities such as conflict, human interest, importance, prominence, proximity,
timeliness and unusualness. Let's look at each quality and see how these characteristics can add punch to
a feature story.
Most of us live our lives with little major daily conflict which may explain why professional football and
boxing are so exciting to some people. Thus, real-life conflict is unusual and interesting for most of us.
Consequently, an explanatory feature examining why a 12-year-old Florida boy killed his mother and
little brother fascinated readers of The Miami Herald.
And a profile tracing a mother's year-long successful search for her missing 15-year-old daughter had
equal appeal for readers.
Conflict comes down to this: Would you rather read a story about a dramatic, emotional cross-country
search for a missing child or a business story about a wealthy local woman who opened a boutique
specialising in Scottish woollens?
Human interest is hard to define for a few. Most editors say stories about children, animals or sex have
automatic human-interest value. So do stories about health. Consequently, a story about a little girl and
her father combing the city for her missing puppy has guaranteed reader appeal. So does a medical feature
about a young woman struggling to cope with acquired immune deficiency syndrome or one about a
doctor at a hospital trying to find a cure for baldness?
Importance refers to universality. The more people affected by the subject of a feature, the more readers
the story will attract. For example, a how-to story advising readers of a clever way to cut home electricity
bills by 50 percent has more importance--and probably more readers--than a how-to feature about
constructing a farm house. Why? Bringing down the electric bill has more appeal to most people than
does constructing a farmhouse.
Feature and Column Writing MCM 514
The Chief Minister of the province has prominence. Most probably, your best friend does not. A hobbyist
story about the governor's stamp collection has more reader appeal than a story about your friend's
similar collection. Names make news, the saying goes. Names also make features.
Proximity simply means closeness to your readers. A story about someone who lives a thousand miles
from the newspaper's readers has less appeal than a similar story about someone in the newspaper's home
circulation area. So, an odd-occupation feature about a local university professor who junks his teaching
career to open an auto salvage yard has more reader appeal than does a story about a lawyer in another
province, who decides to become a pianist.
Timeliness means little to feature writers, unless they are writing a news feature.
However, unusualness is extremely important to the feature writer. A university teacher who turns
junkman is, in fact, unusual. A junkyard owner who earns his doctor of philosophy degree and becomes a
university teacher is equally unusual. On the other hand, a male registered nurse is less unusual, and
probably is not worth a story. Verification is the key to deciding if a story is truly unusual.
Is your trapper the most experienced or the best known? Is he the most successful, or is he at least
typical? Do other trappers respect him?
Of course, you can write a feature without conflict, human interest, importance, prominence, proximity or
unusualness, but if your feature has none of these qualities, it is probably not going to be very interesting.
And dull features don't appeal to anyone except perhaps the subject of the article.
How to get ideas
If you become a reporter, who occasionally receives a feature assignment, you will rarely have to worry
about unearthing feature story ideas. The ideas will come from your editor, and your most serious
problem probably will be transforming the editor's occasional sows' ears into silk purses.
On the other hand, if you are a full-time newspaper feature writer--especially one assigned to a Sunday
magazine or a features section--you will be expected to formulate many of your own assignments.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Madeleine Blais explains why: "At a magazine of a newspaper, usually the editors
will allow a writer to pick stories because they don't want writers spending months on material they don't
Feature writers get ideas from a variety of sources. They read newspapers and magazines both for
national articles that can be localised and for area news stories that can be turned into features.
That process is called "writing off the news."
Feature writers often have long, neglected story lists. Most of stories are self-assigned, but always
appreciate a good suggestion.
Sometimes writers turn to the feature category first. For example, if you want to write an odd-occupation
story, you might chose the occupation first and find the specific subject later.
Feature writers also keep their eyes and ears open. They read billboards and advertisements in the Yellow
Pages, watch television, and listen to the radio, all in quest of ideas. They also tell friends that they're
looking for good stories and, often, friends tip them about people, places and things worth writing about.
Invariably, the ideas pour in--some worth investigating, others not, but all requiring focus.
Focus is simply a matter of reducing a potentially large quantity or material into digestible components.
When you go to a fast-food restaurant, you don't order a cow. You order a hamburger. When you write a
term paper for a world history class, you don't choose a mega-topic such as "The History of Germany."
Instead, you focus the topic on something such as "The Political Factors in the Selection of Berlin as
Capital of Germany."
And similarly, when you select a feature story topic, you don't begin with an idea such as "missing
children." You narrow the topic to a bite-sized chunk such as "teenaged runaways."
Feature and Column Writing MCM 514
An unfocused feature wastes the writer's time. It also wastes the editor's time. If a feature is unfocused, it
is usually far too long. Removing unnecessary words, sentences and paragraphs is the editor's job. One
editor might send an unfocused story back to the writer for more work. Another more adventuresome
editor might hack through the verbiage like a berserk explorer pushing through the Amazon rain forest,
removing both the bad and occasionally the good with an electronic machete. Yet another editor might
simply kill the story, thinking--correctly, perhaps--that it's not worth anyone's rewrite time.
Worst of all, an unfocused feature wastes the reader's time, should it survive editing. In general, if a
reader can't figure out what the story was about in the first several hundred words, the reader will desert it
for more pleasant experiences.
Focusing, then, is a matter of narrowing. For example, let's suppose you want to write a feature about
prisons. Your first focusing decision is easy: Because you're writing for a local newspaper, you should
narrow the topic to prisons in your state or immediate locality.
The next narrowing exercise is also easy: Are you going to do a story focused on the keepers--the guards
and wardens--or the kept--the inmates? If you narrow the topic to the keepers, you have a number of
categorical possibilities, including an explanatory story about a day in the life of a warden or guard, an
odd-occupation story about an unusual prison employee such as a tracking-dog handler, a participatory
story where you arrange to be a guard for a day, or a profile about a key prison official.
Let's assume you narrow your focus to a profile about a little-known but important prison employee.
Whom do you pick? The chief prison administrator? The top prison doctor? A warden?
If you focus on a warden, you have to decide which one. Do you pick the youngest warden? The most
experienced warden? The warden who runs the toughest prison in the system? Research will help you
narrow your focus still more. For example, if one prison in the system has received heavy news coverage
lately because of inmate complaints, the warden of that facility may be your best bet. You should obtain
his name from prison officials and check the newspaper's library for background information on him. If
he looks like a good candidate, you have successfully focused your story.
While you search for a focus, don't overlook clues to the point of your story. The point, prior to any
interviews, is more of a question than an answer. Is the warden's religious faith, courage and
perseverance (assuming he has any of those qualities) keeping him sane in his high-pressure position? Is
the warden's story even more elemental: good (presumably the warden) versus evil (the inmates)? A
definitive point probably will not emerge until after interviews with the warden, colleagues and former
inmates, but thinking about what the story may be about before you write it also helps focus your efforts.
Ideas that didn't work
Newspaper feature writers usually get their feature once they have accepted an assignment. That's
because newspaper feature writers are professionals who understand that news organisations cannot
afford to assign too many time-consuming stories that don't pan out. Consequently, professional
newspaper feature writers have learned how to turn lemons into lemonade when necessary.
But you're probably a novice journalist.
Here are six-feature story ideas, suggested by beginning journalists. The ideas are for 1,500-word stories
for a daily newspaper with state-wide circulation. The ideas as suggested didn't work. Let's see why.
Feature Idea 1:
A business story about your city's first non-profit vegetarian restaurant, where lunch is the only meal
served, the menu is limited, and tipping is prohibited. The proprietor is a religious figure, who considers
chicken `haram' as it is not being bred through natural process.
Too unfocused. This idea is like an all-you-can-eat restaurant. There are at least three good stories here; if
you focus on (or eat, to continue the simile) everything, you will have more than you can comfortably
digest. But if you choose one course, you will have a good meal. People are more interesting than things,
so a first choice would be a story about a religious person, who is serving his creator by serving hungry
people. An alternative selection would be to interview the employees of this unusual establishment,
particularly if they have worked for other restaurants and can provide colourful comparisons.
Feature and Column Writing MCM 514
A third choice would be to focus on customers who eschew fast-food hamburgers for the restaurant's
boiled beans and curried corn.
Feature Idea 2:
A how-to story about selecting and caring for a puppy.
This story is unfocused also. Practically everyone loves a puppy (except those who have to clean up after
it). And practically everyone values free advice from professionals. So what's wrong with this story idea?
Books have been written about caring for them. The books about selection suggest that different people
want and need different kinds of dogs, so your first task is to focus on a type of recipient.
How about pre-school children? Then we need to lop off the "caring-for" aspect to keep the feature within
acceptable length. Finally, let's add timeliness--a birthday purchase--to let readers know why they are
reading this story.
Ultimately, then, our story is about selecting a birthday puppy for a preschool child. That kind of keenly
focused story will be easier to write and will make more sense to readers.
Feature Idea 3:
An odd-occupation story about a state patrolman on his shift.
One of the first withdrawals from the idea bank that beginning feature writers make is the "ride-along"
story. Many police agencies make provisions for citizens to ride along with officers during a shift, and
reporters often take advantage of this opportunity to get to know the community and crank out a feature
while they are at it. But the ride-along story has been written so many times it's a journalistic cliché.
There are focusing techniques, however, that you can use to salvage this idea.
One is to pick a veteran cop working the toughest shift (that's 11:00 P.M. to 7:00 AM. on a hot weekend
night with a full moon) in the roughest part of town. Another is to ride with a specialist, the officer with
the most driving-while-intoxicated arrests for the preceding year. Another is to pick the best-educated
cop, the one with the doctoral degree in psychology. Focus, focus, focus.
Feature Idea 4:
An overview story about headaches and the various treatments for them, using prominent local
neurologists and university medical centre physicians as sources.
Writing a story about headaches is like writing a term paper about "The American Short Story." How
about focusing on new non-drug treatments for tension-caused headaches? Or, if you want to focus the
topic with laser-beam precision, talk to paediatricians about headaches afflicting children. You'll also
want to find some headache sufferers to humanise the story.
Feature Idea 5:
A profile of a local apartment complex designed for the physically disabled.
Profiling people is difficult; profiling a place is even more difficult. Are we going to read about the
history of the apartment complex or about how living there has made life easier for the residents? If
you're going to focus on the residents--and you should--the story will be easier to write and more
meaningful if the focus is narrowed to two or three typical residents. And you shouldn't just interview the
subjects; you should live their day with them to really get the feel of how the apartment design helps.
Ideas that worked
Professional journalists usually succeed in making their feature stories interesting. Experienced journalists
don't have a monopoly on good features; they only have a better batting average than beginners. Novices
Feature and Column Writing MCM 514
do hit home runs. They succeed by starting with a good idea and focusing it. Here are some well-focused
features written by beginners:
· A commemorative story about a lawyer who fled his homeland and, two decades later, found himself
owning a chain of children's clothing stores in the United States;
· An explanatory story about how the clothes for the professional cricket team are washed to remove grit
· A first-person story about surviving an attack by a rabid dog;
· A historical story about past patrons of the oldest hotel, which is scheduled for demolition;
· A hobbyist story about a local resident who has the country's largest private collection of antique
· A how-to story explaining a prominent psychologist's tips for handling depression;
· A medical story about an ailing 76-year-old man struggling to finish his degree before he dies;
· A number story about how ten peculiarly named castes in the province got their names;
· An odd-occupation story about the state highway department's only full-time explosives expert;
· An overview story about efforts to relocate endangered species;
· A participatory story about spending a shift as a department-store;
· A profile of a blind fan obsessed with the "Star Trek" television series; and
· An unfamiliar-visitor story about a local university student trapped in troubled areas during a military
Getting a solid feature story idea is a little like hitting a `six', which is the result of a good pitch,
combined with judgment, skill and a little luck on the part of the batter? Often, a large number of balls
must cross the plate before the batter sees a potential hit and swings. Like a batter, you should recognise
that you will need to explore many ideas before you find one worth developing. If you come up with a
dozen ideas and then carefully focus each one, you will have a good chance of scoring.
Newspaper feature writers usually size stories by column inches. A column inch is a block of type one-
inch deep and one-column wide or very roughly 50 words. Magazine writers usually size articles by the
number of words. Thus, 20,000 words convert to about 400 column inches.
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