Of feature stories and dating

A feature story is like a first date. You have to create interest, earn trust and — wherever possible — inject a bit of wit and a touch of charm.

First, create interest. Just like a date, a reader doesn’t have to spend time you, she chooses to because you’ve caught her eye somehow. Granted, there are some things at play here that you as a writer simply don’t have full control over, including the layout, story placement and headline. But there are things you can do to help the page editors and headline writers along, like ensuring there’s strong art to design your story around and suggesting a good headline. It’s up to you to ensure your personality shines through your writing. The lead is especially important in a feature story — readers are won or lost in the first few paragraphs. It’s where you build expectations and make promises about the payoff from reading the article. Create some suspense. Pull the reader along. Make her wonder what surprise awaits in the next paragraph.

When you set expectations in your first few paragraphs to catch interest . . . you’d better deliver.

Here’s where trust comes in. When you set expectations in your first few paragraphs to catch interest — whether it be exploring an issue in depth, delivering a knowledgeable source or making an educated guess at the future of something or other —you’d better deliver. If you tell your date you’re going to take her somewhere spectacular, you’d better not bring her to Taco Bell for burritos. Quote credible and interesting sources, and highlight why they can be counted on. Get your facts straight. Features have a longer shelf life, so like magazine articles, they need to be properly researched. Keep in mind credibility is hard to earn and easy to lose.

No first date is complete without a touch of wit and charm. And neither is a good feature story. If the subject matter calls for it, don’t be afraid to inject a little bit of humour. Make your readers feel something for your main source. It’s all in the details, so make sure your features are peppered with colour. Paint a rich scene for your readers to imagine. Describe your sources. When you’re gathering material for your feature, don’t just use your notepad and tape recorder, use your senses. Did the house where the woman stayed with her 50 cats have a distinct smell? Was the office of the MP who was adamant about government cuts richly furnished on the taxpayers’ dime? Write what you see, what you smell, what you touch, what you taste and what you feel.

With news reporting, you’re often reporting the straight facts, usually in pyramid style — with a feature, you have a lot more flexibility to be creative. Tell a story.

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