The Complete Writer
Writing Nonfiction: Magazines, Newspapers, Books, Blogs
Chapter 12. Journalistic Nonfiction: Introducing the Feature Article
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A feature article is a piece of journalistic writing whose purpose is to entertain and to inform.
Sir Philip Sidney, famed as an Elizabethan courtier and poet who, among other things, wrote the first novel in the English language, was also a literary critic. He remarked that the purpose of literature is “to entertain and inform.” By entertain, he didn’t have in mind a soft-shoe on a vaudeville stage. He meant that literature should draw the reader into the author’s message and keep the person engaged by entertaining as well as informing. This idea applies fully to the modern-day feature article. Entertaining and informing is what the feature exists to do.
If you were to read a feature out loud, how would it sound? In most instances, the language would sound informal and conversational. Style would follow the Associated Press Style Manual. Sources, for example, would be acknowledged in the flow of the narrative, not in devices like footnotes and references. Numbers under 10 would be spelled out; all others would appear as numerals. The content would fit the purposes and audience of the publication in which the article appears.
Features that appear in newspapers often differ from those that appear in magazines. A newspaper feature is usually shorter, and, because the newspaper reporter works against a tight deadline, newspaper features are often less thoroughly researched than magazine features. The newspaper reporter attempts to take an objective tone and stance, avoiding loaded language and trying to present facts in an unbiased way. Magazine articles may be longer—a typical length is around 800 to 1,500 words, but sometimes they run very long, indeed. Magazine writers use the techniques of fiction to achieve the “entertainment” objective; that is, to engage the reader and carry the reader’s attention through a long and sometimes complex story. These techniques include plot, characterization, setting, and the like. And in many cases the magazine writer is not expected to maintain a façade of objectivity. Depending on the publication, writing may be openly opinionated or biased.
We can picture the feature article in silhouette to consider all the things a feature article is not.
For example, it’s not a hard news report—the sort of thing that used to populate the front page of your daily newspaper. A classic news story presents the facts in the so-called “inverted pyramid” structure. The most important facts, generally the five W’s and an H (who, what, when, where, why, and how) appear in the first paragraph. The remaining information is presented in descending order of importance, finally petering out in the last graf. The inverted pyramid structure allowed the editor on the copy desk to cut the copy to fit space available. Knowing the last paragraph or two contained little of lasting importance, the editor simply lopped off paragraphs from the end to fit the article into the paper.
Tone in a hard news story is unbiased and objective. Unlike writers for certain types of magazines, newspaper journalists strive to maintain an objective stance when reporting news.
Paragraph structure is rudimentary. Newspaper editors believe readers’ attention spans are so short they can’t get through more than about one sentence at a time, and so hard news reports consist of strings of short, one- or two-sentence paragraphs.
The feature is not an interview. Interviews appear in question-and-answer format. Although the content may be edited and manipulated, the interview structure resembles a transcript of a taped interview. It is not intended to resemble a story.
A feature is not a newspaper column, which is generally an editorial or a ramble that reflects the author’s opinion or expertise. Newspaper columnists, like bloggers, often engage some of the characteristics of a feature, such as a strong lead, a good wrap, and an engaging story line, but they are not writing features per se.
A feature is not a piece of literary criticism or a review. A few visits to an eatery do not a feature article make. Reviewers often use the feature writer’s tools to produce an engaging article, but a review does not have the same purpose as a feature. A review’s purpose is to recommend (or not recommend) a work of art, a product, or a restaurant. A feature’s purpose is to report news or ideas using the tools of literary nonfiction.
Sometimes blog posts are structured exactly like features; sometimes not. A blog post can be anything from a diary entry to a photo essay to a news article to a feature. Blogs are much looser and less subject to the constraints of a publisher’s interests. An important difference between a blogger and a journalist is that few bloggers have the advantage of an editor or a lawyer. No extra pairs of eyes read a blogger’s articles or advise on content, factuality, and legalities.
The essay is a literary genre in which the author expresses a subjective view of the world. It is highly personal and not meant to be a piece of journalistic reporting. In contrast, the feature article is journalism; its main purpose is reporting.
A “brite” is an ultra-short squib often used to fill space between ads or to populate departments, those regularly recurring sections that appear in the front or at the back of magazines. Some editors regard the brite as a type of very short feature, but it lacks the sophistication and structure of the longer piece.
An advertorial is a paid article designed to mimic a real feature, but its sole purpose is to sell you something. Ethical publications set these apart by using a special font, by marking them with a tag like “Advertisement,” or by printing them on slightly different paper stock.
The feature is generally a fully researched, structured article based on interviews, observation, and legwork. Length ranges upwards of 800 words—long-form features such as the ones you find in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, or at sites like Longreads.com and Medium.com can be several thousand words. The feature engages certain elements of fiction, such as a plot-like structure, narrative, setting, characterization, and dialogue, to draw the reader in and tell its story. Not all news writing, obviously, is feature writing, and not all features are, strictly speaking, news stories.