Writing well: 10 useful tips for feature writing from the pages of the Wall Street Journal

art and craft ofA couple of months ago, a colleague, pressing me to get started on a feature for the Australian Financial Review, the newspaper I write for, suggested:

“Have a big glass of red wine and then just start writing.”

I should put some context around this. I don’t drink wine at work as a rule. I was going to function, where wine would be served. Then I would come back to the office.

My colleague’s rationale: it would free up my creativity.

I took his advice, and the end result was good, but the story certainly did not flow out of me like….fine red wine (perhaps the quality of wine ingested matters!)

Feature writing is challenging. There are many different things to pull together – people, events, themes, counter-arguments – and to do so well is as much technique as it is flair, talent or creativity.

My technique, until recently, was a stop-start approach of firstly trying to come up with the lead (the opening paragraphs) which usually involved numerous attempts, re-writes, teeth grinding, coffee break, chat with colleagues etc before finally making a start. Then I’ll write to the length required and then arduously work back, trying to create some kind of flow and rhythm and to give a point to it all.

But there are better, more structured ways to go about writing features (not that writing should be easy, good writing requires effort, sweat and toil).

I recently came across a useful book recommended to me by Michelle Griffin a very experienced journalist at The Age, who has also been my mentor the past 8 months.

She suggested I read: “The Wall Street Journal Guide to The Art and Craft of Feature Writing” by William E. Blundell, himself a journalist with the esteemed newspaper

It’s an old book, first printed in 1988, but you can get a newish reprint online. I bought a copy from the Book Depository and read it cover to cover, slowly, underlining parts on the way into work, trying to ingest some of Blundell’s tips, tools and techniques for telling better stories; after all isn’t that what feature writing really is?

As Blundell puts it: “We can learn a great deal from fiction and this book makes at least a modest start to connecting some techniques of fiction to the work we do.

The book is helpful on many levels, for example the opening chapters are about generating ideas and coming up with the raw materials for a good feature and I suggest reading it cover to cover.

What I found most useful where the practical tips for the writing process itself. These are 10 to keep in mind:

1. Write out your main theme statement

In a couple of simple, tightly written sentences express the story: its main developments, likely effects and reactions to them.

If writing a profile, the theme statement  should be the facets of the person, company or organisation you plans to focus on.

“Tack this main theme statement up where  you can see it. Let it guide your work. Let it reproach you, question you, when you stray too far,” Blundell writes, adding; “I consider the main theme statement the single most important bit of writing I do on any story.”

2. Have a plan

“The only important thing is that you have a plan, however loose and informal and use it to good effect”, says Blundell. Good writers, plan before they report and again before they write.

3. Readers love action

“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”,” writes Blundell.”The most desirable kind of movement is the unfurling of natural story progression.” To do this stories must shift the reader’s attention from “the abstract to the concrete, from the general to the particular, from the mural to the minature.”

Feature writers are storytellers. “We are in the drama business,” Blundell declares.

4. People with direct experience are better than ‘experts’

I think this is particularly useful as many journalists quote too easily from “certified somebodies” rather than “little people with direct experience”.

I heavily circled this paragraph: “The story is happening on streets where there are no PR men strewing palms in the reporter’s path, no computers disgorging blocks of seductive statistics and a lot of people who have nothing to gain from doing pirouettes for the press…we have to gather details and direct experiences that show the reader what we are talking about, that convince him of the truth of the sweeping assertions made by us and our desk people. Most of all we go there to convince ourselves.”

5. Skim read through all your material beforehand

Often, I don’t do this. I go back and forth looking for what to include in various documents. It’s an exhausting process and sucks up vast amounts of time.

Blundell’s advice: Skim through all interviews and documents. Read rapidly, not for mastery of detail, but for the sense of things. Put aside material that is irrelevant or weakly repetitive.

This will help refine and define your main theme statement and story plan.Blundell also suggests creating an indexing system where you group things in a logical manner. This may be vital for very long stories, but I find it overly complex. A couple of theme sub-heading and a few notes about what to include under each theme should do the job on shortish features.

6. Keep digressions short, return quickly to the action

Anything that is not action is digression: observations, quotes, explanations and descriptions. Blundell’s advice: Keep it short and sharp, or as he says it: “Hustle the reader over the lakes as rapidly as you can to get his vessel back into white water – story action.”

7. The lead is key, but can be left till later

The lead is what draws a reader in, gets him to make an investment of his time in your story right away. Blundell says a good lead intrigues, teases, gives you a reason for reading on. Many of the best leads he says have one quality: mystery.

The book is full of numerous examples of good and bad writing. I’ll just transpose one example he gives of a good lead:

“Crowded with 346 passengers and crew members, the Turkish Airlines DC-10 rose smoothly from Orly Airport in Paris bound for London. Terror came at 12,000 feet.”

Mystery is good, but not confusion or riddles. If mystery does not work for your story focus on urgency or telling the reader that something compelling is happening.

An anecdote or quote is a popular way to start a feature, but Blundell says it should be simple to understand and have relevance for the main theme of the story.

Often, the lead can be a retooling of the main theme statement, especially if you are struggling to come up with one.

However, don’t spend hours at the beginning of the writing process coming up with the lead, unless one comes naturally to mind. Write the main body of the story and come back to it later.

8. Don’t overuse numbers and statistics

Blundell’s advice – don’t overload readers with too many numbers.  Also, he says express them in their most simplest form, rounded-off, expressed pictorially (something “doubled” or “trebled”) or as ratios. Very large (or very small) numbers are better expressed in a way that can be visualised. E.g. “It was three times the size of New York City’s Central Park”

9. Choose your quotes carefully and sparingly

Too many people quoted in a story, not saying anything that is particularly interesting will drown out those who do have something worthwhile to say.

Blundell advises avoiding quotes that state the obvious (the writer should be brave enough to state these points themselves). He says good writers are merciless about who they include and exclude. A good quote should have: credibility, draw an emotional response, be trenchant (sharp, incisive, authentic) and add variety to your story.

10. Endings are important

Blundell suggests that good endings drive home the established theme and help readers remember all they have been told. He says there are three that seem to work well:

– Circling back: reminding the reader of the central message through “symbols, emotional responses, observations, even snippets of poetry”. It should be full of echoes and overtones of the body of the story.

– Looking ahead: “What might be useless speculation clogging up the middle of a piece can become evocative material at its end,” Blundell says.

-Spreading out: You end by giving the reader something new to think about. The ending makes the story bigger than it was before, something worth remembering.

These are just some of the tips I picked up from the book and have found useful.

Of course none of this matters if your idea is weak, ill-conceived, poorly researched, of little gravitas or just plain boring.

Every great story begins with a great idea.

Happy writing, storytellers.

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2 thoughts on “Writing well: 10 useful tips for feature writing from the pages of the Wall Street Journal

  1. Great list Larry. My tip – ask yourself whether your first paragraph is necessary. I usually find it takes me a paragraph to get warmed up. Most of the time I can cut out the first bit and start at the meat without losing anything.

    Like

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