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BOOK REVIEW: Feature writing for journalists. By Sharon Wheeler.

I posted a while back about my determination to release my inner geek and read more practical-related books. I found Catriona Ross’ book Writing for Magazines really helpful, and the next one on my list was ‘feature writing for journalists’.

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It must be said, to begin with, that these books aren’t ‘start at the beginning, read all the way through, finish and give a review’ type of books. They’re textbooks, reference books, ones that stay with you and you keep referring back to. Those ones that get really grubby and have corners folded on every chapter or post-its saying ‘REVIEWS’ for you to go back to if you get stuck. I’ve read this book over a week or so in order to grasp what it’s about and what’s covered. It’s safe to say my post-it notes are going to be scattered all the way through.

First off, this book gives PRACTICAL advice. The nitty gritty, get-your-teeth-into-a-feature type of advice. There are a few books I read during my course on writing features as a freelancer. “Sit down in a comfortable space”, “Know the publication”, “Do your research”. Well, yes we all know that we have to research and sit down, but what about the WRITING? What about advice on that?

This booked really helped me. In fact, reading through it I was snapping away at different pages that I could share on the blog… but there’s only so much I can show you in a review. I very much see this as a book that you will constantly go back to, especially the chapter on reviews which was extremely detailed and helpful when starting from scratch. Taking it all in at once means you’re likely to forget the advice they’ve given you, but when you’re stuck on how to write an intro for that profile feature, referring back to the ‘intro angles’ section will be valuable.

Here are some snippets that kept me reading on…

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Assembling the feature. Writing features is different to news. It’s not short, snappy stories with the most important information at the top, going down to the broad and background information at the bottom. As the book explained, features can be extremely long with a lot of research being put into them, but not being assembled in an accessible way will put the reader off. What will make the reader carry on for the next 800 words?

“You can’t busk features. They require far more preparation and research than most news stories.”

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Phone interview tips. Here’s a snippet of some of their phone interview tips. Something that helped me last week “remind the person why you are interviewing them”… giving an outline of the purpose helped tailor my interviewees answers to what the feature was about, and avoids them going of topic! As well as “keep questions brief” because it’s never good when you ask a question, they don’t really get it, and answer a completely different one.

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Developing an ego. Reading really witty columns in newspapers or magazines always makes me feel like I don’t have that as a writer. Some people have a really strong voice, but that’s hard when you’re tailoring your writing to different audiences. This chapter boosted the idea that having your own voice in first person pieces is important, and probably highlighted even more that practicing your own writing style shouldn’t be ignored.

“The best feature writers are relaxed and fluent storytellers.”

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Intro angles. I loved this chapter. This is what I mean about really practical and detailed advice on writing. How do you open up a profile feature? This will definitely be something I refer back to. Post-it note – STUCK.

“It often makes better sense to leap into the middle of a story with the best angle you can find.”

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Writing features. Chapter 3 was when the book went into the structure and writing style of features. With a wealth of examples, both good and bad, it’s not a chapter you can read quickly to take in. Sometimes after research and interviews, you’re left with a word document of information, without knowing where to start. The writing features chapter was probably the most helpful.

“A good feature writer will keep you hanging in there to the end with a judicious mix of narrative quotes and reported speech.”

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Reviews. I’ve never really learnt ‘how’ to write a review. I have just written it. Ironic that I’m writing a review on a book which is telling me how to write a review? The difference being this is my personal blog, and their target publication is magazines looking for published reviews of events, books, films, and art. The important thing is, it’s not just a recall of events, you’re not just explaining how the film went (and definitely don’t give away the plot!) but how it worked and how it didn’t. You’re not just explaining what the book is about, or what the event was, but if it filled expectations, the reaction of people around you, and the fact that in all honesty, things aren’t always good. A really interesting section on reviewing amateur performances for local magazines too…

“A review is a critical view of an arts event or product. It is highly opinionated but also aims to be informative, thought-provoking and in most cases, entertaining.”

Okay that’s enough. I suggest you invest in your own. If you love it, let me know. If you want to know more before you do, drop me an email.

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