Hank Nuwer
Feature Writing essay from the book Real Feature Writing by Abraham Aamidor

    When editors confront a writer whose feature stalled, they often say that the ailing story needs better flow and detail. In other words, they give writing suggestions that aren’t a help to the one struggling. Those two terms are abstract, and the writer needs concrete suggestions that get the story back on track.
     What does help every writer is a diagnosis of the story, a checklist of fundamentals that include such essentials as feature elements, proper organization, crisp transitions, and story essentials.
    Too often, the story is no story at all, at least not in the sense of E.M. Forster’s classic definition: “a narrative of events in their time sequences.” Every feature, like every good speech, is actually a series of small stories that contribute to the overall whole.
    Successful stories require not only logical time sequences but timing as well. Once onstage, the writer finds that delivery is critical, as is voice—a conversational voice on paper that confides, cajoles, and mesmerizes readers. In other words, pacing is critical here. While “show and don’t tell” is a writing maxim even an amateur has heard, it isn’t  true, not entirely. While the professional writer stresses narration—the “show,” there also are times when summation—telling—is also appropriate. Finding logical story places to insert information summaries in the briefest, most interesting fashion possible is as critical as scene setting and creating a sexy lead. You mainly show, in other words, but always you have some information that is conveyed best by telling.
[It’s all in the details]
    During the storytelling the writer concentrates on pulling details from his reportage and interviews that make the feature memorable. Sometimes the details are time elements that cleanly differentiate the past from present. Sometimes they are nifty facts, figures, and statistics. Sometimes they are revelations of character and personality, or bits of place and geography. Sometimes they are clues to a culture and its values, mores, customs and ways.
    One caveat. Putting details into a feature is like adding ingredients to a gourmet cook’s recipe. Just the right amount is called for. Anything less means a tasteless, watered-down stock. Too much is equally undesirable, overwhelming the reader with clutter just as too much of a good thing destroys a recipe. Thus, selection of choice details is crucial. The writer metes these out on a need-to-know basis.
    Likewise, the writer simplifies these details for the reader by translating complex information into easily understood details. Using imagery and clever observations, the feature writer trains the reader to identify concepts, boundaries and definitions, then understand their significance. Instead of merely telling readers that a fish kill was caused when dumped fertilizer turned lake water to an undesirable pH, the writer says the water turned to vinegar.
    Writers graft these details into story elements with imagery to give the reader insights and an emotional connection. This paragraph might reveal a profile character’s personality. This next one might build impressions of a place (say Catholic, working-class Buffalo) in a certain time (1950s) and period of turmoil (family-owned businesses giving way to out-of-city corporate acquisitions with resulting layoffs and a mass exodus to the suburbs).
[Combine description with action]
    When it all comes together, the reader experiences precisely those emotions the crafty writer wanted to elicit. And writers of features and essays such as Michigan’s Jim Harrison (also a poet and novelist) know how to milk the most out of a scene. They “Make it vivid” as a handwritten note above Harrison’s computer admonishes him to do. Whether Harrison is penning a feature on the outdoors or a piece on gourmet cooking, he fashions engaging images on the page with descriptive nouns and verbs that also serve to advance the overall story.
    Occasionally, a skillful writer such as Harrison or Joan Didion moves the imagery to another level by making an image a symbol. Didion does just this in her chilling book “Salvador” in which omnipresent black Jeep Cherokees become symbolic of sudden death as Salvadorian death squads use these vehicles to make political enemies disappear for vultures to find and tear apart.
    Good feature writers combine action and description and characterization to re-enact scenes that have already occurred. They seldom rely on description alone, a technique that dies with Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. This combination of action and description and characterization is often what an editor looking for “flow” actually wants. When it all works, editors like to say the words “sing” on a page.
[The ethics of second-hand elaboration]   
    All feature writers need to remind themselves that unless they were present physically at those events, the details they insert in stories like jewels in a tiara were obtained from eyewitness human sources, paper documents and, if footnoted, other writers’ published accounts. They themselves were not present.
Even experienced feature writers need remind themselves that everything used must stand up to documentation. There are clear ethical limits on the use of one’s imagination while creating nonfiction.
    Writers who do their jobs make readers feel they are actually present at unfolding events. Getting every nuance right in those recreated stories requires precise reporting, a knack for asking sources the right questions, and astonishing tenacity.
    Most importantly, the great feature writers select the details they use with the care of a tailor putting together a custom suit from whole cloth. Knowing that stories evoke emotions in readers, these writers introduce scenes, characters, and background information as concisely and precisely as possible. Never do they forget the reader and write to please a source or even a profile subject.
[Fiction Techniques in Nonfiction]
    While the techniques of using fictive devices in nonfiction come naturally to nonfiction masters Harrison, Didion  and Tom Wolfe who also write fiction, journalists too can and do use fiction techniques to create dramatic narrative, stressed Wolfe in his foreword to a book on the “new” journalism. Writers for newspapers and magazines playing what Wolfe dubs “the feature game” use of one or more points-of-view, scene setting, dialog and the providing of “status” details (details providing clues to the culture of a subject). Unlike fiction writers who turn to their imagination for such details, feature writers get such status details by immersing themselves in their subject’s environment and by scrupulous reporting and reliance on reliable documents. Wolfe’s book on astronauts, “The Right Stuff,” accurately captures their pilots-by-day, Vikings-by-night culture when he describes them in their planes and in a local bar as well. Where a character lives and works and plays, what vehicles they own, and their clothing’s condition (soiled, pressed or wrinkled, starched) and maker help the writer establish mood and context in a scene.
    For point of view, feature writers may have an omniscient narrator who sees all, and describes all, because all he describes was uncovered during days, months, or even years of scrupulous research. Sometimes the point of view in a profile may be through that of a main character be it someone who seems almost super-human or flawed and all-too-human. Sometimes that viewpoint shifts, and the reader sees events (even one same event) through the uncovered eye lenses of multiple characters.
    In addition, rather than relying on a few pithy quotations to bolster reportage the way reporters of basic news stories do, feature writers use more revealing quoted passages of one or more characters. They also can and do paraphrase, transforming some quoted material from a subject into what readers recognize clearly as the voice of a character in that feature. Dialogue serves to break up pure exposition and elicits responses from readers the same way they would occur if the reader encountered the subject of a feature on the street. Dialogue is far more forceful to the point and contributes to dramatic storytelling in a way mere “quotes” in an inverted pyramid format cannot serve.  Sometimes more complicated information comes from experts and authorities on whatever subject is at hand. As with news stories, the feature writer locates the best sources who help simplify such material and put it all into context.
    Of course, any literary device is fair game for the feature writer to employ so long as the information was gathered during hard research, never made up. A writer such as Didion or Wolfe employs metaphors, similes, alliteration, onomatopoeia, oxymoron, and foreshadowing, among other literary devices, in their creative nonfiction. Many times such irreplaceable material comes from documentation uncovered as the result of interviews with sources who are eyewitnesses to events that occurred. Sometimes the information comes from the writer directly observing a character or characters in their lair or in a less familiar environment. In feature writing, sometimes the little things that are observed give the reader a nuance or many nuances that make characters—real people–either appealing or revolting, but always compelling to learn about. What’s been created, therefore, is what editors call an “authentic atmosphere.”
[Conflict and Complications]
    Unlike some literary fiction in which very little seems to happen to a character, feature writers almost always dig out information that lets them show a character engaged in inner or outer conflict during one or more scenes. When that character solves a problem, or fails miserably while trying, insights into that person’s character make such scenes come to life and are the heart and soul of good feature writing. For example, a feature by Pulitzer Prize-winning Jon Franklin introduces us to a surgeon who eats a peanut butter sandwich after losing a female patient to the “monster” that has developed and expanded over years beneath her breast.
    As with fiction, the feature focuses on what a character desires implicitly and explicitly. Readers care because a character does, and readers gain such empathy by reliving actual experiences in a scene (or scene sequences) on the page.
    Such conflict—or even a crisis—takes place as it unfolds in a scene. Thus, a good feature becomes as compelling as is good drama or comedy performed on a theater stage. Therefore, when writers uncover such information from witnesses, they possess a legal and ethical responsibility to reconstruct the scene or sequence of scenes precisely as the events occurred. If the events described by eyewitnesses differ significantly, and often they do, such complications add an aura of mystery to the piece and are welcomed by good writers, never resented. In fact, often it happens that conflicting versions by sources give a piece additional conflict and even more breadth and depth.
[Where Do You Start?]
    Where a feature begins depends upon whether the piece was inspired by something a writer has witnessed firsthand or a concept dreamed up by that writer or editor. At some point the feature writer and an editor have agreed on a proposal that has resulted in an assignment. That assignment details the nature of the piece and gives direction to all research and interviews. But just as readers love good surprises in a prose piece, so too do editors. However, an important caveat to remember is that whatever material gets used in a feature has in some way, shape or form appealed to the vision for that magazine or newspaper that was created by the editor in charge. What are appealing details in one publication may be totally out of place in another venue.
    That assignment serves as a guide map in landmine country to help the feature writer locate sources and possible characters, to search out and locate primary documents (say court documents, for example, or a birth certificate, property records, and so on), and to decide in advance with the subject where interviews and observations will occur. Feature writers spend as much time observing characters as they do interviewing them.
Later, when the first draft sits in the computer, a feature writer will reread the assignment letter or original notes made with an assignment editor to make sure every point has been addressed. If the piece is returned for a rewrite or clarification, the assignment letter helps the writer tweak the piece to provide whatever the editor found lacking in the original story.
    If what is needed is not in a writer’s notes, additional calls or a visit to a subject or reference library may be called for. And, as in all journalistic work, inconsistencies and inaccuracies are verboten. Sensitive material may call for visits to the original sources or even additional sources until the editor and writer agree the feature is “copy ready”.
[Craft Warnings]
    Another characteristic of good feature writing is that writers draw a clear line between them and their subjects. Writers who stoop to pleasing a source, or even outlining a piece with what their subject alone may deem important, cross that line clearly. Good writing is objective, and even one groveling phrase destroys a piece. Thus, a proper feature is said to be balanced, meaning that the writer looks hard to uncover both a subjects good side and any blemishes marring that side. In other words, feature writers keep a respectful distance from the characters and sources they visit—even as they immerse themselves in their professional and sometimes private lives.
    Good writing is revealing, or else why do readers empathize so readily with their subjects. In times of crisis, characters drop their masks and reveal themselves for who they really are. Readers can identify with a character who answers a knock on the door with a bearer of bad news in the middle of the night.  Readers love to see characters visit environments out of sync with the private persona a character—a celebrity perhaps—has carefully (if falsely and artificially) nurtured.
[Watch Your Language by Self-Critiquing]
    What distinguishes good feature writing from bad? One easy exercise is for the writer to pick up an old manuscript, preferably unpublished, that he or she has written. With a highlighter pen, the writer circles phrases and even passages that are vague and non-specific, then coming up with colorful, concrete copy to abort the weak material.
    After reading the piece all at once for overall readability, organizational weaknesses, structure and “flow” (There, I said it!), the good writer becomes a line editor. Every word must belong. Every sentence must pass the test of crispness. All transitions must be natural or else the writer needs to provide subheadings that guide the reader from one passage to the next passage.
    Too many adjectives and even a few adverbs should tell the editor in every writer that the nouns and verbs previously selected aren’t concrete or precise. Those adjectives and adverbs cluttering the premises need to leave in order for the writing to qualify as “tight” writing. Sometimes a needed rewrite is a matter of isolating expressions and phrases to see if five words were used where one or two suffice equally well or better. Such excess verbiage and even mindless repetitions must vanish during the self-editing phrase. Also, writers who continually begin sentences with “there is” or “it is” need to improve the cadence of such sentences by lopping off the offending expletives and recasting the sentence by leading off with concrete words that actually convey a word picture.
    Close inspection of the verbs employed in a story clue the feature writer into recognizing passages wrongly told in the passive voice instead of active voice. Weak and overused “to be” forms of words need reconstructing to make sentences blunt and appealing. An overdose of auxiliary verbs such as is, was were, am, and are make the story drag and read like a graduate student’s doctoral dissertation, not like a feature.
    Another tipoff to inadvertent bad writing is the overabundance of prepositional phrases in a piece. As with unneeded adjectives and adverbs, these too abundant prepositional phrases get inserted when the main clauses in sentences fail to convey whatever information the writer wants to get across in a scene or scene sequence. Deleting the offending phrase, while strengthening the main body of the independent or dependent clauses, almost always improves the readability of a feature. Prose pruning is a skill that separates the professional feature writer from the promising amateur.
    Finally, while good writing is conversational writing, some words used in speech such as “very” or “indeed” and “just” and “appeared” must depart the premises. Such qualifiers stunt the growth of a story and kill a writer’s style with their flabby presence. Good writers also excise all vague expressions. Far better to say a character “snorted” than it is to say “she reacted with displeasure.” Good writing stresses sensory details, meaning that the reader gets the benefit of not only seeing events in a scene, but going beyond the visual to find how things tasted, sounded, and felt to a character.
    Whatever changes get made during the editing phase, writers must never alter the true meaning of a passage or insert fiction for the sake of heightening drama. Dramatic tension throughout all narrative sequences is crucial, of course, but that tension must come from what actually was observed by the writer or writer’s sources.
[The Voice of Authority]
    Feature writing has been called the “literature of fact.” A myriad of things separate features that are literary from those merely well-written, but what separates the nonfiction miracle workers from their less talented counterparts is a resonant voice on paper that readers can detect when the whole body of a writer’s work gets examined. Such writing is not only journalistically flawless, but strongly stylistic. Certain cadences in a writer’s style show up in feature after feature.  Just as readers recognize lines of verse to distinguish a Robert Frost poem from one by Dylan Thomas, so too do the prose rhythms of a Tom Wolfe differ significantly from those by Didion or a John McPhee.
    But while cadences vary from writer to writer, one thing they commonly possess is that all take command of a story during presentation. From the first word to the last, features always reflect the craftsmanship of their makers. Such expertise means that today’s feature always is a notch better than last week’s feature.