Music Journalism 101 j. Writing the feature article.

The previous three instalments took you through preparing for interviews, and conducting interviews by phone and by email. Having got your skills down in actually doing the interview, your work is only two-thirds done. Now it’s time to learn how to pull it together. This is where your writing skills are vital, and why I’ve always stated that the best music journos are writers first and fans last.

Writing anything always comes down to purpose and audience. Without a strong sense of purpose, your writing will wander; without a strong sense of audience, anything you write will fail to hit the mark with your readers.

To some extent, music journalists and critics have it fairly easy because they always write for a defined audience, and, usually, they have a defined purpose. The purpose will usually be explained to you when the interview is confirmed: it is usually to promote a new album, or to promote a new tour. Such interviews easily comprise 90% of a music journalist’s work.

The daunting thing is knowing that if you’re a metal music journalist, that vast numbers of metal fans are very much metal geeks, and will generally have some sort of criticism about your work. This is why doing your research is so vitally important, especially if you are not incredibly familiar with a band. Even if you are not a metal geek, you can still do amazing work provided that your research is tight and you set high standards for yourself.

Good writing skills, as I mentioned above, are vitally important. One of the ‘standard’ formats for interviews in metal journalism, which you see online and in print – one that annoys me – is the regular old Q&A style ‘write-up’. If I’m going to be perfectly honest, to me a Q&A is not a write-up at all – it’s cheating. Anybody who’s ever written anything for me knows how much I dislike them.

Of course, such a format does have its place; at the same time, however, they aren’t as interesting to read, and they don’t force the writer to think or to utilise all the information he or she gained during their research stage.

One of the benefits of writing a full-length feature is that it gives you the opportunity to show your readers the personality of the interviewee. This is conveyed through how you represent their speech, the comments you make along the way, and any surrounding context you can put into a feature. For instance, you might interview someone who is rushing around doing pre-tour tasks while talking to you on their mobile phone, or who was driving somewhere interesting on their way home from a studio or something; you can’t use that information if you’re just writing Q&As. But in a feature, you can highlight where your interviewee was amused, or annoyed; you can explain where they were, you can use small talk and pre-interview conversation as one of the means of providing an insight into the person whom you are interviewing.

Musicians, of whatever level of fame, are just people. The best features give you an insight into that person, but doing it well requires you to write clearly, concisely, and engagingly. This is why writers generally – whether they are writers of fiction or non-fiction – tend to produce outstanding work: good writers make people their study.

But first, onto the method for getting your interview material into a useful format.

To transcribe or not to transcribe: that is the question

If you’re just starting out, it is a good idea to fully transcribe the recording of your interview, if you did it by phone or face-to-face. Once you’ve got a transcription, you pretty much have a plan – if your questions were structured well enough – to guide you in how to structure your feature article. Emailers are easier in the sense that they completely cut out the transcription step of the work.

One of the benefits of transcription is that you can start to think about the best placement for your material. You also have the added benefit of being able to print off the transcription (if you work best in hardcopy for planning), in order to work out which parts of the interview you want to use as direct quotes, which as paraphrase, and which as additional commentary or contextual information. Being able to scribble on your transcription to make notes for such a purpose can be highly beneficial.

If you’ve been doing this sort of thing for a while, it is natural that you will begin to work directly from the recordings: you’ll have the experience behind you that will give you the ability to know instinctively which material works as supporting info, and which parts to use as quotation.

But – in the beginning – always transcribe. It takes longer, but the skills it provides you with are invaluable.

Remember you are writing a story

All features are a story, in the same way that a piece of fiction is a story: it features a character (your interviewee), engaged in a particular subject (your purpose, generally an album or tour), and you need to write it in an engaging way, filled with expression and quotation (and dialogue, too, if you feel it fits).

To some extent, the structure of your interview questions will dictate the structure of your story; once you’ve analysed your transcript, you’ll know how the story will flow best, and which parts of it will be most engaging if they are presented directly.

The notes that you made during your research will provide you with good background information, which is hopefully verified or fleshed out by your interviewee. Engaging with the readers, generally fans of a band, is important: therefore if something is common knowledge amongst fans you can point out that fans will know X or Y, and you can go on to explain it for others who may not be au fait with that information.

The pyramid mode of writing: top down

There is a type of writing mode, known well to those who studied communication or technical writing at uni, known as the ‘pyramid mode’. This mode of writing dictates that a summary of the most important information should always appear at the beginning of a piece of writing, with the remainder flowing on from it.

In some ways, it is well to remember this when writing feature articles. However, if you write for a publication or blog online, then generally this is dictated to you anyway, through the need for a title and a teaser, and then the body of the article afterwards.

In print, such a structure is not defined by others on your behalf. If you find yourself writing for print, it is well worth keeping in mind that a strong feature will generally include some type of ‘summary’ at the top. But always be careful when you write them. It is one thing to write an abstract of an article, and something entirely different to write an engaging introduction that summarises the who, what, where, and why of what you’re writing.

When you find yourself in this position, always go for the engaging introduction, rather than a bland summary or abstract of an article. Why? In the first instance, you want to draw your readers in rather than put them off; in the second instance, it’s easier to write than a clinical or abstruse manifestation of what you’ve otherwise done; in the third instance, writing an engaging introduction can be done at the start rather than at the end of what you write, provided, of course, that you revisit it when you finish the feature to make sure that it is a true reflection of what you’ve written.

Important things to remember

1. Paraphrase to create prose

The material that you have from your interviewee, which you are not using as direct quotes, is not wasted material. This is where your richest material will, in fact, come from: you can paraphrase it, change it around, and use the information you have gained from the interview as part of what you are writing. It is perfectly legitimate to do this, provided you don’t get it wrong. If you have done sufficient research ahead of time, then what you gain ought to verify what you already know.

2. One sentence between quotes does not a feature article make

Given that writing full features is an often arduous and difficult task, it becomes tempting at times (especially at busy times) to plonk in a series of quotes with some scant intervening material. This is not a feature article: it is a patchwork of quotes, held together by the thinnest of connective tissues. If you don’t have time to write the feature properly, negotiate with whoever you are writing for, for an extra day. Going the extra distance to knit together a powerful article is better for your career, and for your self-respect as a journalist, than is turning in something that is on time but sub-standard.

3. Your article should have a natural sense of rhythm and flow

You can tell if your article has been poorly put together if its constitutent parts do not flow on from each other seamlessly, and if you are not drawn to read on from one part to the next. If on a re-read you find yourself drawn inextricably from the beginning to the end, however, you will know that you’ve done a good job. Keep an eye on the rhythm of the piece and on how it segues from one part to the next, and if it jolts or is gappy, do whatever you can to fix it – the end result is worth it.

4. Restructuring quotes is acceptable

Sometimes when you transcribe your recording, you will find that parts of some answers to questions are follow-on comments from material or issues previously discussed. In this situation, if you want to use it as a direct quote, you are better off shuffling the material around and putting the same material together – and this is perfectly acceptable, provided you quote accurately.

5. Be careful of making assumptions

If you find that your interviewee is tired, speaks as though he or she is homesick (especially on tour), or there is something else that piques your interest, be very wary of writing it as though it is fact. You are better off, if you find yourself in this situation, to leave any comments like that out of your write-up. Instead, file it in the back of your mind as something to ask as an additional question the next time you find yourself in a similar situation, and get the information directly: you might be wrong about what you’re hearing otherwise. If you do write an assumption as fact, it is feasible that you’ll find yourself the brunt of a very pissed off musician who requests amendments or, worse, that the entire article be pulled – thereby displeasing your editor and/or your publisher. It’s happened to me once, and once is enough. You learn very quickly from such mistakes.

6. When it’s finished, put your article aside and go back to it to proof and re-read later

One of the most important things you can do when you’re writing features (or writing anything destined for publication, let’s be honest) is to set the finished product aside once it’s done. If you can, let it lie fallow for a minimum of 24 hours, and don’t think about it at all during that time. It is incredibly valuable to go back to it with fresh eyes after you’ve had a break from it, because you will pick up errors in spelling and grammar, places where the flow is broken or inconsistent, and areas that you know can be rephrased or tightened up. This will especially be the case with your introduction.

7. When you think the article’s finished, read it aloud

Yes, you need to read it aloud, and yes you will feel like a right tosser reading your work aloud to yourself. However, this will give you the final insight into flow, and into grammatical and punctuation errors. If, when you read your work aloud, you stumble, have to re-read parts, or it otherwise doesn’t ‘feel right’, you know that those areas are the ones that you need to go back and fix.

Next time

The next instalment of this course will be the final one, and it will take you through common spelling errors and other issues that are the bane of all editors’ existence.

If you have any questions, this is your final chance to ask them!

Please contact me and let me know if you have questions, if you are unclear on anything, or if you have any comments. These will all go into a final Q&A instalment of this course, which will be final post in Music Journalism 101.

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