Loads of people have been reading my original piece on feature articles, but that was more about the fundamentals, and not anything much on style.
This article, therefore, is more about style.
Great feature articles are written by stylish writers.
To be a stylish writer, you first need to know what styles light you up
The first question I need to ask you is: Do you read feature articles?
You’d be surprised at how many people want to write, but never read. It’s insane to me, for the simple reason that if you want to write something, the best way to learn how to do it is to read it. When I say ‘read it’, I don’t mean just reading one or two. I mean, going and reading as many as you can. I mean, finding the people that you love to read, and reading everything they produce. And then trying to work out what it is you love about their style.
Then, when you start to write, imitate those styles that light you up.
It’s ok to mimic someone’s style. It’s ok to try to write like them while you’re working out who you are as a writer, what your voice is like, what’s your preferred style. It is, in fact, one of the simplest techniques for learning what styles feel right for you. It’s one of the earliest exercises I recall doing at university: Studying various authors and mimicking what they did.
What is not ok is ripping off someone else’s work. Stylistic influences, however, are inevitable.
When it comes to feature articles, though, it’s not like trying to think of some great authors, and then being hamstrung by your programming about what is ‘good’ literature. You are literally spoilt for choice. Think of every feature article in every newspaper, magazine, or journal that you have ever seen. Any of them would suffice, so long as you love them.
To write a great feature article you need to have a perspective
The idea of perspective can be weird and foreign and feel like a stone in your shoe, especially if your chosen genre is music criticism or music journalism. However, it’s not optional.
The interviews that you do will gradually shape your story. You’ll learn things about people, and the topic you’re exploring. You’ll learn the gaps in what you’ve got, you’ll find new rabbit-holes to go down. At some point, your ideas will coalesce, you’ll learn the ‘critical path’ of the story, and then you choose a perspective from which to tell it.
This is harder in specific styles of journalism, like music.
You’re often interviewing one person, about one particular thing. If you’re writing for a blog or a magazine, that one thing is (99% of the time) either an upcoming tour, or an upcoming or recent album release.
It can be tempting to get lazy and let the circumstance dictate the interview to you. In this case, you need to do hours of research in order to find the right angle. I go into that in more depth in this piece on preparing for interviews.
Then, once you’ve found the right angle, the interview questions you create will drive the story you end up telling. That’s why your preparation and question-crafting is such a critical component of any interview-driven feature article. If you skimp on this work at this point, you are literally making yourself work with shit. And if you’ve got shit to work with, all you’re going to come out with is some stylised shit.
Does that make sense?
Let your perspective push you to tell a story nobody else has told
It’s not a matter of simply writing ‘unique content’ for the internet, or finding an incredible hook that will snare your audience’s attention. Telling a story nobody else has told before allows you to stake your place in the over-arching narrative about a subject, a topic, a band, an album, a culture, a person, a… whatever the hell you’re writing about.
Given you are writing feature articles, you are clearly not just scribbling things and shoving them into a drawer. You’re publishing them. Knowing this, you know that your writing is about making a mark on the world.
If your work isn’t going to stand alone, and hold its ground, telling a new story about something, then why are you writing?
Make sure that what you write is meaningful: In the over-arching narrative about [thing]; to you as a writer; to the subjects you’re writing about (people or otherwise).
If it isn’t meaningful, you won’t do your absolute best work, you won’t be passionate about it. You won’t write as someone looking to put something down in history, to be referred to, looked back on, and become well-thumbed, as it were.
Which is what brings us to passion
Cast your mind back to the last person whose work you read that drew you in. The outside world disappeared. The sounds around you faded away. The images painted in your mind became your entire world. You turned pages or scrolled on your device without realising that you did it. For hours, you sat like this, entranced. When it finally ended, you emerged from this other world with a gasp, like you’d been underwater, in another realm.
Remember that? Feels amazing doesn’t it?
It’s also few and far between in your life, isn’t it?
At that moment, you felt the passion of the person who wrote it. You were belly to belly, heart to heart, mind to mind. In the perfection of telepathy that is this art of writing, you were both in the same moment, transcending time, sharing a vision.
That’s what passion can do for your readers. Strive to be that person.
I’m aware that telling you, random person who is looking to write a stunning feature article, to transport your readers into another dimension, sounds odd. It’s a feature article. It isn’t The Gulag Archipelago.
It might not be high literature, but if you aren’t aiming for that level of engagement, you are selling yourself and your reader short. You sell yourself short, because writing it becomes a drag and not a heartfelt moment of creation, which pours out of you effortlessly. It becomes a drag to read, because the narrative gets stilted, you can see the machinery behind the narrative, and it feels flat.
The combination of your style, discovered through trial and error, a great perspective, and passion, will do incredible things for all of your work.
Hide the machinery
My final point to you is this: Hide the machinery.
In every interaction you have, with an interviewee or a reader, you must strive to hide the machinery. By that I mean: Control the interaction and leave out anything that is irrelevant.
I’ll give you an example. If you have only 25 minutes for an interview, be up-front about the fact that you have just 25 minutes and will strive to stick to time. Your interviewee will appreciate it. If you have an hour for the interview and two days’ turnaround time, the ‘machinery’ is the turnaround time. It’s not their business, and it makes you look like Amateur Hour.
In the same way, anything that isn’t directly relevant to the story, leave out. Feature articles are never about YOU, unless they’re explicitly autobiographical. If you’re profiling a business person, nobody needs to know that you have depression. If you’re writing about a band’s upcoming tour, nobody wants to hear about the scrapbook your mum constructed about them for you when you were six.
Leave it out, starting with your interviews. If you include it in your interviews, there’s a good chance that you are thinking about yourself instead of your interviewee. And that’s an awful place to start.
So, um, I totally deviated from the point. My point here is: Write for your reader, not for your own ego. Leave yourself and your process out.
As the author of a feature article, you first need to discover your style. You can short-cut that in your early days by imitating a range of authors until you find a style that feels like a second skin. Secondly, read features voraciously, until you have an intuitive feel for what they are like when they’re amazing, and what they’re like when they’re awful. Thirdly, find a perspective. Fourth, tell a story. And fifth, find your passion.
Your job is to take your reader on the ride of a lifetime. You might only have them for two minutes. Make those two minutes the best that they’ll spend all day; all week, all month, all year!
When you can do this for your readers, you’ll grow a loyal fanbase without even trying. And you will find yourself carving a foothold for yourself in the world that few others are capable of challenging.
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