So you want to write for features! You may have already read over the writing basics, and you want some more in-depth guidance on features-writing. Here’s our humble guide on how to write a kick-ass feature article.
What kind of feature articles does the Medium publish?
Since the Medium doesn’t have a specialized lifestyle section, the features section tends to encompass more than just your standard long-form articles. We publish infographics, humour pieces, food reviews with a bit of twist (we found the best cookie on campus!), and science articles. That being said, we still publish investigative long-form articles. These tend to be focus on student life. This guide will centre on the latter, since it can be hardest to grasp.
What is a feature article?
Let’s start with what a feature article is not. A feature article is not an opinion piece. Here’s the difference. An opinion sounds like this: “There are too many people at UTM. There are more people than the campus has resources to offer.” A feature article looks at this statement with a different scope. A feature writer asks, “Are there too many people on campus? What’s the ratio of resources to students?” A feature article aims to answer these questions through research. The feature writer would speak to the administration and the students, gather all the facts, and make all the links that help the reader answer the question for themselves. The feature article would then go on to ask more questions: “If there are too many students on campus, why is enrolment still increasing? How much is it projected to increase in the next few years? What is being done to alleviate the pressure on resources?”
A feature article usually takes an in-depth look at something that appears in the news, or something that’s been on students’ minds. Or it can clear up a misunderstanding that’s been lurking around campus. It can even bring to light something that students haven’t been thinking about, but that’s a little more pertinent than they think. A feature article does all this with solid facts, numbers, and quotes.
Scraping together an idea
The features editor will send out article topics for you to choose from every week or so. But if you’re really into this feature-writing business, or if you’re aiming for an associate editor position, you might want to start brainstorming some ideas of your own. Features is one of the most open sections for writer initiative.
There are many ways to come up with ideas for articles, and we can’t get into all of them at once, but here’s the best way. Go grab a piece of paper (or small notebook) and a pen. Keep these on you at all times. Start looking at everything you see on campus with a critical eye. Soon a random thought will float into your head. (“Why do I have to wait in line for fifteen minutes just to get a cup of coffee?”) Jot it down. Some of these thoughts will be useless (sorry). With others, you’ll find yourself thinking about again and again. You’ll start making links. (“I can’t find a seat in lecture. I can’t find a seat on the bus. What’s up with this campus?”) These are the thoughts you should take to the features editor.
Once you have the go-ahead from the editor, it’s time to put on your investigative fedora. Look for pertinent documents and/or studies online. Look up articles that have been previously written about this topic. Make a list of people you will need to interview. These can be administrators, professors, or club executives. (Hint: contact these people early. People get busy and sometimes they don’t have time to answer emails from nosy journalists like yourself.) If you don’t know where to start, ask your editor. Make a list of questions you need to ask each of these people—whether in person, on the phone or by email. If they don’t know the answers, ask them to put you in touch with someone who does. Next, get the word on the street. Head to a busy place on campus and talk to people. When you’re done, talk to some more people. If you’re shy, start with something like this: “Hi, my name is Bob and I’m writing an article for the Medium. Do you mind if I ask you some questions?”
Write down or record (recommended) everything you’ve learned. Everything.
Remember, not everything you learn needs to be incorporated into the article. In fact, most of it won’t end up in the final draft. Instead, you’ll use most of what you gather to give yourself a better understanding of the topic. As some of the best writers will tell you, you can’t write about what you don’t understand.
Developing a research question
Take off your fedora. It’s time to sit at your dimly lit desk and dig out a research question. Lay out all the material you’ve gathered and look for links. Writing a research question is a little like writing a thesis for an essay. Except instead of saying, “In this essay, I’m going to prove that this campus has too many students through x, y and z,” you’ll be asking “Why does this campus seem so crowded?” Most feature articles aim to answer the why and the how. This question will not appear word-for-word in the article, but it will be the engine behind it.
Look for the logically related questions, and your research question will also churn out some offshoots. “Does this crowdedness have anything to do with the time of year?” “What will the campus look like in ten years?” These won’t be the main focus of the article, but you’ll use them to develop sub-themes in your article. We’ll talk about sub-themes in the next section.
Wait. Stop. Don’t write anything yet. You can’t write a good feature article without an outline. If you do, you’ll find yourself thinking up the next point as you write. Your thoughts will seem muddled, and the article won’t have any flow.
Instead, here’s a quick guideline to follow.
Introduction paragraph: This can be an anecdote, a narrative, a quote, a question, a teaser, or a fact. This paragraph sets you up to ask your research question.
Paragraph 1: What’s called the “theme paragraph”. Pose your research question.
Paragraph 2: Expand on your research question. Why is this relevant to your readers? Drop some facts that you’ve learned.
Paragraph 3: Use a few sources to start answering part of the question. “Yes, the campus is overpopulated. The average wait for a coffee is fifteen minutes… Enrolment increased by x in the last x years, but resources only increased by y.”
Paragraph 4: Use a few more sources to answer a different part of the question. “MiWay says the buses are only busy because it’s the beginning of year. They predict things will get better as classes go into full swing.” Or “MiWay is aware of the problem, and they’re implementing plan x and plan y to improve it.”
Paragraph 5: More sources for yet another part of the question. “Food services says they experienced this before in year x, they solved it by doing y. This year they plan to solve it by doing z.”
You get the picture. Use as many paragraphs as you need to answer as many parts of the question as you can, following the logical trail to step from paragraph to paragraph. Finally, you’ll get to…
Afterthought paragraph: What other relevant material have you collected that doesn’t directly relate to the question? Answer some of those off-shoot questions you developed.
What you’ve learned paragraph: Revisit the main research question. What does the reader know now that they didn’t at the beginning of the article?
Conclusion paragraph: End with something that will keep the reader thinking. This can be another anecdote, question, or quote.
You’ve penned your last word and you’re feeling pretty smug, but don’t hit that “send” button just yet. Take a breather. Go do something else for a little while. When you come back you’re going to have to ask yourself the hardest question of all (aside from “Did I just polish off that whole bag of cheese doodles?”).
Reread the whole article. Look for gaps. Where did you make assumptions? Where are the links unclear? And most importantly, what did the reader learn from this article?
In the process of editing your article, the features editor will ask these questions too. So it’s best to get a headstart. Add a few sentences for clarification. You might even have to do further research. It’s better to have more detail that can trimmed down than to leave questions unanswered.
When you feel like you’ve done all you can, send the article to the editor ([email protected]) as soon as you can. This will allow her to get back to you sooner if she sees any gaps.
• The Bigger Picture: Elements of Feature Writing by Ivor Shapiro
• The Art and Craft of Feature Writing by William E. Blundell