Creative Feature Writing

How to write compelling features that will keep readers hooked. Learn the secrets of creative writing with James Meek and Graham Lawton.

Speakers: Graham Lawton (Features Editor, New Scientist), James Meek ;(British Writer and Journalist). Chair - Alok Jha (Guardian).

Session Review

Chao-Ping Hong, Masters Student, Science Communication, TU Delft

Features are one the most read sections of magazines and newspapers. How can journalists portray interesting topics that appeal to the reader? Graham Lawton, features editor of the New Scientists and James Meek, British Writer and Journalist, both gave some inspiring tips on how to set up the language and structure of a successful feature.

The use of 'language' with feature writing was firstly addressed, with Lawton pointing out the essentials of building attractive narratives. "Narratives are the way to communicate the story to the readers" he explains and provides three main ingredients to a successful feature recipe: the protagonist, progressive complications, and the goal. In science features these elements could be specified in different variations, for example the protagonist as the passionate individual scientist or different research groups striving for a grand discovery.

Since readers often attach emotions to the protagonist and gain satisfaction when the story reveals how the 'protagonist' reached 'the goal', the 'narrative drive' becomes important in structured ways to guide the reader through the story. "The story itself is then being literally built up in compelling ways", says Lawton. "And regardless of how many materials and information gathered initially, the three elements and eye-catching features of the story can always remain the entry points of starting the writing process."

James Meek also shared his experience, explaining how he went through different stages as a writer. With science features, he thinks the writing part is as important as being good at 'finding things out'. "Bringing 'ignorance' to the story in such ways as to constantly remember what the readers don't know about things is important'', he says. He emphasized that journalists should not regard themselves as teachers on a 'missionary zeal', but to 'let the story tells itself'. Meek went on giving some examples of the importance of 'little stories', how journalists should observe and pick up details that will be useful for story-telling.

Both Lawton and Meek think that jargon should be avoided in feature writing, and rather, use simple words to explain difficult terms. They also discussed the need for the change of scenes and fresh takes when the feature develops into longer paragraphs.

One delegate questioned how feature articles are presented differently online and in print, as there is often the assumption that readers don't tend to read big stories online. Lawton responded by pointing out that in editing online feature articles, the basic structure is similar, with Meek adding that one of the benefits of online medium is the hyper-links. It was also discussed that diagrams and boxes are good ways to catch the readers' eyes as well as the use of good quotes. An alternative way to use quotes, suggested by Meek, is to put down the interview in a dialogue format so you reveal something about the interviewer as well as the interviewee. "And, a good closing often works as much or more than the opening," concludes Meek. "A sensible closure should be achieved in the feature, but remains a little bit open to leave something for the readers to think about."

There might be more than one recipe to creativity in feature writing; how to structure a story in an engaging way, or how different tones of voice and styles can make the feature more attractive, but, as journalists, the best way to start is to simply put down the first words and start writing.