The In-depth Feature Feature

May 12, 2014


Photo Credit: Dan Frissora

Interviewing Kieran Rooney (’15) for his fantasy football article, Ryan Stolz records his interviewees responses.

Students currently enrolled in journalism at Glen Rock High School are all facing the same challenge — the task of writing a feature article. Many students are struggling with the task because they don’t even know where to begin.

Before even beginning to write a feature article, one must understand what a feature article is. “A feature story is a special human interest story article that is not closely tied to a recent news event. It focuses on particular people, places, and events, and it goes into great detail regarding concepts and ideas of specific market interest.”

To grant another perspective on what a feature article is, The Glen Echo interviewed journalism teacher Mr. Jason Toncic, who said that a feature article is a type of article, in which a certain topic, whether it be a single topic or a vast concept, is looked at in more depth than it would be in just a regular article.

“The difference between a feature article and a hard news article is that an event that is hard news has just happened, whereas a feature article spans a long period of time,” Mr. Toncic told The Glen Echo. “[This] does not mean it is an infinite amount of time, it just means that when it is written the writer has more time to do so.”

Mr. Toncic then gave an example of his experience at the Garden State Scholastic Press Association Press Day, at Rutgers University, where members of both Journalism classes had the opportunity to attend. The capstone speaker talked about Super Storm Sandy and how an area on the inside coast of New Jersey was largely ignored when it came to relief funds. As for how long it took for that speaker to write her article, it was around six months, for she had to keep visiting the area, in order to write a story on the lives of the people living there.

“Feature articles are different from in-depth feature articles. What we’re doing here are in-depth feature articles,” Mr. Toncic began. “A feature article is just an article that is specifically about a certain topic that highlights it. It’s soft news, not hard news, meaning that it can take place at a time either shortly after, or somewhat more than shortly after (maybe a couple weeks, a month), but ultimately what a feature article does is cast a spotlight on a certain group or person and it gives information that other people wouldn’t be able to see from their point of view.”

But what’s so special about a feature article? How is it different from a regular article? Other than the fact that a feature article is written over a long period of time, there are other qualities of it that distinguishes it from a regular article.

“The difference is between soft news and hard news,” said Mr. Toncic. “Hard news happens immediately after an event, it covers who, what, when, where, why, and how. Whereas soft news and feature articles, specifically in-depth feature articles, which we are doing here, that are a spotlight on something — you can be creative, you can write it in any way that you want, so far as you are telling the story of a specific concept.”

What should I write about?

Now that a student knows what a feature article is, s/he can begin the long and tedious (but rewarding) process of writing one. The first matter to attend to when writing a feature article is to figure out what topic you want to write about. There is a wide range of topics or issues students can write in-depth feature articles on. Practically anything can be turned into a feature article, granted that there is enough information about it and/or a new angle to approach it from.

For example, many students are writing about people and their individual accomplishments. Examples of these are students with academic achievements, students excelling in athletics, students running events, and many more.

When choosing a topic, however, it is not mandatory you write about a person. One student asked, “What could I [write on] besides a person?”

Mr. Toncic shared that one can cover events, groups, teams, or clubs. A specific example of an event Mr. Toncic gave was the fashion show, an event conducted by the student council to raise money for the prom. The only issue with that, Mr. Toncic noted, was that it was coming up within the next week, and a week is certainly not enough time to write a full in-depth feature article.

Frank Connor (’15) is a student who has really struggled with finding a topic. Connor initially planned to write about the finances of the school but had to refine this idea to his thoughts of our school’s funding of technology. He needs enough information to fill up at least six pages, totaling anywhere from 3,000-10,000 words.

More examples of topic ideas come from Brendan Geen  (’15) and Ryan Stolz (’16). Geen is writing an article about the different styles of teaching that different teachers have, and how students respond to these many different styles of teaching. Not only is this an interesting topic, but Geenn has plenty to work with, especially with a school full of students and teachers to observe and interview.

Stolz is writing about fantasy sports participants who fit specific stereotypes of the game. Many students in the school participate in fantasy sports, so Stolz’s topic should work out well for him.

Overall, there are a few things to keep in mind while writing a feature article:

    • Is my topic interesting?  This is a good question to ask before starting to write.
    • Will I be able to gather enough information for an entire article? Is definitely something to keep in mind before diving into a topic to write about.
    • Do I enjoy writing about my topic? A writer should enjoy the work they are doing, for that’s the fun in writing. If an article is boring or painful to write about, perhaps one should consider a new topic.
    • Is my article appropriate? An easy no-brainer, this is a must when writing a feature article.

How do I gather my information?

Once a writer chooses which topic they want to focus their writing on, and they have finalized their topic with their editor/adviser, they can move on to the next step — background research. To be able to write a feature article about a certain topic, the writer must have a lot of knowledge about that specific topic. One can’t just expect to write a feature article they know little to nothing about. It is often helpful to pick a topic that one has a good amount of experience with previously, however, even in this case, it is still important to do research on the topic.

If one has no prior knowledge on their topic, it is crucial they do extensive background research before beginning their feature article. There are plenty of ways to gather background information for a feature article. Research can be done via books and encyclopedias, however, in this day and age, the majority of background research is done electronically on computers.

Connor, Geen, and Stolz, all started off getting some background research on each of their topics before starting their articles. There are plenty more specific examples about writers needing to know more about their topic before beginning their feature article.

”I gave an example about one student in period 5; she is writing about Ethan Klein, the chess master of Glen Rock High School,” Mr. Toncic said, beginning one of his own examples he had seen during class. “She needs to learn about chess before she can actually write about the person, she doesn’t know about the game, she doesn’t know about the rules, how it’s played, she doesn’t know what it means to be a chess master, how privileged of a position that is, so she can’t write accurately about the person. So she has to know all of that stuff first, and that’s the background information that needs to be done.”

What else can I do to get information, other than just looking it up?

Another way to gather information is by talking to others who have experience in areas relating to the writer’s topic. This brings me to the next step in the process of writing a feature article, which is the step of interviewing and reporting. Interviews are when the writer finds someone with knowledge on the issue or topic they are writing about and asks them questions about their topic to gather information. The interview itself is usually a pretty formal occasion, and it is essential that the writer quote their source word for word on what they are writing about.

Misquoting a source can end very badly for the writer, so most interviewers usually record their sources speaking, so the reporter can go back and make sure they have them quoted correctly. It is also mandatory that the source knows that they are being interviewed, and that what they say can be used in the writer’s article. Some controversy in contemporary journalism deals with the alleged racist remarks of Clippers owner Donald Sterling, whose voice was recorded and released by the media unbeknownst to him.

The three writers that The Glen Echo shadowed as they wrote went about gathering information for their article all interviewed multiple sources. Ryan interviewed some friends of his who he knew fit the stereotypes that he was trying to represent in his article. They all shared some interesting tidbits about their fantasy season, which Stolz plans on using in his article.

Connor, who is writing about the funding of technology in our school, may have a little bit more of a difficult time with his interviews. Frank plans on interviewing those who know about the school’s funding, and can’t just meet with his friends anytime.  Frank plans on emailing those he plans on interviewing, and scheduling times to meet them, so he can interview them. It is preferable that writers interview their sources face-to-face, however in some cases they may not be able to do this, in which case it is allowed for the writer to call, email, or I suppose writer a letter to the source that they are interviewing.

The life, the blood, the skeleton, every single part of your story comes from the words of other people.”

— Mr. Jason Toncic, Journalism teacher

Geen, finally, is writing about teachers’ different styles of teaching. He has interviewed a few teachers on how they teach, as well as many students on how they respond to different methods of teaching. He asks students which methods they prefer, which methods they struggle with, and from all that he has gathered a good amount of information on his topic.

Of course, you cannot write a feature article without quotes.

“The life, the blood, the skeleton, every single part of your story comes from the words of other people,” Mr. Toncic said. “Whether it comes from written words or the spoken words during an interview, that’s what your story is. It’s made up of the words of other people.”

“You can’t tell a story, you can’t tell a feature, without interviews, without quotes. Some of what you use will be direct quotes, some you’ll have to paraphrase,” he said.

A direct quote is when a writer takes or uses the exact words a source says, or when the writer finds in a book or online, and puts them verbatim into an article. (An example of this is the paragraph prior to this one; I used a direct quote from Mr. Toncic about the importance of quotes.)

Paraphrasing is when a writer takes a full quote, and he then rephrases it up in his own words. This is a good tactic when a quote is too long or too difficult to understand. Paraphrasing makes it easier for the reader to comprehend, since the quote is now abbreviated, or broken down into smaller sections.

Many writers face the challenge of not knowing what to ask about during interviews. There are many types of questions that can be asked. A writer can ask their interviewee fact-based or general questions on the topic to solely gather factual information. They can also ask their interviewee’s opinion on the issue, to see how people generally feel about the subject. These both are important, depending on the type of the issue.

Interviewing multiple people is important to make the information more accurate and provide a wider variety of facts. When asking fact-based questions, it is important to ask many people to gather as much information as possible. If information is repeated, that is okay because it makes the information more credible. When asking opinionated questions, multiple sources are important because it can either accomplish the goal of getting opinions from two sides of an issue, or having more opinions to back up one side of the issue.

A picture is worth a thousand words

One more key component of in-depth feature articles is pictures. Pictures are great because they show the reader what you are writing about with an image instead of a description. Mr. Toncic said that pictures are absolutely necessary, and it is preferable for the writer to take their own pictures.

“Additionally,” Mr. Toncic adds, “Not only should you take pictures and photos that are going to be interesting, but you can also create different types of graphs and charts — nowadays they call them infographics.”

Graphs, charts, and other data are important because they can accomplish two tasks, Mr. Toncic said. These info graphics can:

“A. Break up the writing so that it’s not as intimidating for the reader.

B. Give the reader another way of entering into the article. So if you’re talking about a specific person, but people don’t know who ‘John Smith’ is, well, here’s John Smith, you can see him, and you can see what he’s doing, and now you can read the article about him, and actually have a face you can put to the name you’re reading about.”

It is important that writer’s get their own pictures to use, and not take them offline without permission. This is equivalent to submitting a paper that one didn’t write, or plagiarism.

How do I begin writing the article?

Using a combination of abundant information, quotes from interviews, and pictures, one is now ready to begin typing their in-depth feature article. The first part of a feature article is called a lede. There are many different types of ledes that can be used to start a feature article.

“Feature article ledes [draw from] all types of ledes,” Mr. Toncic said, as he made suggestions on what ledes are good for writers to use in feature articles. “You could use anything from a storytelling lede to facts or data. It’s the most creative type of writing. If you like creative writing, this is it, you can be creative in any way. However you would go about getting someone to read a story that you’ve written creatively is the same type of idea that you would use here.”

Feature articles vary in topic though, and other ledes can be used to help accomplish the goal of grabbing the reader’s attention, making them want to read more. Like Mr. Toncic said, it’s a chance for the writer to be creative. Other ledes that will help capture the reader’s attention are:

  • Creative lede
  • Storytelling lede
  • Scenic lede
  • Startling story lede
  • Analogy lede
  • Amazing Fact lede


Blood, sweat, and tears

After the lede is written, the rest of the story is put into place. All of the background research is put into an article format, interwoven with quotes and examples about the topic. The information should be as organized as possible. There should be lots of information, over six pages worth, in a good in-depth feature article. The article should fall no short of 3,000 words, and can be as long as wanted, but usually feature articles do not exceed 10,000 words.

As the article comes to a close, many writers find it difficult on how to conclude their writing. The trick is that there is no need for some big finish to the article. One way to think of it is an old newsroom joke. It reads:

Rookie: “Hey chief, how do I end this article?”

Chief: “With a period.”

After the article is written, the hard part is out of the way. The most important step, however, is still to come. The final stage is the revision process, which can make or break a feature article. Technology is pretty advanced nowadays, so computers usually spell check words as the writer types, and they also point out sentences that are not grammatically correct (as well as words that are spelled correctly but do not exactly make sense in the sentence, most often because they have more than one meeting).

The process of writing a feature article is definitely not easy or quick. As Mr. Toncic said, when asked how to write a feature article, “Over a long period of time.”

Once the article is completed, however, the sense of accomplishment one gets from finishing such a long, tedious task, is definitely worth it in comparison to the hard work, time, and effort put in to writing the feature article.

“I think that when you write a feature article you just have to focus on it,” said Mr. Toncic. “It’s very easy to get distracted and start doing other things, start working on other assignments, but when you’re writing a feature article it really involves in-depth reporting.”

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