A good feature plan does two things. For the journalist, it makes writing the feature a simple task. Follow the plan and the feature will write itself. For the reader, the feature will be more readable.
All the relevant pieces of information will be in a logical sequence and each will be linked to the next seamlessly.
Features have to be planned in a different way to news stories. In news, the plan involves identifying the facts and ranking them in order of importance.
The most important fact comes first, the next most important fact second, and so on. That is because news often has to be cut at short notice and with little time. The subs can then simply cut the least important fact from the bottom of the story.
A new order
In a feature, the facts are not necessarily listed in order of importance. The subs should have more time to make any cuts and should be able to find the least important fact by reading the piece for themselves.
Features serve more than one purpose. They can inform in the same way as a news story but they should do more. They may provoke, entertain, amuse and even annoy. Decide what your feature is going to do and how it will do that before you start.
- Make sure you know what you want to say.
- Choose one idea to be developed in the feature.
- Know your deadline and length.
- Know you reader, your publication and its house style.
- Research it well.
- Think about colour and quotes.
- Decide your style and remember, you have much more freedom than in news.
- Keep it simple and balanced.
- Overdo it or over-write.
- Go mad with adjectives and adverbs. Question whether each one is (really) necessary.
- Be late or write to the wrong length.
Decide your angle. You know the subject of your feature but what angle are you going to take? The angle must then be the theme of your plan.
A feature on the effects of unemployment on health could be a look at the latest statistics published by the government. A more interesting angle would be to look at the link through the eyes of one person or one family and use the new statistics as further evidence.
If you are writing a feature about computers, you could quantify the information capacity of new machines in terms of bits and bytes. But you could quantify the information capacity in terms of how many copies of the bible it can store in its memory. Which would you find more interesting?
Everybody else might be writing that the Conservative Party is on its last legs, but you might want to argue a different point of view. Decide your angle and stick with it.
This is the most important part of your feature. If the intro is dull or unconvincing, people will not read the rest of the feature. They may never discover your flowing purple prose. There are several types of intro. You must choose the one most appropriate to your feature and your angle (see write an intro).
After the intro, what comes next? List the handful of major subjects your feature is going to cover and put them in order. That order may be chronological. It may be in order of importance. It may even be a case of working backwards from an intro that is your conclusion. It is vital that the outline is logical and does not jump about.
Around this outline, you need to fill in the information that is relevant to each point in the feature. The documentation is the evidence for everything the feature says. Documentation can be facts and figures, statistics, quotes from interviews, references to other books or sources, and even your own observations, providing they are factual rather than subjective.
When planning the feature, you have to note which piece of documentation goes where? If you’ve done your research well, you will probably have some documentation left over at the end.
Back up the documentation with personal experiences. The most readable features are those that involve people. Handled well, other peoples’ experiences make compulsive reading. Every feature can be livened up with personal experiences.
There may be only 100 people with a particular illness and you may have all the documentation you need from medical books, but the experience of a sufferer will make the piece more interesting.
A computer company can tell you what a machine is supposed to do but only a user can tell you if it can do all that is claimed and how easy it is to use. The experiences need to be fitted in around the documentation.
Experiences can confirm or contradict your documentation but they must sit comfortably alongside them.
How do you link the different pieces of evidence together within each section and how do those sections then flow together? A link might be one piece of documentation or an experience. It might be a phrase. It might be a reference to your angle.
The continuity links are your attempts to make the feature flow.
Think about changing the pace of the feature. Maybe get angry for a few paragraphs by using a series of short, punchy sentences or a repeated phrase, and then calm down. Or have a joke and then be serious. Variety keeps the reader interested.
People tend to call the ending the conclusion. But a feature doesn’t have to end with a conclusion – the conclusion could be at the beginning.
Unlike a news story, a feature does have to end.
The reader must be clear the feature has ended and it is not just that you have run out of space or of things to say. The ending can be a conclusion. It can be a summary. It can be a striking final statement or a quotation from one of your sources.
It may even be a statement that there is more to come. If you are previewing a legal case, once the case is over there will be more information available.
But if the reader only knows your feature has ended because there is a little solid black square put at the end by the subs, then you have failed.
They say a picture paints a thousand words. This is one old adage that remains true. Always think of picture ideas, or maps, or graphs, or cartoons, or other illustrations. These will make your feature look good and make the reader interested.