Feature writing

Feature stories refer to longer articles that explore stories in greater depth than those reported as breaking news. Successful examples of this type of story often include a strong human element to draw readers' interest and they develop at a much slower pace than breaking news.

Learn the basics of feature writing through the five lessons included in this course. 

Structuring a feature article
Interview techniques
Basic investigative journalism
Ethics of feature writing
Putting the 'story' together

Structuring a feature article

Begin your feature article with a lead, which gives a particular focus on the subject of your story. The feature lead, which can run from two to three paragraphs, can be a short narrative, an anecdote, or a descriptive lead which draws the readers’ attention to your subject. The feature lead also immediately brings the reader to the ‘nut graf,’ a statement or two giving the reader an idea of what the entire story is all about. The ‘nut graf’ also serves as the ‘hook’ to the story and lends perspective to it. 

Following the ‘nut graf,’ is the body of the story, where you begin to tell the narrative in a logical order. Your feature usually ends with how you started, or with a memorable quotation which ties the different strands together.

You may start your feature story on the Ogiek activist attack by describing the Ngongogeri village at 2:30 in the morning when everyone was asleep and the stillness was broken by shouts. You may do this through the point of view either of the victim or a neighbour.

Or, you may also start it with a quote from the victim himself.  What was he doing when the men broke into his house? Get the most striking part of what he said and put it in the lead.

If you happen to talk to an elderly woman who brought the man to the hospital, you can start with an anecdote beginning how she heard a commotion and a cry for help, and found the activist James Rana sprawled on the floor with machete wounds.

Whichever of the three feature leads you happened to choose, make sure you give it a single focus that immediately leads to the nut graf, a statement or two that tells the reader what your story is all about. 

If your story is about the targeting of activists fighting for Ogiek land rights, your nut graf situates this attack in context to previous attacks on Ogiek activists. How many attacks had taken place and for how long, how many months or years? Does existing evidence show that Ogiek activists were specially targeted?

Remember, the nut graf brings your readers to the bigger picture of your story. Your nut graf may run like this:

‘Rana is the fourth Ogiek activist attacked in Ngongogeri village in two months.  Last month, another activist was assaulted on the streets. Groups fighting for land rights call these attacks an "attempt to silence Ogiek people fighting for their land".’

With your nut graf written, you can now proceed to the body of your story. Substantiate the points you made in your nut graf by presenting the arguments in the body of your story. This is where you use quotes, statistics and counter-arguments to back up what you have previously written in your nut graf. Arrange your facts in a logical order, or according to how the arguments develop.

You may wrap up your story by going back to your opening lines, tying your pieces together. If you started your story by describing the shouts that broke the stillness of the Ngongogeri village in the dawn of the attack, you might want to end by going back to this description, adding that with the attacks still unsolved, sleep may not yet come easy for most of the Ogiek villages fighting for land rights. 

Interview techniques

Do background research and familiarize yourself with the subject before setting up the interview. Knowing how the attack against Ogiek activists began and the provisions in the new constitution that guarantee indigenous people’s rights in Kenya will make it easier for you to understand and put in context what your source will probably say in the course of the interview. This will avoid unnecessary interruptions as he recounts his story. Make sure to keep your interviewee at ease throughout the interview. It is possible that the Ogiek activist who just survived an attack may still be suffering from trauma and might be suspicious talking to reporters he does not know. Establish rapport first, before you proceed on to your questions. You need to win his trust first before he can answer your questions and divulge sensitive information that he knows. Touch on the easy subjects first before moving on to the more difficult ones.

Listen carefully to what your source is saying. Avoid interruptions except when you deem it extremely important, but ask questions when you do not understand.

Encourage people to speak what is on their minds, even to the extent of abandoning your prepared list of questions. Avoid loaded questions.

Basic investigative journalism

Investigative journalism refers to pieces of journalism that provoke people to action, correct an injustice, or right a wrongdoing by exposing facts that not known to the public. It demands long hours of digging, tenacious research and hard work.

After you have identified the subject of your investigation, define the problem, form a hypothesis how or why it happened, plan your approach and proceed to prove or disprove your story.

Start your investigation working from the outside in, which means first questioning secondary sources to identify the primary documents you will need as you inch closer to your subject. Learn how to use public records to build up your case. Follow up relevant paper trails and contacts you may come across. Most investigative journalists complete the paper trail first before interviewing the people in their story. 

Triangulate by checking the facts told to you by a source with two or more other sources, to find out if they are saying the same thing. Only when you have come full circle and you have proven everything in your story, do you finally interview the subject of your investigation.

Going back to the Ogiek activist story, you can start your investigative piece by asking who could have made the attack? Are the claims by activists that they are being targeted based on verifiable facts? You can check this out by digging into the previous stories written about the Ogiek attacks, making your own inquiries.

Based on what you have found, form your own theory of what took place. If you feel there is enough evidence to believe that they are really being targeted, and that those backing the attacks are powerful people out to grab Ogieks’ land, you may have a subject of an investigative piece to prove or disprove. 

Your hypothesis will run like this: Powerful people are behind the attacks of Ogiek activists fighting for land rights. Proceed by building up your case, working from the outside going in until you are ready to try and interview the subject/s who you believe committed the crime. If your subject/s agree to an interview then present them with your evidence and ask them to respond. 


Reference (for Basic Investigative Reporting):

Cribb, R., D. Jobb, D. McKie, F. Vallance Jones. (2006).  Chapter 2: The Nuts and Bolts of Investigations, 'Digging Deeper: A Canadian Reporter's Research Guide' (Oxford University Press)

Ethics of feature writing

Except in extreme cases when public lives are at stake, never lie, steal or deceive your sources. Make sure your subject knows you are interviewing them for publication and that any disclosure that they make could be made public.

Respect off-the-record comments and anonymous disclosures. Be sensitive in handling your subject, especially when it involves minors or women victims of sexual abuse, or suspected criminals who are not yet tried in court. Think of the impact that publishing the story might bring to your subject’s safety and security.

The Ogiek activist might have been traumatized by the incident, so it pays to be extra sensitive in asking your questions. You do not have to include information that might compromise your subject’s safety.    

Putting the 'story' together

In writing long investigative pieces, it pays to use a working outline to allow you to focus on what is important to your story. To avoid getting overwhelmed, treat each section of the outline as a story in itself and write them separately. Only after all the sections have been written, start arranging them to create a logical narrative. This way, it is easier to piece the whole story together and make it understandable to your reader.