Tie your editor down: Make sure you know exactly what your editor wants and expects. Don’t stand for: ‘You know what we want.’Get a concrete idea of the angle they are after. Relationships can fray and features fall apart because the story was not communicated properly from the outset.
Don’t just listen: Interviews are as much about what somebody didn’t say as what they did. You are trying to elicit secrets which most people won’t volunteer readily. Like a barrister in court, if you’ve researched your story enough you should know what somebody isn’t saying.
Sometimes, I let the tape recorder run, and don’t listen to what the person is saying at all. I look at body language, mannerisms, the way someone sits, what words they emphasise, how they dress, how they decorate their house. This often gives a better insight into someone than quotes.
Find a pattern: With investigative features, establish a pattern to vindicate your suspicions. Approach a story like a detective – prove motive and means, and make sure the main planks of your piece are corroborated by three or four independent sources. Generally, there is one main contact who will give you your story. Your job is to ascertain that what they say is true and to add supporting details.
Make that extra call: It sounds simplistic, but often that last call or email can lead to your whole story. Push hard on the research – this makes the writing easier.
Plan, plan, plan: The secret to a good feature, in fact good writing, is saying things in the right order. Before you start writing, plan your feature out and make sure you know when you are going to introduce characters, what the rubric of your story is, what the argument to drive the feature forward is and what conclusions you are going to draw. The more you lay it all out at this stage, the easier it will be to write. A feature is not just a wham-bam intro and then a plod to the end – that’s called a news story. As a feature writer your need to pace yourself like a runner to tease the story out and deliver a knock-out blow at the end.
Build empathy: You want your readers to feel something visceral for your characters. Establish them early in the story and offer glimpses into why your readers should empathise with their plight or problem.
The intro: Never write the intro last – that’s a counsel of despair. Try to use as much fine detail as you can to either put the reader inside your experience or the lives of the characters you are writing about. Detail is the key in making your writing snap. Put the reader inside the story from the first line. Don’t let them just spectate – make them live and feel the story.
Know your worth: Some magazine editors will have you believe there are scores of writers out there that they can use and that you are lucky to be writing for them. That’s a lie. Very few writers make it as freelance feature writers and those who do are very good – it’s a tough business and you have to be skilled and business-oriented to survive. You hold all the cards. Magazines depend on freelances to survive – without them they would fold. You are providing ideas, which leads to photographs and copy – the whole reason people buy the magazine in the first place – against which they sell advertising. The magazine is lucky to have a skilled writer such as yourself. They depend on you, rather than the other way around.
Jonathan Green is the Press Gazette Magazine Journalism Awards feature writer of the year. www.jonathan-green.com