Freelance Writing Tips for Your Best Feature Articles
When writing feature articles for a newspaper, magazine or a website, you will find that submissions go more smoothly when a few rules are followed.
Some of these guidelines don't even involve touching the keyboard. Most of them are related to your interaction with the people you interview. If your article is focused on a person, a group or a business you may be doing a lot of face to face conversation to gather your information.
They Will Want a Preview
One problem you might encounter when using interview sources for your story is having your interviewees wanting to preview or "approve" your story before it is submitted for publication. This is a bad idea for several reasons, and is considered to be unprofessional.
Legally giving a preview waives your rights against prior restraint, and sets a legal precedent which could compromise anything you have written before it is published.
Prior restraint is a part of first amendment law which could prohibit publication. Presumably, an individual or a government agency could edit or delete your words if you have previously given up your rights.
A Sticky Situation
Even more likely is that an interviewee may want to "clean up" or rephrase their quotes to the point that the language sounds stilted and unnatural (everyone's an editor).
Getting "approval" from your source gives the appearance of writing FOR that source, rather than being objective and neutral.
Going back and forth with your subject causes delays. Your editor has given you a deadline because the editor has a deadline. You story may be held or killed if the deadline is missed.
If an interviewee is concerned about his quotes, you might offer to read them back over the telephone but don't give them something in writing to edit.
If you have doubts, yourself, about something you have written, it's always a good idea to check back with the source to confirm technical or sensitive details. Again, this can be done verbally.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
When writing for newspapers, magazines and online sites:
- Do your own pre-edits.
- Use spell check.
- Follow grammar rules.
- Stay objective. Don't insert yourself or your personal opinions.
- Follow the AP Stylebook, or the guide used the publication.
- Many editors will to help you improve, but sloppiness will get your articles rejected fast.
- Names are important. Double check the spelling of all names. Ask each person you interview how their name is spelled even if it seems common. The name you think is "Sue", could be spelled Sioux or even Su. (I have actually met both of these people in person.)
- If you are referencing the name of a celebrity, politician, band, organization, song, etc., check multiple internet sources. People hate it when you get their names wrong . . . and it happens way too often.
- Check your facts and don't invent tales. If you invent backstory details, rearrange factual elements or use your own assumptions (especially about real live people) they will come back to bite you. Not the people, the falsehoods.
- Remain neutral and objective. If you are taking on the role of reporter, and interviewing a local official, for example, it is not appropriate to share your own views either in person or in writing. You are reporting their opinions and information. Even if they ask for your thoughts on their position, you should politely turn them down.
- The " five W's", (Who, What, When ,Where, Why,) should all be in your article, no matter what kind of story you are writing.
- Sometimes there also should be a "How."Most editors look for a "nut-graf" or a summary paragraph that concisely tells what the story is about. This doesn't have to be the lead of your story, unless it is a short news piece, but it should be somewhere near the beginning. In long stories it might be a little further down.
Use Multiple Sources
LOne source is not enough for a credible article. Almost every feature article or news-related story needs at least two sources, and preferably three, to give a well-rounded view of a subject.
Background information sources should be identified as coming from a particular documented source, either a person, organization, publication or website.
Using anonymous sources is usually not allowed. If such information is used the source identity must be disclosed to and approved by a top editor.
If the person you are interviewing is making some sort of an allegation or accusation, an opportunity for response must be given to the other side.
Make sure you understand libel and slander laws.
Create Opportunities by Knowing the Rules
Editors will want to see some samples of your work and will want you to understand the basic rules of grammar and objectivity. If your article samples convince them that your writing is good, informative, interesting and has integrity, you will have a place to sell your writing on a regular basis.
Once you have the attention of an editor who approves of your style and skills you can often run a story idea past them to gauge their interest in a particular person or subject you wish to write about.
After establishing this relationship and getting pre-approal, you can approach people who are the subject of your article or people who know about a certain topic by telling them that the editor of (whatever publication) is interested in their story. It will open doors to writing opportunities all around you.
Temptations Will Materialize
Finally, don't accept gifts.
The winemaker will want to give you a bottle if you write about his vineyard. The B&B owner will offer a free night's stay if you write about her lovely inn. This has happened to me and I'll have to admit I did have a moment of hesitation before declining.
People will often think that they should offer, tickets, meals and merchandise in appreciation for the attention you are bringing to them and their business.
Sometimes it can be hard to turn these down, but you will have to learn to do it graciously and let them know that you appreciate the thought. Tell them that, as much as you would like to accept their offer, your employer won't allow you to do so.
If you feel you need to eat a meal at a restaurant to give a fair review, pay for it yourself. You might seek reimbursement from the publication, especially if you have made prior arrangements and indicated to the editor that there could be expenses involved in completing your article.
No one should be able to say that your article showed someone in a good light only because you got some kind of kickback. Don't make yourself feel obligated to any source. Don't sell your integrity and your reputation.
Did you learn anything new from this article?
I learned most of this while freelancing for Sierra Gateway Neighbors and Sierra Gateway Living (Weeklies of the Fresno Bee) during a couple of years when Ruth Hill was Managing Editor. She was always helpful and encouraging, pushing me to be better. She later became a Copy Desk chief at The New York Times. Thanks, Ruth. I learned most of this from you.
© 2010 Rochelle Frank