Monday, July 26, 2010

Writing features #2: A simple explanation

In honour of the fact that I am sitting here with very little inspiration, save my newly cut hair (which looked a bit Leather Tuscadero whilst wet, but has dried much less Rock Chick) and the fact that I had a successful brow maintenance moment today (read about less successful moments here), I thought I might continue my very occasional series about writing features. Last time I tried this, I got bogged down in armpits, but hopefully things will fly a little straighter tonight.

I was speaking to a friend a couple of weeks ago about a complicated story she was trying to write. It involved genetics and, despite my intense knowledge of the genetics of red hair, I wasn't much use to her. So I asked her who'd she'd spoken to. Her answer was no-one. She was trying to work her away through Rocket Science-level research papers so that she'd know what questions to ask an expert once she got around to interviewing him or her.

Um, no. My theory when writing features about subjects about which I know nothing (which happens more often than you might imagine - I know, surprising...) is that readers want to know what you want to know. Chances are, they know nothing about genetics/pruning roses/the secrets of happiness either. What interests you about a subject will probably interest them. And you/they need it explained in words of one syllable.

The secret to this equation is that experts don't expect you to know anything. Well, they don't expect me to know anything once I tell them that I know nothing. It gives me permission to ask the dumbest questions I can think of because, and this is the key, I need to know this stuff on a very elementary level so that I can write it into an entertaining story.

With features writing, you're not just trying to show off your gargantuan knowledge of the subject at hand, you're trying to share it with a reader in such a way that they'll get right to the end of the story with you. If they don't get it, they won't get past the first paragraph one. If they don't like it, they won't get past the first sentence.

Quotes are what keeps a story lively. Dialogue, conversation, call it what you like. Back it up with all the research in the world, but make sure you've got your simple explanation front and centre.

And now, I'm going back to admiring my new eyebrows.

*PS: I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the experts in every field that I've interviewed over the years. Thank you for your patience. Thank you for your understanding. Thank you for not laughing.


  1. I LOVE you Al. You saved me that day and have made it all so much easier for me. Thank you. xxxxx

  2. You are awesome, you know that?

    Dumb question though- when you want to interview someone for a freelance article (do you do that?) how do you approach them? Is there some kind of etiquette to it? Do you pay them (*gasp* never speak of religion or money Lori). Sorry, just curious and picking your brain ;)

  3. Thanks for a really interesting post...I had to write an article on "Private Banking" when I was in first year uni and I struggled with most of what you have written about here....How I wish I had your advice back then!

  4. Early in my freelance career I used to think using quotes was "cheating" and I should explain everything myself... until a kindly editor set me straight and told me that essentialy the less that was heard from me, the better. A rule to live by. Nice piece!

  5. Thanks for stopping by my site! Will follow you. I like your voice so far!

  6. Thanks for the timely (for me, anyway) reminder!!

  7. So THAT'S why you're such a fantastic features writer - you're a complete natural at embarrassing yourself... In fact, a very wise woman once told me (okay, so it was Mum) that the more you embarrass yourself in life, the more you get out of it (this was after I baulked at doing debating in Year 8 due to its serious nerd factor). And so far, she has been right.

  8. PS - your post is a further example of how generous bloggers are with sharing their wealth of expertise. It's marvellous.

  9. Great piece,thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience! You have a wonderful voice and a great flair for self-deprecation. Your blog is one of my daily reads, keep up the great work :)

  10. Love your work Al. Always great to stop by the Pink Fibro.

    Totally hear you. Even though I specialise in health & beauty writing (and am a qualified natural therapist) I more than likely have no expertise in the subject I am writing about (although I'm pretty good at convincing people I do). I therefore always play the part of the storyteller, and have the experts as my characters. I've even written articles on places I've never been to, although by the end of the story I probably know more about it that the locals :)

  11. I expect you to grow wings soon.

    You're ace. Pure and simple.

    And very very clever.


  12. This is also where I've been going wrong I suspect. One of my friends writes for a trade magazine on security systems in the middle east. I often say to her - how on earth can you think of anything to ask/write? But she does. Perhaps she thinks of the most embarrassing questions. The features I usually write are on a)interior design b) parenting and c) education. I only know anything about one of those subjects. Not saying which.
    I've never forgotten the armpits.

  13. Ooh, this was really interesting. I'm always conscious of making myself sound like a complete dimwit when I ask obvious questions, but it's good to know that my dimwittage is finally going to work to my advantage!

  14. I love your 'feature writer series'. I think there should be more!

    My 17 year old self would disagree with this post. Apparently Australian's don't like asking questions? What would she know?


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