If you are writing an article or producing some video content and it isn’t news, chances are you are writing a feature. The problem is that there is no such thing as ‘a feature’. Instead, there are feature formats; predefined styles of writing that follow a consistent style.
The names given to the common feature formats vary from person to person, but the overriding styles remain the same. Understanding these common feature formats is crucial to producing good articles and pitching content ideas to publishers.
This post is designed to introduce you to the common feature formats with the hope that it will help you to:
- Structure and write articles with a consistent format throughout
- Plan content based on feature formats
- Pitch your work to publishers more effectively
- Avoid mixing feature formats and ending up with a mess
Before I begin I must make a quick nod to journalist Chris Horrie who taught me everything I know about journalism and wrote up in-depth notes on feature writing on the University of Winchester website.
This is an interview that is written in the interviewee’s voice. This format is for the interviewee to express their personal experience from a position that is of interest to your audience. Confessional interviews are a firm favourite of popular women’s magazines, where the interviewee ‘confesses’ to their triumph over tragedy.
This type of format typically involves the writer carrying out an in-depth interview with a person of interest. The interview notes are then written up in the voice of the interviewee. This gives the impression that the interviewee is writing up their experience from their own, unique perspective.
Things to avoid: This format is all about the interviewee, so don’t be tempted to add in your own voice or opinion.
Content idea: My battle with a Google Penalty.
Unlike a confessional interview, a feature interview features the writer as the ‘star’ of the piece. You can think of the Jonathan Ross Show (or Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon if you’re in the US) as one big feature interview; it isn’t about the person being interviewed but about how funny and engaging the host is.
Feature interviews are great for building and maintaining your profile in an industry. It can show that you have friends in high places and can be used to document your own learnings about industry news with other people of importance.
Things to avoid: Don’t confuse or mix this format with profiles (we’ll cover these in a moment). Profiles are objective, unbiased presentations of a person or entity. Feature interviews can be creative.
Content idea: Daniel Bianchini (interviewer) and Paul Madden (interviewee) sit down for a coffee and chat about link building in 2014.
There are two questions that a consumer review needs to answer:
- What is it?
- Is it any good?
To produce a consumer review piece of any quality you should aim to review all of the options available and provide a genuinely useful insight into the product or service you are reviewing. Aim to send the reader away with some information that will make their choice easier.
Things to avoid: Try not to review only your favourite product or service and offer something more than simply ‘I really like this’.
Content idea: Linkdex vs. the other campaign software packages.
Comment / Analysis
The best place to find an example of a comment / analysis piece is in the editor’s column of any newspaper. A good comment or analysis piece should be centred around a topic that is current and of interest to your audience. It can be written in the voice of the writer or in the voice of the organisation / publication.
Comment and analysis doesn’t just need to come in written form; it can also be a creative piece of content. The political satire cartoons in broadsheet newspapers can be classed as comment features.
Things to avoid: Try not to start a comment or analysis column and then give up after a few days or weeks. This feature format works best when you publish at the same time on a regular basis, so that your audience learns to rely on your point of view.
Content idea: White.net’s monthly digital marketing point of view.
A news feature is essentially the news behind the news. News features are usually longer, more in-depth articles compared to standard news stories. A typical news feature would be written as a follow up piece to a breaking news story that offers more detail on a specific angle (or set of angles).
Examples of news features can be seen in all national newspapers and many magazines. The key thing to look out for is their link to a recently published piece of news. Another hallmark of the news feature format is its heavy use of graphics and image-led content to help tell the story.
Things to avoid: Try not to use images and graphics for the sake of it; any use of images or graphics should add to the news feature and the story being told.
Content idea: Google’s latest algorithm update and where it fits into the timeline (there is a strong case for use of graphics and/or video here!)
Perhaps the best way to describe a profile is as a ‘pen portrait’; an article that tells the story of a person or organisation. It is crucial that a well-written profile focusses on who the person is and how they got to be where they are; there is no need for a profile to cover what the person thinks, this is not an interview!
Chris Horrie explains this better than I can:
DO NOT confuse with either “confessional” or “feature interview”. Don’t mix styles (you will end up with a dog’s dinner)
Your aim when writing a profile should be to tell the story of a person’s life as it is. Research the facts, plan the piece and explain who the person is and how they became who they are today. Profiles work best when they are about someone who the audience is interested in, particularly if your audience aspires to become like that person. Profiles are usually written anonymously; who the writer is isn’t important here!
Things to avoid: Try not to introduce opinion and unnecessary information, keep the profile clear and based on facts.
Content idea: From Rand Fishkin to Mr Moz!
The easiest way to describe an investigative piece is as a news story that the writer has initiated. In the world of journalism a writer will typically follow all of the goings on within their ‘beat’; that could be going to court, talking to police or monitoring the news wires. In investigative journalism the writer goes out and sources the information required to uncover a new story.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this was in 2009 when Daily Telegraph journalist Holly Watt received a disk containing the expenses claims of hundreds of MPs. Tasked with deciding whether there was a news story within, Watt went about entering each of the claims into a spreadsheet. It wasn’t until she noticed that the spreadsheet’s auto-fill feature was attempting to complete what she was typing that Watt realised she had already entered the address of a house further up in the document; the address had already been the subject of a previous claim and was being claimed for twice.
This simple piece of investigation led to the publication of one of the most controversial and well-reported news stories of the past decade. The key to the story was the investigative work that went in beforehand – the writer had uncovered a new story rather than writing about something that had already been reported.
Things to avoid: The only thing I can recommend is that you avoid ignoring investigative writing and reporting. Investigative writing requires true hard work but, if done correctly, can be the making of you!
Content idea: It’s up to you to go and find the idea, I can’t just give these things away!
My favourite type of feature article; observational writing is all about painting a picture of what you are experiencing using words. In terms of style it is all about ‘observing’ what you see and putting this into words. A good observational piece should tell the reader what you see, hear, smell, taste and feel, to paint a picture of where you are and what you are experiencing.
Observational writing should focus on what you are observing (as the name suggests) and not so much on analysing what is happening – unless this is crucial to building the overall atmosphere. An observational article is as close as journalism comes to being like a piece of artistically creative work.
Things to avoid: Try not to stray too far from the realms of observation; tell your story through what you experience rather than through what you expect or analyse.
Content idea: What is a night out at BrightonSEO really like?
The final feature format is the response piece. This is the classic ‘agony aunt’ style of content that responds directly to a question or comment submitted by someone else. The response format can also cater for ‘how-to’ pieces, advice articles, games and reader response. This article, in-fact, could be considered a response piece.
The hallmark of a good response piece is that it responds to a demand and speaks directly to the audience it is targeting. In this example, the article I am writing now is planned to address a perceived demand for expert advice on producing content. I am addressing this by presenting a ‘how-to’ / advice piece about feature formats. Note that I am addressing the reader and writing in my own voice.
Things to avoid: Try not to write any old rubbish; attempt to at least understand demand and encourage feedback and questions when producing this type of article.
Content idea: This article was my idea!
Although this list is certainly not definitive and is open to interpretation, these feature formats offer writers a good introduction to thinking about content in a strategic and logical way. Following feature format conventions is a crucial part of maintaining quality in your writing, as well as allowing you a structured way of planning your ideas and selling them to your clients / boss / editor.
I welcome any comments or questions!
Image credit: Pete O’Shea on Flickr