Lessons in Long-Form: How to Craft Readable Feature Articles

Like finding $20 in your pocket, getting a bonus bag of Cheetos® from a vending machine, or learning Marvel Studios will be making Ant-Man 3, getting published and paid for it is still a thrill.

For example, I’m grateful and happy to have been published a few times this past year in #STLMADE, the online magazine celebrating lesser-known St. Louis achievers.

On assignment, I’ve written about a high-tech family firm making advanced timepieces for NASA; a unique roommate pairing service matching Millenials with seniors; and most recently, a profile of our region’s very own Horseshoe Pitchers Hall of Fame. (Who knew, right?)

The stories, also archived here, were a creative stretch for me. Yeah, I’ve written content articles in the past – who can forget my piece on the magic powers of ginseng? But I’m known mostly for funny commercials, the scripts for which can be created on the back of a bar napkin. And often are.

These feature stories are work, dammit, and make me appreciate more the people who craft them all the time.

I’ve made a few unauthorized notes about my recent experiences trying to be competent in this unfamiliar form. If you’re a writer heading into these waters, you might find a tip-bit. (That’s a tidbit that’s also a tip.)

1. Know what to leave out.

Michelangelo is often credited with saying, in response to questions about his sculpting process, “You take a piece of marble and chip away everything that doesn’t look like David.” Oh. Okay. Got it. Well, that’s the article, folks! Thanks for reading.

But seriously, to help know what to leave out:

2. Become one with your transcripts.

 “Transcripts” are in the news lately. They’re a thing, all right. The pubs for which I write are quick to provide transcribed text of recorded interviews. One such document recently came back at 16 single-spaced pages of 10-point type: about 12,000 words. The final story was to be 600 words, and of those, just half quotes. This means whittling the text down to 5% of itself. It’s like turning 50 Shades of Grey into one-half shade of grey. But:

3. Hang in there.

Some quotes shine on first scan. Just as often, something at the top of page 3 will connect with something at the bottom of page 15. So you have to decipher every word, no matter how inaccurately transcribed. (“Did he say ‘non-profit or ‘for profit?’ It says here, ‘Jimmy Buffet.’”) It’s a slog, but it’s necessary, so you’ll like it, saying, “Thank you, master, may I have another?”

4. Compress “The Origin Story.”

It’s human nature: everybody wants to tell their launch journey, i.e. “How We Got Here Through the Years.” But it’s good to cut these stories down to a critical mass, and certainly don’t lead with them. Though readers might like a little backstory, they really wanna know, “What’s in it for me now?” It’s like asking a friend if Macy’s still sells carpets, and the person answers by explaining in great detail how it used to be called Famous-Barr.

5. Learn to interrupt.

Seriously. Recently I was the off-camera interviewer in a big video shoot. Seldom have I had conversations with subjects as multiple cameras recorded and onlookers… looked on. In this case, I tossed the subject an opening softball. The person’s breathless answer lasted, according to a producer who timed it, almost 20 minutes. In a post-production meeting, I said, “I need to learn to interrupt.” My collaborators laughed, but it’s true: I need to learn to interrupt.

6. Have a back-up audio source.

Wonky but important tech tip: when you don’t have A/V support, you are your own production company. So have at least two devices on which to record. Before my most recent interview, I scored the Olympus VN-541PC Digital Voice Recorder. (Recommended.) Glad I did, because, as usual, the Voice Memos app on iPhone stopped recording mid-interview due to incoming calls. You’d think I’d go to Settings and fix this. Not sure I know how. Hence: two sources. Heck, make it three.

7. Check your politics at the door.

Hard but necessary, not just for interviews, but any kind of business interaction, as I’m sure all can relate. (How any person who works in a real office handles this these days is beyond me.) I bite my tongue continually, because I know no minds will be changed, or even budged, in casual conversation. But it creeps in. When a subject for a story missed his interview appointment, his assistant scrambled to contact him. “Not an emergency,” I said. “It’s not like this’ll be in tomorrow’s New York Times.

“Good,” the assistant said with a wry smile. “Because then we couldn’t talk to you.”

It was a joke. I think. I smiled back. But I also think, “You want exposure for your endeavor, but wouldn’t talk to the freakin’ New York Times?

We live in amazing times.

8. Choose your assignments wisely.

Easier said than done: you gotta make a living. For decades, in gratitude for opportunities, I clung to the axiom, “There are no boring subjects, only boring writers.” I’ve reconsidered. There are boring subjects. For example: I recently scrolled past a post linking to a published article, and for a half-second, thought, “I’d never read that.” Then I realized I wrote it.

I vow to be more careful, and to admit to editors, “I’m not right for this topic; it holds no interest for me.” I think they would appreciate that. Editors can’t read minds. They want a good fit. It’s another way you can:

9. Love your editors.

Bless them for their behind-the-scenes, often uncredited prep and leadership. I obey direction and appreciate sharp edits; the stories are always better for it. (This article could have used one!) But I also believe you should:

10. Love your readers.

So much of what I’m trying to do is simply keeping eyes moving down the page. Sometimes in my work I’m accused of being “funny” or “jokey” (or – ugh – “cute”,) but honest to God, I’m just trying to be interesting. That’s it. Interesting is the bar, and it will continue to be my mantra plodding forward. And in that regard:

If I got your eyes down this far down the page, I’m grateful.

Wait! Whaddaya mean, “I scrolled to get here?”

[Sigh.]

You can’t blame a guy for typing.

Walt Jaschek is available to write for your publication. Maybe. Let’s talk.

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