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

articles, Content Writing

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.

Benefits of Ginseng Explained | Content Writing by Walt

articles, Content Writing, Ezines, Reporting, Science

“Ginseng is a Drugstore”

By Walt Jaschek

This story about the many benefits of the man-root called ginseng was one of a series of articles on modern breakthroughs in science I wrote for a Sigma-Aldrich ezine reaching clients in scientific research. I came away with a real appreciation for ginseng.  True fact: I take it every day myself now. 

ginseng

It has no lighted parking, no drive-through pharmacy and no giant displays of shampoo, but make no mistake: ginseng is a drugstore.

“A virtual drugstore,” clarifies Laura Murphy, PhD, Associate Professor of Physiology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale School of Medicine. Dr. Murphy’s research lab has released a series of groundbreaking findings relating ginseng to the slower growth of cancer cells.

“Ginseng has 30 different ginsenocides, supponent glycosides, polysaccharides, plus fiber and protein,” says Dr. Murphy. “There are 50 different compounds that affect the body, all through unique mechanisms. Working with ginseng is complex and challenging.”

Tan and gnarled, ginseng root has a forked shape, resembling human legs – hence its original Chinese name renshen, or “man root.” Central to Eastern medicine for 4,000 years for its many alleged healing properties, the chemically rich Panex quinquefolius is now under the microscope in labs throughout the world – notably in Dr. Murphy’s own.

But her recent news-making headlines about ginseng started years ago with another herb altogether. “In the 90s, we started doing research on the neuroendocrine effects of cannabinoids,” says Dr. Murphy, editor of a book on the subject. “We were treating animals with marijuana and looking at effects on male copulatory behavior.” (Side note: They have an inhibitory effect.)

“In putting together that cannabinoids paper, we saw that ginseng was anecdotally reported to stimulate libido. We extended the project to include it and I couldn’t believe the results. We did it two more times, same results.”

Newly intrigued by ginseng, Dr. Murphy tightened her focus on the science of the storied root. She learned Asian researchers were doing most of the recent clinical work, and most of that was about ginseng’s effectiveness in treating cancer cells. “It made me wonder if the discussed cancer-affecting qualities could be confirmed in the research lab.”

An endocrinologist, Dr. Murphy began her lab’s project with a supply of human breast cancer cells grown for researchers. When she and her students treated some of these cells with an American ginseng extract, they found this: the higher the doses, the slower the cancer cells grew. With a high enough dose, they could actually stop the cells from growing.

“It was consistent and repetitive,” says Dr. Murphy. “A very clean result.”

With similar findings came increased funding: from the university, the Department of Defense, the National Cancer Institute, the Penny Severns Fund, and the National Center for Complementary Alternative Medicine. The work expanded quickly.

“We wanted to see if we could get the same results in an animal as we got in a Petri dish, and we did. It was the first time an effect in animals has been document,” Dr. Murphy says.

Next up for her lab: studies on the relationship between ginseng and chemotherapy. “We submitted a grant proposal to the NCI that would involve us looking at ginseng’s chemo-preventive effects. Can ginsengs be used concurrent with chemotherapy drugs?”

In all her with with ginseng and cancer, Dr. Murphy cites a challenge within a challenge: molecular pathway management. “As the ginsenocides and polysaccharides act on the cancer cell, a lot of pathways are affected. We use Panorama arrays from Sigma-Aldrich. It provides a system which deals with signal transduction pathways, cell signaling and apotois. The Panorama arrays are quite specific to the pathways we’re looking for.”

As our interview was concluding, we just had to know: does Dr. Murphy herself take ginseng?

“Yes. I make a tea from the raw root,” she says, laughing. “I like the taste of it and believe in its restorative properties. I believe if you’re a healthy person, it’s good for you, and if you’re unhealthy, it will make you better.”

Ah. If only a real drugstore made it that easy!

Article by Walt Jaschek