Writers: William E. Blundell’s got our number.
In his book The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, Blundell describes
me a typical blocked writer. Mel Bookstein sits at his messy desk littered with “…documents that now seem irrelevant, notes on uninformative interviews, jottings on half-formed thoughts.”
“He can’t say what this snowdrift of material adds up to, if it adds up to anything. Having read through it, he’s only sure that too much is missing. Lacking a fixed story theme, he can’t begin to write because he doesn’t know where to start,” writes Blundell.
Yes, oh yes.
The Art and Craft of Feature Writing is based on a brown bag guide that Blundell, formerly an editor at The Wall Street Journal, wrote for the acclaimed paper’s award-winning feature writers.
If you’re not a reporter or journalist, you may wonder about the book’s relevance to you.
Rest assured. Copywriters, bloggers and writers of all stripes will love—and benefit from—Blundell’s tough love. You’ll want to apply this book’s clarifying, narrative-strengthening, time-saving methodologies to just about everything you write:
- Corporate or company newsletters
- Executive profiles
- Blog posts
- Website content
- Any writing with narrative—and on closer look, isn’t that most of your copy?
Blundell demystifies non-fiction storytelling and makes the writing process less agonizing.
Blundell’s 4-stage narrative magic bullet
If you’re like me, story structure is an accident. After lots of false starts and long, sweaty labor, you finally give birth to a bloody first draft. But unlike birthing a real baby, your labor isn’t over: You’re in for rewrite after rewrite.
Blundell provides narrative triage with his “Law of Progressive Reader Involvement”:
Stage one: Tease me, you devil. The hook, an intriguing lede: “Give me a reason for going on with your story instead of doing something else.”
Stage two: Tell me what you’re up to. Okay, cut to the chase: What’s your story about? The nut graf or summary.
Stage three: Oh, yeah? Let’s see your evidence. I’ll stick with you—but you’d better make it interesting.
Stage four: I’ll buy it, help me remember it. Kicker conclusion.
That easy? No, that hard. But don’t worry. Blundell guides you. And he knows when to hold your hand and when to kick your butt.
10 takeaways from The Art and Craft of Feature Writing
I won’t try to synopsize this book’s detailed analysis, advice and many illustrative examples. You’ll have to read it yourself to get context for the following narrative-building gems:
- Plan. Now. Guess what? Incisive thinking and planning come before research and interviews. I know: You’re a creative, free-flowing writer who can’t be pinned down too early in your process. News flash: Planning unleashes creativity, helps ideas flow and stimulates the moseying, myelin-sheathed fibers of your right brain.
- Write a theme statement. The elevator speech of feature writing: Create a simple phrase that encapsulates your story’s theme. Draft it early in your work process. The theme shouldn’t include details or digressions, but rather crystallize the “main action currents” of the story. You may spend an inordinate amount of time on this little statement, but your efforts will pay off big time down the line.
- Categorize raw material in chunks around key aspects of your story. Blundell identifies six crucial perspectives you need to consider with each story. Using his (rather complex) indexing system, you weigh your research and interview elements against your theme statement. If the elements measure up, you dump them into one of the six categories that reflect aspects of your story. I experimented with Blundell’s system. Even though I bungled it three-quarters of the way through, the indexing spared me hours—if not days—of blind redrafting and rewriting on a recent 2,000-word feature.
- Don’t outline. Right brain, outline-hating writers will thrill to know Blundell eschews outlines. When you use #3, his method to chunk raw material (above), you’ll see the tremendous structuring flexibility and fluidity it allows.
- Your story is a river. Once you read this brilliant analogy, you’ll make it your first-draft mantra. Here’s the premise: Your story is a rapid river dotted with dams and lakes; the river is your narrative and the dams and lakes are your observations, explanations and digressions. Your reader doesn’t mind passing through the lakes—if the scenery proves interesting. But don’t leave him floating for long. Hustle him over placid pools and back to the “white water” of your through line.
- Rely on action to move your story. If your story is a river, action directs its currents. Above all, readers like action and forward movement. Blundell suggests you use this principal as a policeman to force yourself to slash repetitive material and avoid sprawl.
- Keep related material together when drafting. While not a hard and fast rule, keeping your related indexed material togther helps readers follow your story and avoid confusion. Bonus: This technique also gives you many spontaneous structure options.
- Try to isolate material from one source in one place. To strengthen and clarify your story and avoid over quoting—the “blight” of feature writing, according to Blundell—gather together all linked quotes, events and actions. Again, not a hard and fast rule—certainly not with profiles.
- Let what you have already written suggest what you write next. The key to smooth transitions and engaging through line.
- Get a grip on quotes. Brundell’s advice on quotes alone is worth the $14.95 price of this book. He comes down hard on writers (like me) who clutter stories with too many people and quotes. “A good writer is merciless in deciding who gets into his piece,” writes Blundell. He considers banal quotes “crutches” that “state the obvious for the writer too timid to do so himself.” Blundell excoriates writers (like me) who use quotes “to assure the reader”—or in my case, the marketing director—that “the writer has done his homework, has talked to a lot of people.” It’s fear, says Blundell, that “leads the writer to abdicate his job as story teller and hide behind sources.” Hi, my name is Lorraine. I’m a quote addict.
Our Gal Friday lost in the digital age
Before you run—don’t walk—to buy The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, let me share its only weakness, IMHO: Published in 1988, the book’s first 40 pages creak. Especially these days when you can’t load a news page without reading about another publisher or newspaper biting the dust.
Blundell’s incidental mentions of expense-paid reporting trips and lazy lunches spent picking sources’ brains over Sole Veronique and “an interesting chardonnay” are as quaintly entertaining as an off-Broadway production of Front Page.
Perhaps a few elite WSJ or New Yorker writers command fees that let them luxuriate over multi-day interviews and hangin’ out with sources. But the writers I know—whether journalists or copywriters—don’t.
That said, I enthusiastically recommend this book. And don’t borrow a copy of The Art and Craft of Feature Writing from the library. Buy it. You’ll want—and need—your own volume to dog-ear and stick with post-its.