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Feature writing course for Rethink (SRC)


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Day-long workshop for people who want to write for Rethink (

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Feature writing course for Rethink (SRC)

  1. 1. THE SECRET ART OF FEATURE WRITING 31 May 2017 Owen Gaffney, Marika Haeggman, Naomi Lubick
  2. 2. Marika Haeggman Naomi Lubick Owen Gaffney Rethink is an online magazine from Stockholm Resilience Centre that connects resilience thinking to global development Rethink Editorial Team:
  3. 3. RETHINK Feature writing What you will learn today How to pitch a feature How to structure a feature A few tricks about how to write in a way people like to read
  4. 4. Non-linearities Earth system Regime shift Resilience Social-ecological system ANTHROPOCENE BUBBLE
  5. 5. What is a feature? • Feature, feature article, feature story • Everything that is not hard news or editorial • It can be an opinion • Human interest • Does not have to be related to current news
  6. 6. Genre • It is a specific type of journalism with its own style, form and rules • Lines have become blurred as journalism evolves with the internet
  7. 7. Characteristics of a feature • Longer than news (1000-2000 words) • Not necessarily on current matters • Creative use of language • More detailed • May provide solutions • Educational or entertaining (compare with news) • Often summarizes a whole area of science…to put new findings in context
  8. 8. Characteristics of a feature • Arouses emotion • Allows personal comment • Needs photos and images • Side bars and other devices eg infographics
  9. 9. News versus features • Current/timely • Facts and figures • Inverted pyramid • Timeless • Introduces new/original perspective or angle on an issue • Personal observation and experience • Anecdotes
  10. 10. Writing news (or press releases) University of Leicester press office
  11. 11. News versus features • Order of importance (inverted pyramid) • Short, concise • Journalist invisible • Objective style of reporting • Narrative/story • Journalist – visible • Style: personal, colourful, literary, emotional, humorous
  12. 12. News versus features • Can be done from a newsroom • Requires fieldwork – often first hand, it is about experience • The writer usually takes the reader on a journey • The writer finds a way to tell a compelling narrative
  13. 13. Types of feature • Scientific feature • Interview/personality profile • Human interest • Reportage • Travel writing • “How to” articles
  14. 14. How to write a science feature • Choose topic carefully – does it have enough dimensions to carry a feature or can it be summarized in 180 words, eg the difference between the Anthropocene and a single research paper • It is more than one paper • It still has to have human interest • …and people/characters/heroes (often a central person to carry the story eg a scientist, the author) • Structure: • Continuous narrative • Q and A • Series of sections • Listicle
  15. 15. Read great feature writers like • Elizabeth Kolbert • Paul Salopek
  16. 16. Writing for RETHINK • Resilience angle • Development angle • Big picture • Solutions focus • Complex narratives drawing in research from many disciplines • Human interest Promoting social-ecological resilience
  17. 17. Pitching a feature • Get your head in the head of an editor • Ask, has this been covered before? Are you sure? • If it is about the Arctic – what is the new angle? • If it is about something abstract – like resilience – how do you pitch it to make it concrete? • Read the magazine/media you are pitching to, eg Re.think or Scientific American. • Analyze the articles they publish. See the type of material they commission and how the articles are structured. • Don’t pitch stuff the media has recently covered. • Think about audience – a lot. Understand the audience of the magazine.
  20. 20. Feature structure (this is not so helpful!) •Beginning •Middle – body •End – conclusion
  21. 21. 38 | NewScientist | 16 August 2014 140816_F_SmartWater.indd 38 11/08/2014 14:59
  22. 22. 1800-2000 words 3 paras Big picture – here’s the water issue Conclusion Here’s how it has been solved in the past – massive infrastructure, but this doesn’t work now Our hero has a better idea In a nutshell (nutgraph) – say the feature’s big idea New idea, fresh perspective on an issue Personal journey – meet the hero BOX: Sludge case study Our hero is not alone – several other examples
  23. 23. Generic: 1800-2000 words 3 paras Big Picture Background Conclusion showing way forward Here’s how things in this field have been solved in the past Our hero has a better idea In a nutshell (nutgraph) – say the feature’s big idea Introduce a new idea, fresh perspective on an issue Take reader to a location and introduce a person BOX: Data rich related idea or case study Our hero is not alone – several other examples Acknowledge criticism of idea
  24. 24. Writing commentaries for Science or Nature
  25. 25. Writing for Nature (1500-2500 words) Personal, agenda-setting and provocative article calling for action on topical issues pertaining to research and its political, ethical and social ramifications. Must be written with a colourful, authoritative voice, at a level accessible to all of Nature's global, interdisciplinary readers, researchers and policy-makers, protein chemists and astrophysicists alike.
  26. 26. Writing for Nature (1500-2500 words) Must include specifics: e.g. who must (or will) do what exactly to whom, when, how, over what time period; and, importantly, what will be the impact of heeding your call to action, and of not doing so? The aim is to engage and persuade the reader, as well as to inform them.
  27. 27. 1800 word article 200 word introduction 400 words – the problem in detail* 200 word conclusion 400 words – the fix 400 words – the roadmap Nutgraph – one para to explain the news value The lead/lede The opening sentence 100 words – roadblocks 100 words – respond to criticism *Or the three main sections could be: Past, present, future. The key is to think of the article in terms of three sections
  28. 28. 5 ways list articles can work 150 word introduction 150 words 150 word conclusion List intro – lay out the ground rules, criteria The lead/lede The opening sentence 150 words 150 words 150 words 150 words
  29. 29. 5 reasons list articles work 150 word introduction 200 words – the problem 150 word conclusion Nutgraf The lead/lede The opening sentence 150 words 150 words 150 words 150 words 150 words SOLUTIONS FOCUS
  30. 30. Beginning •Headline •Standfirst •Lede/Introduction – with a strong hook •Nutgraph
  31. 31. The opening paragraph “In the barren reaches of Arctic Siberia, Sergey and Nikita Zimov, a Russian father-and-son team of scientists, are working on geoengineering measures that sound as if they’re ripped from the pages of a Michael Crichton novel.” Bring back the mammoth to fight global warming, Aeon Magazine 2017 • Grab attention • Not abstract – anecdotal, story, intrigue, descriptive, specific, personal.
  32. 32. Don’t be boring •Short, simple sentences – 25 words, NO MORE, this is not negotiable •Find an angle •What interests your audience •Make an impact •Do not start with acronyms or “At a meeting of the committee…” •Do not bore your audience.
  33. 33. Opening Says something tantalising about how a new piece of research is about to change how we think about X…
  34. 34. Middle • Summarise the body of knowledge on the issue • State some of the key people and dates • Provide a ton of facts mixed with interesting anecdotes • Bring in research beyond your primary area • Keep an eye on the audience – what matters to them (time! Don’t bore them) • Use variety and pace. • Break into sections with sub headings • Includes visual aids
  35. 35. Middle - paragraphs • Short • One idea per paragraph. State the idea at the start of the paragraph. Develop that idea. And wrap up in a neat conclusion. Create a smooth transition to the next paragraph. • Only make a statement once. Don’t try to say the same thing several different ways. • Use quotes – first person is attractive to read and adds colour and variety.
  36. 36. End • 3 or 4 paragraphs • Tie up loose ends and repeat main conclusions • Link back to the start – this leaves the reader satisfied. • Call to action – • For Rethink – we want people to be able to act on the information
  37. 37. Stick to the point.
  39. 39. Every sentence should make the reader read the next sentence. Each word should make the reader read the next word.
  40. 40. Clarity of writing follows clarity of thought The Economist Style Guide
  41. 41. Earth system Natural capital Ecosystem services UNFCCC, IPBES, IPCC, CBD, UNEP, SRC, IGBP, WMO, FAO, CGIAR Land-use change Governance Multiple evidence base We live in an ANTHROPOCENE BUBBLE
  42. 42. George Orwell’s guide to writing (the opposite to academic writing) 1. No over-used metaphors, similes or figure of speech 2. Short words rather than long 3. Always cut words 4. Never use passive where you can use the active 5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or jargon 6. Break these rules rather than say anything outright barbarous See also, Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style”
  43. 43. As efforts ramp up to design metrics and indicators for water-related SDGs, it is prudent to be aware of and consider the invisible processes of water flows globally. It is important to distinguish between blue and green water flows.
  44. 44. California is no stranger to droughts; but the Sierra Nevada snow that provides essential water to the state is at a 500-year low, according to research out this week. The population of almost 39 million people is beginning to feel the pinch.
  45. 45. Iron Curtain Cold War Metaphors matter Virtually all of our abstract conceptualization and reasoning is structured by metaphor. Cognitive Science
  46. 46. Our metaphors •A safe operating space •Planetary boundaries •Nature is sending invoices back •Planetary machinery •Tipping points •Ecological footprint
  47. 47. No over-used metaphors, similes or figure of speech • Canary in a coalmine • Missing a piece of the puzzle • Draw a line in the sand • ‘Level playing field’ See also, Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” Definition: A word or phrase applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.
  48. 48. People remember metaphors Two groups were given text relating to Hitler’s rise to power. The texts had different endings. • “The German people blindly accepted Hitler’s dangerous ideas.” • “The sheep followed the leader over the cliff.” Readers recalled the metaphor more than the first ending, and also recalled the earlier text if a metaphor is present. Reynolds and Schwartz 1983
  49. 49. A forest of metaphors • This oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. (Barack Obama) • We have our foot on the accelerator and we are heading for an abyss. (Ban Ki Moon) • The earth is being scorched by the flames of himsa. (Mahatma Ghandi) • Waiting in the wings. • At a crossroads.
  50. 50. Who are you writing for?
  51. 51. The rule of 3s • Friends, Romans, countrymen • We came, we saw, we conquered • Blood, sweat and tears • Faith, hope and charity • Stop, look and listen • Sex, lies and videotape
  52. 52. Long words, redundant phrases • Demonstrate • Encounter • Frequently • Fundamental • In an effort to • In addition to • In attendance • In conjunction with • In order to • Parenthesis (brackets) • It is thought that
  53. 53. Long words, redundant phrases • A large number of • Adjacent to • Accommodation • Accounted for by the fact that • Arising from the fact that • Based on the fact that • Additionally • Along with • Advance planning • At this moment in time
  54. 54. Active not passive • My first visit to Kathmandu will always be remembered by me • I will always remember my first visit to Kathmandu • There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground • Dead leaves covered the ground
  55. 55. The page turner
  56. 56. The page turner •“He slid the key into the lock. He grabbed the handle, yanked down, then pushed. The door flew open.” •Every sentence you write should make the reader read the next sentence •One idea per sentence •Short (opening sentence – NO MORE THAN 25 WORDS – this is non-negotiable)
  57. 57. Go large Mark Twain described how a good writer treats sentences: “At times he may indulge himself with a long one, but he will make sure there are no folds in it, no vaguenesses, no parenthetical interruptions of its view as a whole; when he has done with it, it won't be a sea-serpent with half of its arches under the water; it will be a torch-light procession.
  58. 58. Verbs are better than nouns • The development of our magazine depends on the improvement of facilities within the office. • Developing our magazine depends on improving of office facilities.
  59. 59. Verbs are better than nouns • IBM is aiming for the establishment of a research and development facility close to Delhi. • IBM plans to develop a research and development facility close to Delhi.
  60. 60. Verbs are better than nouns • We are aiming at the creation of a new media centre but it will be reliant on an increase in profits. • We aim to create a new media centre but it will rely on increasing profits.
  61. 61. Verbs are better than nouns • There is a rise in the number of successful prosecutions over the past year. • Successful prosecutions have risen in the past year.
  62. 62. To be or not to be • It was ebay that first launched the concept of personal shopping. • It is Naomi you need to speak to about the admin system. • It is the Environment Agency’s aim to reintroduce some of the lost natural features of the river. • Iran is the world’s second largest gas reserve holder, second only to Russia. • There have been no subsequent incidents.
  63. 63. To be or not to be •Ebay first launched the concept of personal shopping. •Speak to Naomi about the admin system. •The Environment Agency aims to reintroduce some of the lost natural features of the river. •Iran holds the world’s second largest gas reserve after Russia. •No subsequent incidents occurred.
  64. 64. Tautology • Your past history shows your future prospects are not good. • Your past shows your prospects are not good. • We send our grateful thanks for successfully developing the product. • Thank you for successfully developing the product. • Our new innovation creates structured training. • Our innovation creates structured training. • Tragic death. • Bitter criticism.
  65. 65. Positive not negative – Trump failed • Trump did not succeed – Trump failed • He was not very often on time • He usually came late • She did not think that studying Latin was a sensible use of her time • She thought studying Latin a waste of time • Not strong – weak • Not important – insignificant
  66. 66. The double negative • It cannot be said that I am an unhappy reader • I have not neglected your timely reminder
  67. 67. 6 astonishing facts about headlines •Clear and concise •Grab attention •Avoid questions •Active •No jargon •Accurate •Bonus fact – people really like lists
  68. 68. FEATURE WRITING 29 March 2017
  69. 69. Rethink is looking for stories: deep dives into issues that touch on development and resilience thinking, profiles of resilience thinkers and practitioners, and more. Please send your pitches to PITCH US!