ASK US WEDNESDAY: “Most efficient way to write a feature?”

by Rachel Smith
10 April 2019

Hi Rach and Leo. I have a bit of a strange question. I’d like to improve my feature writing processes and get faster, hopefully, so I can take on more work. Would mind sharing your wisdom on putting a feature together, from research to interviews to writing? What’s your process? What’s the most efficient way to write a feature? I know it’s a how-long-is-a-piece-of-string question but I think it would really help me. Would love to hear from other List members too. Jane

Hi Jane. This is a great question and something I was recently talking to a few freelancers about. Everyone’s process is probably quite different – I know some people who only transcribe the quotes they need before writing. Others use shorthand when interviewing rather than taping the interview. I also know freelancers who essentially write a rough draft of the piece WHILE they’re conducting interviews! I’ve also heard of one writer’s strategy which involves writing the entire piece and leaving spaces for the quotes you need. So it’s really what works for you and what saves you the most time.

For me, it really depends on what I’m working on, but I can give you a run-down of my personal process from brief to filing.

Writing a feature – my step-by-step process

Step 1. Get the brief from the editor or client. Print it out, note any must-have deliverables (ie, key points they need you to cover, experts they want interviewed, case studies required).

Step 2. Research the topic, jot down notes on what’s important and what might be relevant for the story. Set up interviews, write up questions based on key points in brief so I know I’m covering off on what’s required, then add in other questions for colour / interest. Leave space between questions for notes during interview, and to quickly jot down other questions that may come up during the interview.

Step 3. Conduct interview, crossing off questions once I get required quotes (if I don’t, I leave that question uncrossed and ask it in different ways until I get the information I need). Once the interview is done, I send the sound file straight to (because I hate transcribing) and wait until I get transcript back before I start putting it all together and writing the piece.

Step 4. Once the transcript arrives, I revisit the brief, read the transcript in full and use a highlighter to take note of all the best quotes. Next to the highlighted bits, I jot down notes in the sidebar of the transcript or ‘pull-quotes’ that align with the brief’s key points – this makes it very easy to find what I need in a long transcript and grab the quotes when writing.

Step 5. I write the headline and sell (I always do this first then tinker with it later). I write the intro – this is always heavily edited later – and I write a structure of the piece in sub-heads below the intro, again referring back to the brief and ensuring I’m covering everything but also adding in unexpected bits and bobs and points of interest that strengthen the story. Once I have the ‘skeleton’ of the piece, I start writing each section, pulling in the appropriate quotes from the transcript.

Step 6. Once the first draft is done, I sleep on it or leave it for at least half a day. (Probably the most important part of the process, in my opinion!)

Step 7. I go through the piece and ruthlessly edit the hell out of it, ensure all the sections flow, ensure there’s no repetition, make sure the quotes work, tweak the intro and the sell/headline if necessary. I also write a ‘For subs’ section at the end including contact details of everyone I’ve interviewed, links to studies, links to resources or websites I may have used while researching the piece. If the publishing house requires quotes to be double-checked with the interviewees, I do that too.

Step 8. File, invoice and hope the only thing that comes back is ‘Great piece, thanks’!

Listers, what do you think is the most efficient way to write a feature? Is your process similar or different to mine? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Rachel Smith

2 responses on "ASK US WEDNESDAY: “Most efficient way to write a feature?”"

  1. Great article, thanks Rachel, I love hearing about other writers’ processes.
    I find that when I’ve been doing something for a while, the process becomes subconscious. It’s always valuable to take a step back every now and then to ask whether I’m really approaching something in the best and most efficient way.
    My process is pretty similar to yours, with the exception of printing the brief – I can’t bear paper on my desk!

    1. Rachel says:

      I am terrible, I print hard copies a lot. I actually forgot to add that in – edit for one last time on hard copy. So important (to me) to read it on paper, I catch a heap of stuff!

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