Monday, August 21, 2017

The Value of Feature-style Writing

One of the most thought-provoking discoveries from the Impact study is the importance of writing style. Feature-style writing is found to increase satisfaction in a variety of topic areas: politics, sports, science, health, home and food among them. A higher proportion of feature-style stories also improves overall brand perception, chief among them how "easy to read" the newspaper is.

When we talk about "feature-style" writing, we don't mean "feature stories." We're not describing a story type but a writing style, also called narrative writing. When Readership Institute analysts evaluated newspaper writing, they classified it one of three ways: inverted pyramid (or news style), commentary and feature-style.

Inverted pyramid stories are the traditional news stories. They begin with the most important element of the story, then present related facts in order of decreasing importance. Stylistically, inverted pyramid stories follow a fact 1, fact 2, fact 3 format from start to finish. Commentary is characterized by its authorial voice, usually presented in a signed column, review, criticism, advice column, op-ed piece or editorial.

Feature-style writing encompasses a broad range of writing techniques, all of which share a few common elements. The writing is more narrative and stories are told with a beginning, middle and end. Stories are often told through the characters or using anecdotes to help illustrate the events. They also tend to use more colorful language, are sometimes more playful, and usually engage the reader more than a traditional news story does.

A concern editors commonly express is that feature-style writing means "softening" or "dumbing down" the news. "Feature-style" is not a euphemism or proxy for "soft news" in the research results. It is a description of a writing style. Writers can use feature-style writing to cover hard news stories without compromising the stories' informational value or focus. Here is an example of two approaches to covering a breaking news story; the first is a traditional inverted pyramid approach, the second uses a feature-style approach.

Inverted Pyramid Approach
Some boos at graduation after judge bars prayer
Associated Press
May 21, 2001

WASHINGTON, Ill. -- A top student who gave a traditional farewell speech at a high school graduation was booed and another student was applauded for holding a moment of silence after a judge barred prayer at the ceremony.

A federal judge issued a restraining order days before Sunday's ceremony at Washington Community High School blocking any student-led prayer. It was the first time in the 80-year history of the school that no graduation prayers were said.

Natasha Appenheimer, the class valedictorian, traditionally a top student chosen to give the class graduation speech, was booed when she received her diploma. Her family, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, had filed the lawsuit that led to the restraining order. Meanwhile, some stood and applauded class speaker Ryan Brown when he bowed his head for a moment of silence before his speech. (Click
here for complete story.)

Feature-style Approach
School Ceremony Downstate Under U.S. Court Order
By John Chase
Chicago Tribune
May 21, 2001

WASHINGTON, Ill. -- It was not the words graduating senior Ryan Brown spoke at Washington Community High School commencement services on Sunday that resonated in this small town just outside of Peoria.

It was what he did before he spoke.

Walking to the podium inside the gymnasium as a scheduled speaker, Brown paused, stepped to the side of the stage, folded his hands and bowed his head in a silent prayer. The gymnasium crowd of more than 1,000 students and adults erupted in cheers, with some standing to applaud while others blew air horns in celebration.

For the first time in this school's 80-year history, no prayer was heard publicly during graduation services, following a federal judge's ruling last week prohibiting it after the class valedictorian, Natasha Appenheimer, and her family obtained a temporary restraining order against the public school district. (Click 
here for complete story.)

Newspapers in the United States use inverted pyramid style for 69 percent of all stories, feature-style writing for 18 percent, and commentary for 12 percent. While inverted pyramid style is appropriate for most stories, nonetheless there is strong evidence that an increase in the amount of feature-style stories has wide-ranging benefits.

For example, newspapers that write more feature-style politics stories have readers who express higher satisfaction with their politics coverage. Considering that only 5 percent of all politics stories are written in feature-style, even one additional feature-style politics story per week would make a difference.

Beyond increasing satisfaction with particular content areas, feature-style writing also improves positive brand perception. Newspapers that run more feature-style stories are seen as more honest, fun, neighborly, intelligent, "in the know" and more in touch with the values of readers.

Women, in particular, respond to feature-style writing. This preference is more than just a desire for "feature" topics such as health, fashion and travel (which also tend to be written in a feature-style). It's the papers that incorporate feature-style writing in a broad range of topics that see the most benefit in brand perception, in addition to doing more of the traditional "feature" topics.

Feature-style writing encompasses many writing styles and the Readership Institute continues to explore what the implications are for reporters and editors. What is clear is that many stories can be written in a feature style without increasing length or compromising informational value. 

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