business of freelancing

How to structure a feature article

By September 23, 2020 13 Comments
[Updated September 2020]

When I first started writing feature articles for magazines and newspapers, I would pitch my idea to an editor, conduct all my interviews, transcribe the interviews and then write the article. This was when writing was a side-hustle and I didn’t particularly need to think about how the number of hours I worked on each article impacted my word or hourly rate. While I get most of my interviews transcribed, there is one more important step that I’ve added in. And it’s the key to writing faster and more efficiently and to making more money as a freelance writer. This is how to structure a feature article.

A feature article template that really works

 


I now spend time planning and structuring my articles before I write them.

This is an extra step that I never used to do but I’m writing articles faster than I ever have.

That means that for most articles, I’m spending less time than I have in the past and making more money per article.

Are you with me?

If you’re being paid 80c/word for an 800 word article, how many hours will you allocate to work on it?

$640 or 80c/ word is a decent rate, but it may not be if you’re spending 15 hours working on the article.

Just say you’re working on an hourly rate of $100.

That means you have 6.4 hours to spend on this article.

That includes:

  • pitching the idea
  • following up
  • responding to any questions from the editor
  • sourcing interviewees (if needed)
  • doing research
  • transcribing
  • writing
  • proof reading
  • (potentially) sourcing images
  • filing
  • invoicing
  • fixing up any changes the editor wants.

For some freelance writers, the writing is the shortest part of that whole process.

But for many people, once you have an article with several voices in it, before long you get tangled with all the different perspectives.

I wanted to share the feature article format I use because, along with editors approaching me with commissions, this is one of the reasons I’ve been able to earn good money for the articles I’m writing.

Making money as a freelance writer isn’t just about getting a good work or project rate, but it’s about doing good quality articles, fast.

By planning out my articles I don’t spend time on the path wondering which way I’m going, or how I’m going to include a particular person’s perspective.

I’ve mapped out the journey beforehand.

I’m not necessarily a planner by personality – I tend to be more of a ‘pantser’  but this method below really works for me.

Otherwise you have to write your way through the whole piece and that takes time.

How to structure a feature article

1.     Don’t start writing until you have done all your interviews

I know this sounds really obvious, but in the past, I’ve been so keen to get going on an article that I would start writing before I had interviewed all my case studies.

Now I make sure I have all my interviews done and transcribed.

I tend to do a mix of phone and email interviews.

I used email for quick quotes or when I need some facts but not necessarily a lot of colour.

But I always, always do phone interviews when the case study is going to the backbone of the story.

2.     Go through your interviews and find the gold

Once you’ve done all your interviews, look through the transcripts and mine for the gold.

You’re looking for two things:

–       The important things case studies say like facts, stats or general information that is important to the article. But you don’t necessarily need to quote them as saying these.

–       Colourful, emotive, insightful and interesting quotes that you can attribute to them.

Highlight these sentences – I tend to use one colour for all interviewees.

But I know some freelance writers like Gabi Logan use a different colour for each voice in the article.

3.     Time to plan your feature article layout

Below is the template I use for all my feature articles.

On the right hand side of a blank A4 sheet of paper, I have a list of ideas that pop up while I’m planning and brainstorming.

Then I write down each of the interviewees’ names and dot points about what they bring to the article.

Then I spend some time working out how I’m going to link each of those case studies.

I ask myself what is going to be the transition from one para to the next.

Below is an example of my plan for a 1500 word article I wrote for Going Places – the Malaysian Airlines inflight magazine (remember those?!).

Initially I brainstormed what I thought were the most interesting/pertinent pieces of information about each of the places I visited and/or people I spoke to.

I also noted two topics that I needed to steer clear of for the magazine (pork and alcohol).

Below is the actual template I used to help me plan the feature article.

You can see that I’ve pretty much worked out how I’m going to transition from one paragraph or one idea to the next.

A snapshot of the completed article is below, but if you’re keen you can read the full version here

Did you notice in my plan I’ve written “spin off article”?

That’s because there are three other UNESCO Creative Cities in the state where I live and I thought there might be an opportunity to write about all of them.

So after I had written the main piece I pitched a smaller piece to a weekend travel supplement about the four creative cities and it got commissioned.

Another example how I structured a feature article

Below is an example of my plan for a 1400 word article I wrote for The Saturday Paper about the dangers of vaginal mesh implants.

If you read the article, you’ll see that I couldn’t fit all the dot points in.

One woman had had her mesh removed, but I just didn’t have the words to explore that part of the story as well.

So, this is a feature article plan but sometimes things change while I’m writing.

But using this process undoubtedly helps me write quickly.

4. Focus on your transitions

Look at how you are going to transition from one person or idea to the next.

If you read feature articles in magazines and newspapers you will see that lots of paragraphs will take a point from the previous one, and reference it in some way before moving on.

It makes it more appealing for readers and a much smoother reading experience.

Sometimes case studies or interviewees say things that you know will perfectly segue into another’s point.

In the example below I was writing an article about the growing popularity of finger limes.

Chef Kylie Kwong mentioned how she loves to have finger limes in her gin and tonic.

I had already interviewed a distiller who uses finger limes to make his navy strength gin.

I knew right then that I had a great transition.

Here is how the finished article turned out:

5. Learn to kill your darlings

A truth of freelance writing is that you won’t always be able to fit in what you want to – lots of gold gets left behind.

In the finger lime story, one of the farmers told me about a local legend.

He said there was a 400 year old finger lime tree deep in the hinterland that still produces fruit.

This farmer spent months looking for the fabled finger lime tree, but hasn’t found it yet.

I can’t tell you how much I loved the idea of an ancient tree hidden from most humans, but I just didn’t have room for it.

And if I’m honest, that point didn’t serve the story.

It just captivated me.

And there’s a difference.

As Stephen King says, sometimes you have to kill your darlings .

The benefit of using a template for feature articles

My template for planning feature articles really works and it saves you time when you are writing.

Since I’ve started using this method, I am producing articles at least 30 – 40% more quickly than I was before.

It does takes me time before I start writing to plan the article.

But once I’m in, I don’t get distracted by tangents that are interesting but ultimately not relevant.

Why? Because I already know what I’m including and what I’m not.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you have any tips for writing smarter and faster?

13 Comments

  • Michaela Fox says:

    What a lovely "transition" example. This is such a fabulous post, Lindy. Thanks for always sharing your wisdom. I do find that when I plan, the whole process is smoother. For a first-person piece, however, I find that it’s just as easy to write from the heart in the one sitting.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      That’s so true about first person pieces – sometimes they are the easiest to write (and the most popular!)

    • Rachel says:

      I do this with travel stories. I usually have a heap of notes somewhere but if I write it when I’m on the trip or shortly after (when it’s fresh in my mind), I just write it out in one narrative, then polish.

  • Claire says:

    Lovely to see the article as an example of how you set things out. I think I’m a bit of a planner too. With the ebooks I’m writing, I tend to make notes first, then decide on what chapters to include. I don’t plan in minute detail, but I do find it easier if I have a vague idea of where I’m going, especially with a longer job. I also estimate the amount of words for each section to make sure I stick to the guidelines I’ve been given.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      That’s a good tip about estimating the number of words Claire – I might try that! Thanks for your comment 🙂

  • Rachel says:

    Fascinating to see how differently other writers do things. I do things similarly to you in that I don’t start writing until ALL the transcripts are in and the research is done. In the meantime, I write the headline, sell and sub-heads for the piece, planning the flow that way. I also do the ‘For subs’ section at the end where I list all the research URLs I reference, and all the phone and emails of the people I talked to. Once I have my framework and all the interviews etc, I find it comes together like a puzzle. Biggest challenge: keeping to a word count!

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Oh yes, I do a ‘fact check’ section and ‘case study contact details’ section too. I forgot to mention that! I agree about the word count – sometimes I’m about 50 words from my limit and realise I need an extra 300 words!
      I love working out the puzzle of how it all sits together.

  • Leah says:

    Thanks for posting this. Was having trouble getting started on a few articles, and I’m going to try this approach now!

  • Sandy says:

    Hi Lindy
    I’m just wondering if you do this plan of your article before you pitch to a publication? Or do you pitch the idea and then do the plan? Thanks

    • lindyalexander says:

      Hi Sandy,
      That’s a great question.
      No, I don’t do this plan before I pitch.
      I usually have a broad idea of who I’m going to speak to (so for example for the pelvic mesh piece I had locked touched base with one of the interviewees before I pitched and with the gastronomy article I knew that most of the producers would be thrilled to be featured in a print publication) and outline this to the editor. But I find that it’s impossible to plan the story before you’ve researched or spoken to people.
      Does that make sense?

  • That’s an awesome article Lindy! Thanks for writing it.

    I am using a template similar to yours but I sketch a few arrows between a point and another, not necessarily in a chronological order, as I like to refer to previously written parts within the article I’m writing. I spend a lot of time while doing chores and other manual activities, after having a rough template, thinking about how to collect the various points, how to start each paragraph and how to link one with another in a natural way. I guess I should charge for this time too 😀

  • Loren says:

    Another extremely helpful article, thanks Lindy!

    I noted your use of interviews in some of your above articles – I’m wondering how you go about finding your interview subjects? Is it a case of googling then literally cold-calling people you think would be perfect for the article? Do you sometimes have to “pitch” to them the benefits they might personally see from appearing in your article (increased exposure of their business etc)?

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