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. Now I get most of my interviews transcribed, but there is one more important step that I’ve added in.
I spend time planning and structuring my feature articles before I write them.
Despite adding this extra step, 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 a word for an 800 word article ($640 for the completed piece of work), how many hours will you allocate yourself to work on it? 80c a word is a decent word 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 (I know for lots of you that may seem like a high hourly rate, but remember as a freelancer, you’re having to cover your own sick leave, superannuation, holiday pay and so on). That means you have 6.4 hours to spend on this article.
That includes pitching the idea, following up, responding to any questions the editor may have, sourcing interviewees, doing research, transcribing, writing, proof reading, (potentially) sourcing images, filing and fixing up any changes the editor wants.
For some freelance writers, the writing is the shortest part of that whole process. But for lots of us, once you have a feature article with several voices in it, you can get tangled in where and how to bring in different opinions and comments.
I wanted to share the template I use to write a magazine feature article because, along with editors approaching me with commissions, I believe this is one of the reasons I’ve been able to earn good money for the articles I’m writing.
I do 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. 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 (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
This is the template that 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.
I then spend some time working out how I’m going to link each of those case studies – what is going to be the transition from one para to the next.
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 sometimes this changes while I’m writing, but using this process helps me write quickly.
The importance of 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, and 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 and I knew right then that I had a beautiful transition.
Here is how the finished article turned out:
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 of a local legend of a 400 year old finger lime tree deep in the hinterland that still produces fruit. He has looked for it on numerous occasions, but hasn’t found it yet. I loved that idea and story, but I just didn’t have room for it.
As Stephen King says, sometimes you have to kill your darlings .
The benefit of using a template
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 would say I am producing articles at least 30 – 40 per cent 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, 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?