THINK ON THESE: Writing features

If you are into writing and want to focus more on scribbling features, then there’s a book I highly recommend – SHE (Significant Human Experience): Writing Feature Stories. This 150-page book is written by Dr. Maria Gemima Valderrama, a journalism professor at the Ateneo de Davao University.

“Of all kinds of journalistic writing, I find feature writing closest to my heart,” she wrote in the book’s introduction. “It is where I can best express myself.”

She considered feature writing as “the perfect blend of journalism and literature” and cited the case of literary giant Nick Joaquin, as the man who taught and advocated the method in his lifetime.

The book is divided into 12 chapters. In the first chapter, for instance, the feature story is being defined and explained. As a journalistic report, a feature story “is not an opinion essay or a work of fiction.”

Creative writing, which relies on information or events that are not real but “imaginary and theoretical,” is fiction writing. On the other hand, feature writing “only deals with facts, real events, and statements which are considered and accepted as true.”

Chapter 3 deals more on the basic principles in writing. Think first then write. Keep sentences short. Shorten your paragraphs. Use familiar words and specific and concrete language. Use adjectives sparingly. Write the way you talk. Revise and sharpen what you have written. And like most kind of writing, expressing is more important than impressing.

The next chapter talks about writing feature stories. “Feature stories are human-interest articles that mainly focus on people, places, and events,” she wrote. “Features are not meant to deliver the news firsthand.

“They do contain the elements of news but their main function is to humanize, to illuminate, to add color, to educate, and to entertain,” she further wrote.

Chapter 7 gives some tips on writing news features. “If news articles are focused on what happened, the news feature goes deeper focusing on the ‘how and why’ it happened, how the people involved are reacting, or what impact the decision is having on other people,” she explained.

Dr. Valderrama shared this tip: “When you choose to write this type of feature, decide which angle of the story gives human interest. Remember, a news story is tied with current events while a news feature is not. So you have time to decide for a good angle to focus on.”

The last chapter talks about how you can develop your own style of writing. “The person beside you has always a story to tell,” she wrote. “All you have to do is ask good questions so you can hear interesting answers. It’s knowing how and when to dig up details for a great story.”

A story becomes great only if and when the writer knows how to write it well. And this is where style comes in. A style is something a writer owns so much so that when someone reads it, he can always tell a particular author has written the feature.

“Even if it doesn’t have your name, Manoy,” my sister, who read most of the articles I have written, once told me, “I can always tell that you wrote it.”

Dr. Valderrama wrote: “Almost every story looks like ordinary because the story of one is also the story of another. Almost every human being says the same things, faces similar experiences, and uses related solutions to the problems. But what makes all these stories different depends on you as a writer.

“This is where you put some style without deviating from your main point: to make your readers read, feel, and understand the story.”

Now, you may be wondering why she kept on highlight about stories? To her, writing features is about writing human experiences. “The heart and soul of a feature story is human interest,” she pointed out in chapter three.

“Pain. Sorrow. Joy. Laughter. Successes and celebrations. All these make up for a good feature story. It interests us because it talks about us. It moves us because it celebrates our humanity,” she wrote.

In most other chapters, Dr. Valderrama gave some examples which were published in local and national publications. In Chapter 5, she included an article on the aftermath of typhoon Pablo (international name: Bopha) one year later.

Reading the first paragraph alone is worth enough. Read this: “One year ago, couple Tatay Loloy and Nanay Bebie feared for their lives when their house and all neighboring houses collapsed around them and trees were uprooted. Today, the couple live on with hope from what they thought it was the greatest nightmare.”

Another good example was the one featured in chapter 9 on travelogue. Her feature on Lake Sebu (“Learn, eat, fly in Lake Sebu”) has this wonderful ending, which summarizes the whole story: “A Lake Sebu experience encapsulates three things – we learn to appreciate their tribe, we get to eat appetizing tilapia, and we can see God’s beautiful creation from above.”

The book is indeed very informative. To think, her masters degree (from the University of Mindanao) was not on writing but school administration. Her doctoral degree (from the Southwestern University in Cebu) wasn’t on writing either; it was on special education.

The short biography at the back cover of the book gives this info: “(She) scribbled some notes in her journal when she was studying her elementary and high school education at the University of the Immaculate Conception in Davao City. While studying her mass communication course at Centro Escolar University in Manila, she sharpened her writing skills with the help of some great journalists in the big city…”

The brief sketch ended with these words: “But she believes that wherever you are and whatever you do, you will always be weaving words for a subject that thrills you.”