From: How To Write Special Feature Articles
(Category: PART I
STYLE DEFINED. Style, or the manner in which ideas and emotions are
expressed, is as important in special feature writing as it is in any
other kind of literary work. A writer may select an excellent subject,
may formulate a definite purpose, and may choose the type of article
best suited to his needs, but if he is unable to express his thoughts
effectively, his article will be a failure. Style is not to be regarded
as mere ornament added to ordinary forms of expression. It is not an
incidental element, but rather the fundamental part of all literary
composition, the means by which a writer transfers what is in his own
mind to the minds of his readers. It is a vehicle for conveying ideas
and emotions. The more easily, accurately, and completely the reader
gets the author's thoughts and feelings, the better is the style.
The style of an article needs to be adapted both to the readers and to
the subject. An article for a boys' magazine would be written in a style
different from that of a story on the same subject intended for a Sunday
newspaper. The style appropriate to an entertaining story on odd
superstitions of business men would be unsuitable for a popular
exposition of wireless telephony. In a word, the style of a special
article demands as careful consideration as does its subject, purpose,
Since it may be assumed that any one who aspires to write for newspapers
and magazines has a general knowledge of the principles of composition
and of the elements and qualities of style, only such points of style as
are important in special feature writing will be discussed in this
The elements of style are: (1) words, (2) figures of speech, (3)
sentences, and (4) paragraphs. The kinds of words, figures, sentences,
and paragraphs used, and the way in which they are combined, determine
WORDS. In the choice of words for popular articles, three points are
important: (1) only such words may be used as are familiar to the
average person, (2) concrete terms make a much more definite impression
than general ones, and (3) words that carry with them associated ideas
and feelings are more effective than words that lack such intellectual
and emotional connotation.
The rapid reader cannot stop to refer to the dictionary for words that
he does not know. Although the special feature writer is limited to
terms familiar to the average reader, he need not confine himself to
commonplace, colloquial diction; most readers know the meaning of many
more words than they themselves use in everyday conversation. In
treating technical topics, it is often necessary to employ some
unfamiliar terms, but these may readily be explained the first time they
appear. Whenever the writer is in doubt as to whether or not his readers
will understand a certain term, the safest course is to explain it or to
substitute one that is sure to be understood.
Since most persons grasp concrete ideas more quickly than abstract ones,
specific words should be given the preference in popular articles. To
create concrete images must be the writer's constant aim. Instead of a
general term like "walk," for example, he should select a specific,
picture-making word such as hurry, dash, run, race, amble, stroll,
stride, shuffle, shamble, limp, strut, stalk. For the word "horse" he
may substitute a definite term like sorrel, bay, percheron, nag,
charger, steed, broncho, or pony. In narrative and descriptive writing
particularly, it is necessary to use words that make pictures and that
reproduce sounds and other sense impressions. In the effort to make his
diction specific, however, the writer must guard against bizarre effects
and an excessive use of adjectives and adverbs. Verbs, quite as much as
nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, produce clear, vivid images when
Some words carry with them associated ideas and emotions, while others
do not. The feelings and ideas thus associated with words constitute
their emotional and intellectual connotation, as distinct from their
logical meaning, or denotation. The word "home," for example, denotes
simply one's place of residence, but it connotes all the thoughts and
feelings associated with one's own house and family circle. Such a word
is said to have a rich emotional connotation because it arouses strong
feeling. It also has a rich intellectual connotation since it calls up
many associated images. Words and phrases that are peculiar to the Bible
or to the church service carry with them mental images and emotions
connected with religious worship. In a personality sketch of a spiritual
leader, for example, such words and phrases would be particularly
effective to create the atmosphere with which such a man might very
appropriately be invested. Since homely, colloquial expressions have
entirely different associations, they would be entirely out of keeping
with the tone of such a sketch, unless the religious leader were an
unconventional revivalist. A single word with the wrong connotation may
seriously affect the tone of a paragraph. On the other hand, words and
phrases rich in appropriate suggestion heighten immeasurably the
effectiveness of an article.
The value of concrete words is shown in the following paragraphs taken
from a newspaper article describing a gas attack:
There was a faint green vapor, which swayed and hung under the lee
of the raised parapet two hundred yards away. It increased in
volume, and at last rose high enough to be caught by the wind. It
strayed out in tattered yellowish streamers toward the English
lines, half dissipating itself in twenty yards, until the steady
outpour of the green smoke gave it reinforcement and it made
headway. Then, creeping forward from tuft to tuft, and preceded by
an acrid and parching whiff, the curling and tumbling vapor reached
the English lines in a wall twenty feet high.
As the grayish cloud drifted over the parapet, there was a stifled
call from some dozen men who had carelessly let their protectors
drop. The gas was terrible. A breath of it was like a wolf at the
throat, like hot ashes in the windpipe.
The yellowish waves of gas became more greenish in color as fresh
volumes poured out continually from the squat iron cylinders which
had now been raised and placed outside the trenches by the Germans.
The translucent flood flowed over the parapet, linking at once on
the inner side and forming vague, gauzy pools and backwaters, in
which men stood knee deep while the lighter gas was blown in their
faces over the parapet.
FAULTS IN DICTION. Since newspaper reporters and correspondents are
called upon day after day to write on similar events and to write at top
speed, they are prone to use the same words over and over again, without
making much of an effort to "find the one noun that best expresses the
idea, the one verb needed to give it life, and the one adjective to
qualify it." This tendency to use trite, general, "woolly" words instead
of fresh, concrete ones is not infrequently seen in special feature
stories written by newspaper workers. Every writer who aims to give to
his articles some distinction in style should guard against the danger
of writing what has aptly been termed "jargon." "To write jargon," says
Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch in his book, "On the Art of Writing," "is to be
perpetually shuffling around in the fog and cotton-wool of abstract
terms. So long as you prefer abstract words, which express other men's
summarized concepts of things, to concrete ones which lie as near as can
be reached to things themselves and are the first-hand material for your
thoughts, you will remain, at the best, writers at second-hand. If your
language be jargon, your intellect, if not your whole character, will
almost certainly correspond. Where your mind should go straight, it will
dodge; the difficulties it should approach with a fair front and grip
with a firm hand it will be seeking to evade or circumvent. For the
style is the man, and where a man's treasure is there his heart, and his
brain, and his writing, will be also."
FIGURES OF SPEECH. To most persons the term "figure of speech" suggests
such figures as metonymy and synecdoche, which they once learned to
define, but never thought of using voluntarily in their own writing.
Figures of speech are too often regarded as ornaments suited only to
poetry or poetical prose. With these popular notions in mind, a writer
for newspapers and magazines may quite naturally conclude that
figurative expressions have little or no practical value in his work.
Figures of speech, however, are great aids, not only to clearness and
conciseness, but to the vividness of an article. They assist the reader
to grasp ideas quickly and they stimulate his imagination and his
Association of ideas is the principle underlying figurative expressions.
By a figure of speech a writer shows his readers the relation between a
new idea and one already familiar to them. An unfamiliar object, for
example, is likened to a familiar one, directly, as in the simile, or by
implication, as in the metaphor. As the object brought into relation
with the new idea is more familiar and more concrete, the effect of the
figure is to simplify the subject that is being explained, and to make
it more easy of comprehension.
A figure of speech makes both for conciseness and for economy of mental
effort on the part of the reader. To say in a personality sketch, for
example, that the person looks "like Lincoln" is the simplest, most
concise way of creating a mental picture. Or to describe a smoothly
running electric motor as "purring," instantly makes the reader hear the
sound. Scores of words may be saved, and clearer, more vivid impressions
may be given, by the judicious use of figures of speech.
As the familiar, concrete objects introduced in figures frequently have
associated emotions, figurative expressions often make an emotional
appeal. Again, to say that a person looks "like Lincoln" not only
creates a mental picture but awakes the feelings generally associated
with Lincoln. The result is that readers are inclined to feel toward the
person so described as they feel toward Lincoln.
Even in practical articles, figurative diction may not be amiss. In
explaining a method of splitting old kitchen boilers in order to make
watering troughs, a writer in a farm journal happily described a cold
chisel as "turning out a narrow shaving of steel and rolling it away
much as the mold-board of a plow turns the furrow."
The stimulating effect of a paragraph abounding in figurative
expressions is well illustrated by the following passage taken from a
newspaper personality sketch of a popular pulpit orator:
His mind is all daylight. There are no subtle half-tones, or
sensitive reserves, or significant shadows of silence, no landscape
fading through purple mists to a romantic distance. All is clear,
obvious, emphatic. There is little atmosphere and a lack of that
humor that softens the contours of controversy. His thought is
simple and direct and makes its appeal, not to culture, but to the
primitive emotions. * * * * His strenuousness is a battle-cry to the
crowd. He keeps his passion white hot; his body works like a
windmill in a hurricane; his eyes flash lightnings; he seizes the
enemy, as it were, by the throat, pommels him with breathless blows,
and throws him aside a miserable wreck.
SENTENCES. For rapid reading the prime requisite of a good sentence is
that its grammatical structure shall be evident; in other words, that
the reader shall be able at a glance to see the relation of its parts.
Involved sentences that require a second perusal before they yield their
meaning, are clearly not adapted to the newspaper or magazine. Short
sentences and those of medium length are, as a rule, more easily grasped
than long ones, but for rapid reading the structure of the sentence,
rather than its length, is the chief consideration. Absolute clearness
is of paramount importance.
In hurried reading the eye is caught by the first group of words at the
beginning of a sentence. These words make more of an impression on the
reader's mind than do those in the middle or at the end of the sentence.
In all journalistic writing, therefore, the position of greatest
emphasis is the beginning. It is there that the most significant idea
should be placed. Such an arrangement does not mean that the sentence
need trail off loosely in a series of phrases and clauses. Firmness of
structure can and should be maintained even though the strongest
emphasis is at the beginning. In revising his article a writer often
finds that he may greatly increase the effectiveness of his sentences by
so rearranging the parts as to bring the important ideas close to the
LENGTH OF THE SENTENCE. Sentences may be classified according to length
as (1) short, containing 15 words or less; (2) medium, from 15 to 30
words; and (3) long, 30 words or more. Each of these types of sentence
has its own peculiar advantages.
The short sentence, because it is easily apprehended, is more emphatic
than a longer one. Used in combination with medium and long sentences it
gains prominence by contrast. It makes an emphatic beginning and a
strong conclusion for a paragraph. As the last sentence of an article it
is a good "snapper." In contrast with longer statements, it also serves
as a convenient transition sentence.
The sentence of medium length lends itself readily to the expression of
the average thought; but when used continuously it gives to the style a
monotony of rhythm that soon becomes tiresome.
The long sentence is convenient for grouping details that are closely
connected. In contrast with the rapid, emphatic short sentence, it moves
slowly and deliberately, and so is well adapted to the expression of
dignified and impressive thoughts.
To prevent monotony, variety of sentence length is desirable. Writers
who unconsciously tend to use sentences of about the same length and of
the same construction, need to beware of this uniformity.
The skillful use of single short sentences, of series of short
sentences, of medium, and of long sentences, to give variety, to express
thoughts effectively, and to produce harmony between the movement of the
style and the ideas advanced, is well illustrated in the selection
below. It is the beginning of a personality sketch of William II, the
former German emperor, published in the London _Daily News_ before the
world war, and written by Mr. A.G. Gardiner, the editor of that paper.
When I think of the Kaiser I think of a bright May morning at
Potsdam. It is the Spring Parade, and across from where we are
gathered under the windows of the old palace the household troops
are drawn up on the great parade ground, their helmets and banners
and lances all astir in the jolly sunshine. Officers gallop hither
and thither shouting commands. Regiments form and reform. Swords
flash out and flash back again. A noble background of trees frames
the gay picture with cool green foliage. There is a sudden
stillness. The closely serried ranks are rigid and moveless. The
shouts of command are silenced.
He comes slowly up the parade ground on his white charger, helmet
and eagle flashing in the sunshine, sitting his horse as if he lived
in the saddle, his face turned to his men as he passes by.
"Morgen, meine Kinder." His salutation rings out at intervals in the
clear morning air. And back from the ranks in chorus comes the
response: "Morgen, Majestšt."
And as he rides on, master of a million men, the most powerful
figure in Europe, reviewing his troops on the peaceful parade ground
at Potsdam, one wonders whether the day will ever come when he will
ride down those ranks on another errand, and when that cheerful
response of the soldiers will have in it the ancient ring of
doom--"Te morituri salutamus."
For answer, let us look at this challenging figure on the white
charger. What is he? What has he done?
By the three short sentences in the first paragraph beginning "Officers
gallop," the author depicts the rapid movement of the soldiers. By the
next three short sentences in the same paragraph beginning, "There is a
sudden stillness," he produces an impression of suspense. To picture the
Kaiser coming up "slowly," he uses a long, leisurely sentence. The
salutations "ring out" in short, crisp sentences. The more serious,
impressive thought of the possibility of war finds fitting expression in
the long, 64-word sentence, ending with the sonorous--"ring of doom,"
"Te morituri salutamus."
The transition between the introduction and the body of the sketch is
accomplished by the last paragraph consisting of three short sentences,
in marked contrast with the climactic effect with which the description
PARAGRAPHS. The paragraph is a device that aids a writer to convey to
readers his thoughts combined in the same groups in which they are
arranged in his own mind. Since a small group of thoughts is more easily
grasped than a large one, paragraphs in journalistic writing are usually
considerably shorter than those of ordinary English prose. In the narrow
newspaper column, there is room for only five or six words to a line. A
paragraph of 250 words, which is the average length of the literary
paragraph, fills between forty and fifty lines of a newspaper column.
Such paragraphs seem heavy and uninviting. Moreover, the casual reader
cannot readily comprehend and combine the various thoughts in so large a
group of sentences. Although there is no standard column width for
magazines, the number of words in a line does not usually exceed eight.
A paragraph of 250 words that occupies 30 eight-word lines seems less
attractive than one of half that length. The normal paragraph in
journalistic writing seldom exceeds 100 words and not infrequently is
much shorter. As such a paragraph contains not more than four or five
sentences, the general reading public has little difficulty in
The beginning of the paragraph, like the beginning of the sentence, is
the part that catches the eye. Significant ideas that need to be
impressed upon the mind of the reader belong at the beginning. If his
attention is arrested and held by the first group of words, he is likely
to read on. If the beginning does not attract him, he skips down the
column to the next paragraph, glancing merely at enough words in the
paragraph that he skips to "get the drift of it." An emphatic beginning
for a paragraph will insure attention for its contents.
REVISION. It is seldom that the first draft of an article cannot be
improved by a careful revision. In going over his work, word by word and
sentence by sentence, the writer will generally find many opportunities
to increase the effectiveness of the structure and the style. Such
revision, moreover, need not destroy the ease and naturalness of
To improve the diction of his article, the writer should eliminate (1)
superfluous words, (2) trite phrases, (3) general, colorless words, (4)
terms unfamiliar to the average reader, unless they are explained, (5)
words with a connotation inappropriate to the context, (6) hackneyed and
mixed metaphors. The effectiveness of the expression may often be
strengthened by the addition of specific, picture-making, imitative, and
connotative words, as well as of figures of speech that clarify the
ideas and stimulate the imagination.
Sentences may frequently be improved (1) by making their grammatical
structure more evident, (2) by breaking up long, loose sentences into
shorter ones, (3) by using short sentences for emphasis, (4) by varying
the sentence length, (5) by transferring important ideas to the
beginning of the sentence.
Every paragraph should be tested to determine whether or not it is a
unified, coherent group of thoughts, containing not more than 100 words,
with important ideas effectively massed at the beginning.
Finally, revision should eliminate all errors in grammar, spelling,
punctuation, and capitalization. Every minute spent in improving an
article adds greatly to its chances of being accepted.
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