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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

8 Tips for Writing True-Life Features

Chances are your day-to-day life isn’t all that exciting. That’s one of the reasons true-life features remain a staple of magazines, newspapers, and websites. We love to read about other people’s lives, especially when they have a fascinating story to tell.

As a writer, however, there’s more to finding, researching, selling and writing true-life features than meets the eye. In addition to excellent reporting skills, you must have the ability to tell a good story, and put your reader in the subject’s Crocs, heels, or sneakers to master the genre.

Here are eight tips for writing true-life features:

1. Separate Stellar from So-so Stories

While everyone has a story to tell, most of those are not saleable stories. In other words, the person herself, the inherent drama of her story, and the market you’re pitching to will all determine whether your pitch will sell. There has to be real drama, and a somewhat unique angle, to sell it.

2. Consider the Market
Often, but not always, the subject of a true-life feature will reflect the readership of the publication. Think about it. Sports Illustrated runs features about athletes who have overcome the odds to stellar careers; college alumni magazines run features about their noteworthy alumni; and parenting publications include stories about parents who have faced some kind of child-rearing challenges.

3. Break the Query Rule
When pitching a true-life feature, include enough details about the story to give the editor a sense of its inherent drama and why readers will be interested in it. In this case, I go beyond my usual four-paragraph template to make the case for the particular story.

4. Get Face-to-Face

If you’re writing a simple service story (e.g. “10 Ways to…”), you can do all of your interviews by phone or email. For true-life features, though, a face-to-face interview is preferable. You want to be able to observe the person's body language, gestures, and environment to provide details that will make the story come alive.

5. Ask Every Question

Don’t be afraid to ask “obvious” questions that remain unanswered. For example, if a young woman was being stalked by a former boyfriend and she didn’t call the police, ask why not. Maybe she’d called them before and they’d said they couldn’t do anything—or maybe his father was chief of police in her small town. The more questions you ask, the more information and detail you’ll have about the story.

6. Record your Interviews
Even if you’re an excellent note-taker, recording your interviews is essential. You may want to videotape to capture even more detail. During your research, let your subject(s) know that you may be back in touch with follow-up questions.

7. Write a Story, not a Report

Before you begin writing the story, review your transcripts, videotapes, and any other information you gathered while researching the piece. Remember that a true-life feature should tell a story that includes a narrative arc, not just report what happened. Details will make the story come alive.

8. Close with Confidence
When it comes to ending the story, use as much care as writing the lead. Don’t just stop—look for a twist, insight or quote showing how this experience changed the person to close the piece. That will give your story—and your readers—a sense of resolution.
Want to know more about true-life features? My popular book, Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money, includes a chapter on writing profiles and true-life features as well as chapter on nine other hot nonfiction specialties.


  1. Thanks for the tips! I've found this type of writing to be more fulfilling than the service pieces I normally do but also a lot more challenging. And good markets can be tough to find, while nearly everyone (especially websites) wants service pieces.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Susan! I agree it's more fulfilling but these stories definitely take a lot more time than "straight" service pieces. :)

  3. Thanks for such a great post! I'm interested in specializing but having some trouble figuring out which direction to take. I've always enjoyed the human interest stories I write for my local newspaper, and I think that type of writing lends itself to the true-life features you're talking about here.

    This post gives me a great starting point for queries, and I plan to focus on that chapter in your book as well. Thanks for all you do!

  4. I'm bookmarking this post! I've had a couple of true-life features on the back burner, and wasn't quite sure how to pitch my ideas. This was just what I needed to get me started. Thank you!

  5. My pleasure, LC and Brigid. Keep me posted and let me know what shakes out. :)

  6. Thanks for all the great tips! Do you have any ideas on how to find people for true-life features? Most of the great stories I hear are from friends and I prefer not to use their stories to make money - or what do you think?

  7. Hi, Jytte--

    Friends are actually a good source of story ideas, as are friends of friends. Check out your local paper, too--often there will be real-life features that haven't yet been reported in national pubs. Just asking around is likely to get you good story ideas...tell everyone you know you're looking for "human interest" story ideas and you'll get plenty. In the past I wrote features about a local pastor who did RAGBRAI (a bike ride across Iowa) every year, a martial arts expert who teaches to people with physical disabilities, and even the dog at the local nursing home (though she wasn't a great interview).

    Good luck and keep me posted! :)