I was lucky enough to attend a masterclass today with Mark Nichols, an award winning feature writer, war corespondent and travel writer. He has years of experience, spanning a variety of different roles within the news room, so his advice was invaluable. Mark’s tips for developing and pitching a feature was simple, but to the point and honest. Here’s a run down of what I took away from the class on how to make it in the feature business.
- Volunteer For Everything
Mark ended up picking up the military pages because of the lack of volunteers for the role. It was in 2001, before 9/11, when stories were fairly mundane. Then a few months later the war broke out and there were opportunities in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mark was the one at the centre. All because he took the job no one wanted.
- Be Prepared to Go Where the Action Is
When you are on the ground researching a story, you come away with first hand knowledge. You know what the situation is, because you witnessed it. Interviewing people directly and seeing situations for yourself mean that you can report with confidence and authority that you can’t get without that experience.
- Harness All the Tools At Your Disposal
Technology is invaluable, and we have more resources than ever as journalists to be able to get the job done thoroughly and to a high quality. But Mark made a great point about the resources that we’ve always had. Acknowledging your senses when you’re out in the field and using that to draw your readers in can be a unique angle. How many people can describe the sounds, tastes and smells that you got to experience? He asked who knew shorthand and I don’t think anyone raised their hand. He said it would be our best friend. “Do you ever write something you don’t understand? No, but do you ever record a conversation that you don’t understand? Yes, and it drifts away from you”. I better invest in some new notepads.
- Know Your History
This point, I have to admit, I was a little sceptical about. Mark shared with us several pieces he had done which hinged on dates or history of the area, and related that back to current affairs or topical subjects. He said that if you really know your history, then you can pull a story out of anywhere and seemed to prove it with his body of work.
- Take Your Life Experiences With You
Sometimes you know more about a subject than you think. Sometimes knowledge that you thought was unrelated will crop up as useful. Sometimes someone you knew, from way back when, will come in handy. It’s especially useful when you’re looking for a unique angle. Keep an eye on your peripheral, that’s where obscure angles come from and that’s what people want to read. And always be on the look out for a story.
- Hone Your People Skills
If you can ask the right questions, in the right order, then story practically writes itself. People are almost always the centre of the story, even if it’s because they hold the information. A lot of the time, they don’t even realise it. Not everyone has a journalism nose. If you can get people to tell you what you need to know, that’s half the battle. If you plan a story properly, and ask things in a constructive way, then you’ll have done the hard part.
- Most Of the Time It’s Luck !
Be resilient, be confident and put yourself out there. You’ll fail and people won’t want your story. But get up and try again. It’s a tough industry, so build up a tough skin!