Canadian Magazine Industry News
24 March 2009,     CALGARY
Tips from the AMPA Conference, part two: Crafting a flawless feature

The Alberta Magazine Publishers Association held its annual conference in Calgary on Thursday and Friday last week. The good folks at AMPA have been kind enough to let us re-post material from the Alberta Magazines blog. In the article below, Avenue Calgary editor Käthe Lemon re-caps a seminar on feature writing given by former Canadian Geographic editor Rick Boychuck.


Argument, voice, character development and narrative tension make magazine writing special, says former Canadian Geographic editor Rick Boychuk. Photo by Don Molyneaux.
Rick Boychuk, former editor of Canadian Geographic, shared some of the accumulated knowledge of magazine feature writing that has helped him to win many National Magazine Awards.

Boychuk described the main aspects that make a magazine feature soar.

Before you start writing you need to know who you’re writing for, what the purpose of the piece is and what the length is. You need to build to the length because this is going to change the structure of the piece in magazine writing. And structure matters.

Magazine writing is not just marshalling the facts; it is not just reportage. What differentiates it from newspaper writing is storytelling—argument, voice, character development and narrative tension.

  • Argument. While newspaper writing is about reporting the facts, magazine writers are paid to tell what they think. Magazine stories should say something original about what has been learned, so don’t end on an ambiguous “on the one hand, on the other hand” conclusion. However, while magazine writing means we need to hear what you think, this doesn’t necessarily mean it should be told in the first person. Unless you have a personal engagement, really think about why you’re in the story.
  • Voice. Your voice is your take on the world. The best stuff you will write is the stuff you’re keenly interested in. Voice is also your chosen sentence structure, word choice, and punctuation. The more you understand about your prose, the more you’ll understand your voice. Write from your experience. Write from your outrage. Write from your passion.
  • Character development. Stories need to be told through the people involved in them. The look of the person often doesn’t matter (particularly if there is going to be a photo of them) but how they act, what they do and what they say are more important. Don’t people your stories too heavily or your reader won’t get to know each character. A 2,000 word piece should have a protagonist and an antagonist, but not much more. Readers should have a vivid idea of the characters. Every source will believe that they are selfless and flawless; it is the writer’s job to pick that apart.
  • Narrative tension. Architecture is critically important for magazine stories and for magazines. The only way to create tension is to build it and the only way to build it is through structure. The key here is the nut-graph; that pivot point between the introduction and the body of the story or conclusion. The nut-graph is the paragraph that essentially summarizes what the story is going to tell us. The introductory anecdote must set up the thematic ideas of the story and has to be a metaphor for the whole piece. Breaking the story into acts that build on each other can work well.

Fortunately, Boychuk also reassured us that everybody can be a better writer. Magazine writing is a highly specialized craft that takes time to develop.

Unfortunately, Boychuk believes not enough publishers understand the value of the little bursts of pleasure that readers get from good writing. These little burst are what build loyalty and what stay with a reader long after the issue has come and gone.
— K├Ąthe Lemon
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