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A Reflection on the Semester in Feature Writing

After 13 weeks, I learned two important lessons from my feature writing class. First, writing is an art. There are many stories out there; however, it is good writing, good storytelling to share those stories. Good writing begins with the right approach and angle to the story. To discover this perfect angle, a writer has to do a lot of background research. Half the challenge to good writing is finding a good story idea. The secret to good writing is research. However, stories are like onions: they have many layers. Writing may peel away one layer, but multimedia components, such as videos, blogs and podcasts, can expose another layer. This semester, I learned that a good story is well-researched and written, but a great story is well-researched, written and includes a multimedia component, which adds to the story.

What I enjoyed most about the class is that “Feature Writing” is a misnomer for the class. True, Feature Writing entailed a lot of writing; however, the class also included a multimedia component. I liked the incorporation of new iPads into the curriculum. I think it shows that the journalism department at Creighton University is up to date with the journalism field. Journalism is increasingly moving towards a digital format. Introducing students to new technology, such as the iPad, prepares graduates of the program for the field they’re about to enter. I also enjoyed the small class size, which allowed for more attention from the teacher. The blog posts also were a favorite of mine as they helped me to develop my writing skills.

The biggest challenge in this class was the amount of work outside of class, which was understandable. Before this class, many of my classes for my biology major involved work inside the classroom. It was difficult to schedule time around classes, work and other activities to interview, film or shoot for the class. If anything, the class taught me to be more organized and opened my eyes to the versatility required by the profession.

If you could go back and do something differently, I would ask for more in-class instruction on the use of multimedia. I understand that the iPads were a new addition to the class; nonetheless, I think students should have a better understanding of the technology before they are asked to use it.

Lastly, what I took from the class was a greater appreciation of the work it takes to write a feature article. Through that greater appreciation, I learned that I love to writing and I hope to continue to write in the future.

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Feature Writing Ethics

Ethics are  important to journalism, just as they are important to other professions. Having ethical standards ensures that journalists perform their duties to the fullest. Journalists are charged to disseminate truthful and unbiased information to the greater public. If journalists do not adhere to facts and the public loses faith in journalists, then the body of unbiased and truthful news becomes limited and biased and inaccurate information becomes the trusted source. Ethics also give journalism legitimacy as a profession. People respect journalism as a profession because of its ethical standards.

Journalists adhere to a number of ethical standards. As writers, journalists must respect and recognize intellectual property. Plagiarism is not tolerated any more in news media than in college. Journalists must also walk a fine line when getting information for stories. As their appearance increases, anonymous sources are becoming a big journalism ethics topic. In certain circumstances, anonymity is acceptable; however, anonymous sources make it hard for readers to trust the information.  Journalists must also consider when a line is crossed when gathering information about tragedies or disasters.  Oftentimes, following disasters and tragedies, reporters flood the affected area, looking for the latest breaking news and interviews. Examples of this include the school shootings at Columbine and Sandy Hook. The parents of the victims did not need to give interviews and photographs during their grief process. Reporters and photographers need to respect the families of the victims, while still covering the tragedy.

How To Articles

To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I read a “How To” article. Matter of fact, I don’t know if I ever have read an instructional article. Most of the articles I read are informational and hard news. And if there are any articles I read that are instructional, they are opinion pieces, which tell me how I should think about this or that; rather than, how I should build, create or find something step-by-step.

After a quick search on the Internet, I found millions and millions of “How To” articles by do-it-yourself-ers and blogging hobbyists. There is even a website—called Wikihow—that is  one-stop shopping for many of your instructional needs. That’s got to be an app for that as well. However, searching “how to articles” does not turn up any articles from professional papers or magazines. Instead, I narrowed my search to instructions on how to enroll in health care programs in the new Affordable Care Act insurance exchanges. Since the launch date of Oct. 1, the online insurance exchange has experienced many technical problems, which has left people unable to enroll in new programs. CNNMoney provides an outline of how the enrollment process should work. Steps are not numerically listed, but it’s in order from beginning to end. The article includes contact information for assistance. Most importantly, the article tries to explain these insurance exchanges to the six in 10 Americans who are not aware of the exchanges, according to CNNMoney. To improve this article, they could discuss who does and does not apply for federal subsidies and include a direct link to the online insurance exchange.

Everyone has a story to tell

What did you do this morning? You maybe rolled out of bed after hitting the snooze on your alarm three times. You maybe took a shower and dressed. Then you made breakfast or skipped breakfast because you were late to work or had to get the kids to school on time–or both. Why did you have to hit the snooze on your alarm three times? What did you wear to work or school? Where were you off to in such a hurry? Or do you normally not eat breakfast? These are but a few questions that arise about our daily morning routines. The answers to these questions are as diverse as we are. Someone may be hitting the snooze on his alarm clock for the third time because he is a doctor or a policeman or a flight controller who works the night shift.  A woman may skip breakfast every morning because she bakes delicious pastries in her bakery fresh at the crack of dawn. Or a man skips breakfast because he receives his food through a tube and he couldn’t be late for his training session for the marathon he is participating in next month. I believe everyone has a story to tell. You just have to ask the right questions. Answers to the most benign questions can lead to interesting feature stories.

However, this is easier said than done as a journalist. We as journalists often find it easy to tell others’ personal stories; it is our job after all. But when the attention is focused on us, we often shy away from the spotlight. I don’t often tell people my story about weight and self image, at least not until I’ve known them for a while. I don’t want to come across as preachy or religiously healthy—both of which I’m not. Whenever I share my story, I hope people think about the effect weight and self-image has on young adults. I don’t share my story for praise or congratulations. I share it as one of a million of stories told and untold that are part of the obesity epidemic and bullying narrative. I hope to spark internal and external discussions about obesity and bullying and to encourage others to share their stories. No story is boring. Everyone has a story to tell.

Matthew Hansen does column writing right

I am a fan of Matthew Hansen’s column in the Omaha World Herald. He always writes in a way that brings his reader into the story. His stories, especially the human interest pieces, are always captivating. As a columnist in Omaha, Neb., he localizes his stories and writes about people, places and things in America’s biggest small town. In his latest column, he tells the story of the Millard North cheerleaders at a Friday night football game. However, this is no ordinary cheering squad. The squad includes girls who aren’t usually cheerleaders, who are classified as “special needs.” To better tell this heartwarming story, Hansen uses short, quick sentences to separate big paragraphs and to help the story flow. He also maintains a theme of cheering–cheering on the football team as much as the new cheerleaders–throughout the story.  Of course, Hansen, being a great reporter, does the footwork reporting to give background to explain how the “Sparkle Girls” practiced and practiced for that night’s game. Though he did not focus on a lot of the tips from Oon Yeah, he really didn’t need to. The story was more of a human interest piece than an opinion piece. He didn’t need to be critical or refer to nonexistent opposing viewpoints. No solution was needed; the story was praising a solution to timeless teenage cliches. Under the Millard North football lights, Hansen showed yet again why he writes a syndicated column.

Video Project

Overall, I think the experience highlighted the necessity of the iPad Mini as a new tool for Journalists. I could imagine a journalist writing the draw of houses on Halloween creating a video on his iPad, with interviews and clips from inside the haunted house. With his handy iMovie add, he could edit a video in a matter of minutes to bundle with his story. A tease to the multimedia in the printed article would bring people to the newspaper’s website, which editors and publishers like to hear. Besides having a catalog of video editing apps, the iPad Mini also has video-enhancing accessorizes like a microphone and tripod, which raise the quality of the video. Good video is only a touch away with the iPad Mini.

What I enjoyed most about shooting and editing video on the iPad mini was the cohesion of those two processes in one device. Of course, a journalist can film or shoot stills on his iPhone or DSLR, but he cannot easily edit his stills or videos out in the field. With the ease of several swipes and taps, a reporter can edit and file a story and a video quickly, even while the story is still developing. However one trouble with iPad operation should be warned.

Kevin Coffey visits Creighton feature writing class

From the moment Kevin Coffey walked through the door, he gave off the air of a writer and reviewer. His “I heart New York” t-shirt and converse and jeans combo made him out as someone who mashes trends and classics. As music review for The Omaha World Herald, Coffey is constantly filling reviews, previews, and stories about music from every genre imaginable. His Bon Jovi interview last week generated almost as much interest on his “Rocky Candy” music blog as his post about a band brawling with security at the Austin music festival South-By-Southwest last year. He said he tries to update his blog as constantly as possible, posting even a few paragraphs about each of the 200 to 300 music shows he goes to each year. He teaches aspiring journalists, like myself, that a journalist has to be jack-of-all-trades constantly honing his skills.

Coffey began at the World Herald as an online editor and recently began working as the music writer on staff. He stands as an example of the flexibility one must have to be in the profession. Coffey admits that as a Journalism and Creative Writing major who plays some guitar, he is no expert in music. However, he figures that after seeing so many shows, reading so many reviews and interviewing so many musicians, he has an ear and eye for what people may enjoy. His experience shows that journalists have to be able to become knowledgeable in something and make sense of it for readers. He also exemplifies to young journalists the importance of research before and after interviews and writing.

As a young writer, what I can most implement from Coffey’s advice is to be researching new stories well-ahead of interviews and deadlines. He also stresses organization, which he admits he lacks. Keeping a list of upcoming events and writing deadlines is practical advice. I also like how he is constantly updating his blog, keeping readers abreast of newest music news. I think I could do the same with my twitter account.

 

Setting the Scene

Laurie Hertzel in her talk on crafting scenes in feature writing lists six  tips for creating scenes in narrative articles. I found myself drawn to two of Hertzel’s tips in particular. She suggests that writers should move their stories backwards and forwards through time. Often, a scene progresses chronologically from beginning to middle to end. Hertzel challenges aspiring writers to play with this chronological order, as long as one does not loss the reader. Including flashbacks or glimpses of the present can give context to the scene. Hertzel also advises writers to learn how to end scenes. I am a long-winded writer, and so I sometimes drag out the scene with too many details. Learning how to end the scene while making the reader want to read more would make my stories more readable.

While Hertzel presents some new tips for crafting scenes, she also reaffirms some of the styling that I am already implementing in my writing. She mentions transitioning from scene to summary.

Here’s an example from my profile “The Balancing Act:”

He teaches by example, stepping gracefully up onto the line in one movement. Like a tightrope walker, he carefully places one barefoot in front of the other and spreads his outstretched hands to his sides to steady himself. Seven months after buying a slack line, Sandi crosses the entire length of the line in twenty steps.

“There’s no secret,” Sandi said smiling. “Just pure practice.”

Sandi’s life is a lot like his slacklining: a balancing act between classes and his job as a Resident Advisor; his life here and his life back home in Bolivia; staying on his current life trajectory and discovering his deeper purpose in life.

Hertzel also suggests writers vary the pace of the story.

Here’s an example of this from “The Balancing Act:”

[This ends the article after a large section about Nico’s search for purpose on a backpacking trip in Patagonia this summer.]

And as we stood talking before the slack line, Nico affirmed his sister’s description.

When a girl fell off the slack line, Nico was quick to ask if she was OK.

After all, Nico is still learning to balance himself.

And he’ll keep practicing his balancing act on Friday afternoons, even when it snows.

“Just wear your boots,” he said.

Though many of Hertzel’s tips are implementable, I do not understand the idea of writing with a camera angle. I feel that if one writes from this angle they will only capture what they see from their perspective. Writers should use others’ perspectives as well to set the scene.

Reviews

Mark Jenkins of NPR reviewed the new film about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, which debuted this past weekend. Overall, the review is very effective. The review is of Goldilocks length – it’s just right. Jenkins also includes details from the movie to interest readers but does not give away too much from the film. He also uses well-known pop culture and film references to better explain the movie. His lede gets right to the his point, so a reader who had only a moment to glance at the review would get the jest of Jenkins’s point. The review also gives background about Assange and WikiLeaks and provides suggests some pre-movie education on the film topic. It would help readers if the author included a rating system, so readers could quickly decide whether or not to see the film. Jenkins could have also included links at the end of the review directing readers to informative news stories about Assange and WikiLeaks. From Jenkins’s review, I learned that when writing a review, one must walk a fine line between engaging descriptions and glossy fluff. One should also include additional resources, such as links to other articles, that could help readers better understand the film.

NPR Music’s Oliver Wang reviews the newly released album The Poets of Rhythm Anthology: 1992-2003 by The Poets of Rhythm, a young retro-soul group from Germany. For those like me who are uninformed of the retro-soul music movement, Wang gives a brief history of the genre and explains the prominence of the band in the movement. To give readers a better idea of the band’s music, Wang compares the Poets of Rhythm to other bands and muscians, who may be more well-known to readers. He also includes a sample of the band’s music, which gives readers the best representation of the band’s sound. The review does not include links to where one can buy the album, which would make it easier for readers. Nonetheless, aspiring reviewers should take note of the why the review is written. Like news articles, reviews should be written so that anyone–familiar with the band or not–can read and understand them.

Query Letter

Oct. 7, 2013

 

Josie Bungert, Editor-in-Chief

Department of Journalism, Media and Computing

The Creightonian

2500 California Plaza

Omaha, NE 68178

 

Dear Josie Bungert,

This summer, Nico Sandi left his home in Bolivia to backpack through the mountains and taiga of Patagonia at the southern tip of South America. During his month-long trip, Sandi took a break from his American college life and hitchhiked through the small, isolated villages at the edge of the world in search of clarity of purpose. Sandi is recognizable to many students as the lone male resident adviser in the Cortina Community, the Bolivian studying abroad for all four years and the avid slackliner who ties off his line on the Kiewit Fitness Center law sunny afternoons.

However, many do not realize that his life, like his slacklining, is a balancing act between classes and his job as a Resident Advisor; his life here and his life back home in Bolivia; staying on his current life trajectory and discovering his deeper purpose in life. He is a deep, reflective person who has an interesting perspective of Creighton and the greater nation. He has a close relationship with his older sister, Majo, who he followed to Creighton.

I would like to submit for consideration a 1,600-word profile of Nico Sandi for your Scene section. I interviewed Sandi while he was doing slacklining on the grass in front of the Kiewit Fitness Center. I also sat down with his older sister, Majo, and talked to a fellow resident advisor and friend, Carissa Hernandes. I have also made a photo slideshow to complement the story.

I was the Editor-in-Chief for The Roundup, my high school newspaper. Under my leadership, The Roundup won several layout and story awards as well as best overall print and online high school newspaper in Arizona. Before I became Editor-in-Chief, I was the News Editor for two years and wrote hard and soft news stories as well as profile and preview stories. My writing has also been recognized nationally by Quill and Scroll and the National Scholastic Press Association. I have already written this profile of Nico Sandi and can forward it to you at your convenience.

Sincerely,

Eric Villanueva