observation in articles

When you’re stuck

Sometimes a writer just can’t seem to get started. The lead is illusive, and, worse, the writing seems lame, weak and unimaginative. Here’s a strategy used by Jeffery Sheler.

When he is stuck for an opening, he begins in the middle, with the knowledge that he will return to the opening and hammer it out after he nails the middle.

Once you begin writing feature articles on a regular basis, you, too, will develop some tricks that help you manage when you seem to be swimming in information. Sheler says that he can start in the middle because he has mastered the format of the typical article. Once you know the formula, you can deviate from it to write inventive feature articles that use refrains, regional dialects, literary devices, language that matches the topic and more.


As a writer, you might have to interview a source more than once to get the kind of detail called color. Sometimes the detail literally refers to the color of an object–the blue whale and red cup, for instance. In other cases, the detail refers to the person’s facial expressions, the music playing in the background, the aroma of popcorn in the microwave, any sensation derived from your senses.

Among the best writers of color is Edna Buchanan of Miami Herald fame. In a feature article about Buchanan’s work as a police reporter, Calvin Trillin of The New Yorker said he liked the color of her writing, particularly in an article about Gary Robinson, an ex-con. 

Buchanan reported that Robinson bullied his way to the counter at a Church’s chicken restaurant only to be told that all the fried chicken had been sold and only nuggets were left. The man, drunk, slugged the woman at the counter and a fight ensued leaving the ex-con shot dead by a security guard.

Buchanan began her piece with “Gary Robinson died hungry.”

Buchanan has made a national reputation for writing about crime with the fascination of a person who wants to know what song played on the radio when the fight broke out, the kind of table cloth that a widow used in the dining room, the year, make and model of the luxury car where the gangster kept his golf clubs and all the other details that vary from story to story.

These details make for compelling reading regarding the genre, but the pro knows when the detail adds and when the detail is irrelevant. As a writer you must use discernment to tell your audience the observations and sensations that add to the narrative. Add, don’t distract.

Here are some examples of leads with increasing color:

Word association

Children who pray may not walk on water but they can sure rise above troubled currents.

That opening is okay, but it sounds a little moralistic. The tone should be light to avoid casting one child as the stark villain and the other as the angel. The idea is to use language associated with water to make the point. This idea is a good one but remember not to take it too far or your reader will turned off.

An unadorned statement

Three-year-old Taylor Smith found that an afternoon prayer by the neighborhood pool was just the right response when she met another child who didn’t want to share.

This version is similar to the AP story on the toddler and the telephone call. It merely tells us the conclusion and now we’re ready to hear the details.

Word play

Some of us pay lip service to the idea of prayer in times of uncertainty. For three-year-old Taylor Smith, a prayer off the lips is a natural as the doggy paddle.

This lead is a combination of the two approaches. It uses some mild word play “pay lip service” and “prayer off the lips” to suggest a playful tone. The lead tries to suggest the context by mentioning the doggy paddle, a type of stroke that is used in swimming. Most readers will understand this association and the two sentences serve to set-up the story. Enough details are missing to pique the reader’s curiosity. Provoking the reader to continue is among the most challenging of techniques and the most satisfying of results when it works.

Now you can insert the details. Let’s go with that last lead and add some details.

Some of us pay lip service to the idea of prayer in times of uncertainty. For three-year-old Taylor Smith, a prayer off the lips is a natural as the doggy paddle.

Taylor waded into the neighborhood pool the other day and spied a little girl about her age playing with toys. But when Taylor moved in closer for a chat, the little girl said, “These are my toys. Stay away. Go back to your mother!”

Dazed, Taylor’s mother, Barbara, saw the encounter and walked over to Taylor and could hear her toddler mumbling.

“Jesus, help this little girl to be happy.”

The waters may have been troubled, but Taylor wasn’t. She retrieved a toy whale and cup from her bag and began splashing with her oldest friend–Mom.

The point for a short item such as the one about the little girl in the swimming pool is to keep it brief and snappy. By judiciously selecting the best words and reworking the prose to whittle it down to leanness form, the item will read well. In this case, we added an extra dimension, a modest moral. In most cases, a moral is inappropriate, and readers will find the lesson to be heavy-handed. However, if it works without calling undue attention to itself, then use it.

For those adventurous writers, try making a connection between a biblical account that mentions prayer and water. Can you think of any? Another angle is prayer and children. A writer could use a Bible concordance such as Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible to find the precise biblical references to all these ideas. The word “children” takes up nearly five pages in that reference book. The potential danger to this approach is that a writer could lapse into a preachy tone and lose the sparkle.

The following short article uses the reportorial style of writing to tell the story of a public school and its practice of reading the Bible. Notice the use of numbers to add precision and the quotes to end the article. The last paragraph is an anecdote, a short story in the February 7, 1994 issue of Christianity Today.

Bible Reading Ends Years After Ban

For nearly 40 years, students in Pennsylvania’s Warrior Run School District began classes with Bible reading over the intercom system. In December, the practice stopped.

Since 1955, the 1,200-student district permitted public Bible reading and excused students who did not want to listen. Even though the U.S Supreme Court ruled in 1963 such Bible reading was “ indirect coercive pressure.” The recitation continued unabated until teacher Jay Nixon condemned it recently and the Silver Spring, Maryland-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State warned school officials that “your continuance with this practice will open the school district to a lawsuit and resulting attorney’s fees.”

Senior Janelle Smith read the last passage from Luke 1 in December. “It should have been ‘Jesus wept,’” says school board president David Hunter.

He has received dozens of letters of support and is optimistic. “Now we have to see what’s possible within the law.”

This is an excerpt from Dr. Michael Ray Smith‘s book FeatureWriting.net. Used with permission.

Download the entire book for free from our MTI Online resource center.

Photo by Maël BALLAND on Unsplash

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