story process

The formula

  1. The lead.
  2. A quotation from the primary source.
  3. A background paragraph, called the nut graf or nut paragraph, which provides the essential background and often the reason you are writing the article. The idea is the important information can be said in a nutshell.
  4. The body of the article, which features competing voices that challenge each other.
  5. Anecdotes and quotations arranged in some kind of organization as outlined in this chapter.
  6. A conclusion that often echoes ideas mentioned in the opening. Frequently, feature writers conclude a work by using a quotation from the first speaker, the primary source.

Watch the free online workshop “How to write fast on deadline–use the formula.”

When stuck, Sheler found that he can ease his way into his magazine article by jumping to the middle, just below the nut graf, and develop the article’s tension. Editors such as Marvin Olasky say that many articles have a kind of rhyme scheme that reflects the tension inherent in describing the point-counterpoint of many features. The scheme may be on the order of A, B, A, B, B, A. Each letter represents a point of view or a quotation, and the writer can alternate from one view to the other using transitions such as, “Not all archeologists agree,” or “The medical community is divided on the proper treatment.” When you are hard-pressed to write, jump to this part of the article and work on it until the lead becomes apparent. Some writers even fashion the opening only after the rest of the article is complete. It’s not a technique that will work for everyone, but it is a good one to keep in mind when you just can’t get started.

Sheler often collects much of his interview by telephone and he types his source’s answers directly on the computer screen. This method can help a writer formulate an opening because the information is typed and easier to read than a notebook brimming with notes. To achieve this ease of reading, some writers type their notes. The typed notes make an at-a-glance review of notes very convenient. In addition, the theme of the article tends to emerge from the material when it can be examined easily. As you read your typed notes, highlight the rich quotations and underline the unusual anecdote.

Before long, the raw material of your article will stand out and you, the architect, only need decide on the best way to design and construct the finished project. Get started. Write the draft, walk away from it, and then return for a second or third sweep. Soon, you will see the words take shape and a crude word building will be revealed. In time, the building will become sturdy.

Don’t give up. Too many people, who want to “have written” but never write, give up before they start. The task seems to daunting. Forget yourself. Remember, it’s not about you. It’s about the article. Then write with the conviction that your efforts may not be immortal, but what effort made by us is? All of it will pass away, so do your best and be content knowing that you aren’t the writer that you will be someday.

Feature stories as short stories

Writer Jon Franklin has a mysterious and thoughtful hypothesis. He says that feature writing for today is what short stories were to yesterday.5 He calls it the nonfiction short story, but chides news reporters for focusing on the resolution, the end, without considering the complications. Journalists working in hard news, even feature writing, focus on the culminating event, the end of the drama, without exploring the events that led to the conclusion. To have a satisfying conclusion requires a thoughtful beginning and middle. As you develop your article, think about it as a part of the human drama where love, pain and death are part of life. Life is complicated and audiences want to witness the way a character resolves a problem. We all desire insight, coping skills, even easy lessons on the way life works.

Writers use devices to identify the action, often in pairs. Unemployment strikes a talented artist Lisa, first card. Lisa overcomes and makes her reputation, second card. See the pair?

Unemployment, a defeat. Finds art, a success. In the process of the struggle, the conflict, Lisa shows tenacity as she fights back. It refines her and builds her character and others become inspired by her actions. The fight isn’t without setbacks. Lisa tried and failed, tried again and learned from the mistakes. She learned about herself and about the world. As you write your feature article, remember to apply the narrative approach to tell us a story. You will feel more fulfilled and your audience will be more gratified. In the next section, you will read about Dr. Dennis E. Hensley who will provide practical ideas on ways to imbed the story in a feature article.

Biography of Dennis Hensley

Dr. Dennis E. Hensley is a professor of English at Taylor University Fort Wayne, where he directs the professional writing major. His program is one of more than 300 around the nation that offer in-depth creative writing classes designed to get writers published. He is the author of six novels, 34 nonfiction books (including eight textbooks on writing), 150 short stories and more than 3,000 freelance articles including Writer’s Digest, The Writer, Modern Bride, Downbeat, The War Cry, Reader’s Digest, The Detroit Free Press, The Indianapolis Star, The Cincinnati Enquirer and others.

He has received many honors including “The Dorothy Hamilton Memorial Writing Award” and the Indiana University “Award for Teaching Excellence” and he served as “Writer in Residence” or “guest professor” at 47 colleges and universities. He was a sergeant in the U.S.

Army in Vietnam in 1970-1971. He and his wife Rose have two grown children, Nathan and Jeanette.

by Judy Baker

Editor’s note: Writer Judy Baker interviewed Dennis Hensley to learn his secrets for success in writing. Judy Baker is an award-winning freelance public relations counselor and writer with over 20 years of experience. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., and her master’s degree in journalism from Regent University in Virginia Beach.

Writer combines journalism with a literary style

Q: How did you get started?

A: From the time I was a senior in high school, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Up to that point, I had been interested in studying law, but a teacher came into my life who changed all that. He opened books for me in a way no one had ever done before. I decided from that point on that I wanted to be a writer. The problem was that when you went to college and said you wanted to be a writer, it was interpreted as “Oh, you want to teach English.” “No,’ I said. ‘I really want to be a writer–novels, short stories, that sort of thing.’ So, what I had to do was take straight English major courses and try to take as many of the courses that they called “creative writing” or “advanced expository writing.”

I wasn’t getting anywhere near the success I had hoped to find out of a college degree because while the teachers knew a lot about the esoteric value of literature, they didn’t really know anything about the basics–like how do you land an agent, copyright laws and so on. So I was trying to learn that on my own by reading writing magazines, and books on writing and getting an awful lot of rejections. What I did sell were often small markets–like I started writing fiction when I was only 18 years old and I would sell to Sunday School take-home papers–we’re talking a 1,200-word story at a half-penny a word, six bucks! It was exhilarating to say that I’ve sold fiction, but people would ask if I made a living at it and I would say, ‘I don’t even make an existence at it.’

It was an apprenticeship program. I look back at it now and realize that some of the editors who were taking time to edit my copy weren’t paying me much in the way of money, but they were investing in my career and it was important for me to get that kind of feedback–something that I was missing in a college class.

By the time I got through college, I had done work on the college newspaper and that helped a great deal and had done all this other freelancing for Christian markets and small publications. I went in the service because I had met a literary agent and he looked at a manuscript of mine, even though he told me he didn’t have time to take on any new clients, and it was the best and worst thing that happened to me simultaneously. He said, “You’ve got all the mechanical skills–you know how to use the semi-colon and all that–you just don’t have anything to say.”

He said, “So, what have you ever done? Have you ever been married?”

I said, ‘No.’

“Have you ever traveled around the world?”

I said, ‘Not really.’

“Have you ever been in the military?”

I said, ‘No.’

“You ever bought a home or worked a full-time job?”

So, he went through all this stuff and I said no, no, no. Then he asked me why was I trying to tell people what life’s all about if you’ve never done anything to find out yourself.

And, really, he was right.

I was writing from that limited focus that I had from being only 18 to 20 years old. I didn’t realize that I had to bring my own unique set of circumstances to what I wrote–and while there are only nine basic plots, it’s how you approach it that requires imagination.

So, I took his advice and when I got out of college, I continued to work as a writer. I worked by day as a substitute teacher, and then I joined the military and that really changed my whole worldview. The second year I was in I went to Vietnam for 12 months and it changed my world perspective. The war lets you see people at their best and worst at the same time where little people become giants and giants become cowards.

My dad was in World War II and he asked me to keep a daily journal. He made me promise him I would keep a journal and he said that years later I would be glad that I had done it. Obviously, he was right. I thought I would never forget something that had happened but time does get way from you.

I kept a journal and I had time to do this activity because I’d worked 12 hours on and have 12 hours off. I had a lot of time to read. I read an awful lot of books then and talked to lots of interesting people. Back then during the draft, there were a lot of college students in the U.S. Army, so you could talk to really interesting people, which gave me a different perspective.

When I came back after being in the service, I used the G.I. bill and went back to school and got a master’s degree in English. But it was a different kind of life for me because I jumped into working on a master’s degree in English, and I was reading Russian literature and the like but at the same time, I realized that I’ve got to be with other writers. Writers know about writing. So I started hanging out with writers and by that I mean journalists and novelists, people who really knew, and by hanging out, I mean I made contact with them by mail. I lined up jobs for myself with magazines and really found that you need to be around writers if you want to learn about writing.

So when I finished that and I went down to Ball State University in Indiana, I combined the two because I realized my life was going in two ways–there was going to be the pragmatic part–which I could write for a dollar–I could be a hired gun. But I also wanted to write novels and short stories and I wanted to take a literary approach to some of the journalism that I had done. So I got the best of both worlds. I started on a Ph.D. at Ball State University and began teaching part time there, too. But at night and on weekends, I worked as a newspaperman at the Monthly Star. Now that was a really great thing because nobody had time to be kind to you. They would just say things like this lead really stinks and they’d cross it out or they’d ask who really cares about what the burglar wore. What did he steal?

That experience is great if you have what I call the turtle shell hide–if you can shut up and take it, you can learn fast. It is the best training ground. In fact, I think I’d be a newspaperman today if it paid better. It was fun. I enjoyed hitting the beat. I’d go out and I’d do everything. I did interviews, covered civic theater and then I’d go back at 1 in the morning and write up the copy, and be out there again at 6 a.m. There was a real adrenaline rush when you’re a newspaperman.

But I tried my hand at fiction, too. I wrote a novel, a mystery-romance novel, called The legacy of Lillian Parker. There’s a character in that novel who is a POW in Vietnam, who after 10 years gets to come back home. He’s a parallel of me in that he and I were born in the same city on the same day. We went in the U.S. Army at the same time; we went overseas at the same time.

Of course, then the character has to have a life of his own, and I was never a POW in Vietnam so that’s where my journalism background came into play. I found Vietnam POWs at the VFW, the American Legion and so on and I put my interview skills to work. I asked what it was like, what did you say, what was your greatest worry, and how did you remain mentally tough. I just kept probing these guys all the time. I asked them to tell me about the other guys and what it was like and I actually wrote several profiles of these fascinating men and sold them to magazines, but the whole time this exercise was journalistic research that was to be put into fiction.

When I turned around and wrote a novel, The legacy of Lillian Parker, I created the POW scenes that rang true. That’s where I really married the two, the skills of the one transferred to the other so people would say, “now that may be fiction, but it has this verisimilitude, this semblance of truth that says this guy knows something about it.

Q: So you’re saying that there really would have been no way you could have written this book without having employed your journalism skills?

A: I know people who try to do only fiction writing and they go off and try to do interviews and they don’t have that savvy of knowing when somebody is conning you or when someone is leveling with you, and they don’t know how to establish that rapport. All of the things that come with the practice of interviewing, plus I don’t think they have the understanding of how much preparation you do for an interview. After I prepare well for an interview, the source often will say, “You found all that out about me?” Then they know that you’re interested but they also know that you’re going to get past the trivial stuff and let them talk about some deep material.

That’s just one example of where knowing journalism came into play. Other times my skills as being a pretty fair researcher have really helped. I wrote a thriller medical novel, The gift, about a man who has some abilities other people don’t have and knowing how to research diseases–going to the University of Michigan hospital and calling people at the Mayo Clinic. It’s about knowing how to get information that I wanted from the Internet and from textbooks or contacting a doctor and nurse and a genetic researcher to make sure that I was using the right terms while not losing my reader. You know you can bury your reader in terms and then it becomes too hard for them to follow. So it’s that balance of understanding how the newspaper person will write for the public and give them key information but in such a way that the lay person will say, “Oh, yeah, I’m following; I’m tracking on that.”

Now the side of traditional journalism that we’ve always been taught is to use the inverted pyramid, but in fiction, that won’t fly because you can’t just throw a whole bunch of facts at people and expect them to bond with the character. They don’t understand the plot and they don’t really care. So there you have to use a different kind of technique and that’s where studying literature really does help. And, oddly enough, that can transfer back the other way in good journalism.

Let’s say that I’m writing my nonfiction book that came out in 1998, Millennium approaches. That’s a nonfiction book about futurism. It’s about what the 21st Century will be like. What I did there was to use my fiction writing and my literary writing to help so that I would able to say what I think medicine will be like in the 21st Century; however, rather than layer a bunch of statistics on top of each other, I used the narrative approach. When I did an interview and an expert said, “Okay, we’re doing such and such research project,” I’d stop them and make them tell a story. The source may say, “Our research shows that 27%,” and I wrote it in as a narrative that caused readers to say, “That’s fascinating.”

By blending the literary with journalism, the result is good reading. I blended the two when I wrote The legacy of Lillian Parker–pure journalism that helped me prepare for the novel.

And that’s what I call literary journalism–the idea that you can cross over back and forth and use those skills so that the reader is taught and fascinated at the same time.

Q: What is it that you want to happen to the audience on page 1 or online when the person reads the first sentence?

A: Obviously, you’ve got to have a great lead in modern journalism, but for me, when I’m writing fiction, I’ve got to do five basic tasks from the start.

  1. Establish the setting
  2. Because people not only want to know where they are, but
  3. When they are.
  4. You’ve got to make them bond with the main character; otherwise, why would I want to continue reading?
  5. I have to establish what kind of story it’s going to be–adventure, mystery, romance, whatever–I have to establish this format right away.

Q: All of this right from the beginning?

A: Yes. You’ve got to grab people’s attention on the first page because when they go into the bookstore and pick up the book, they read the first few sentences to determine if it’s going to pull them in, if it’s readable. For example, in one of Jack London’s short stories is this first line: The Yukon, where to lose a glove is to lose a hand. That is the greatest lead you can imagine because you’re right there; you know where you are. You know what the tension of the story will be, you’re going to freeze to death. It’s all in one line, one line! That’s a journalist telling you what it’s really like because it puts you right there.

Q: But what about great novelists who have never spent a minute involved or engaged in journalism?

A: If you say a great novelist, then you will have to tell me who they are. There are so many who were journalists: Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Margaret Mitchell, Ernest Hemingway. If any of these writers had the ability to write, even Mark Twain and Damon Runyon, they were journalists. They understood how to write precisely. Now if you want to go the other way and talk about someone such as Ann Tyler, I’d say, “Okay.” But I don’t like her books.

Q: Is your view a little jaundiced?

A: No, I understand why people like her work because they are character-driven. I need a plot; she doesn’t need a plot. I read her stuff about how people go through life and have these experiences and I think, “Okay, what’s the point?” To other readers, that is the whole point.

For me, I want to see how a character copes with life on a day-to-day basis. I want to see what shapes his or her life. I don’t really need a crisis and an outcome. Writers such as Tyler don’t need a background in journalism because they are just observing their community. It’s a different kind of novel that appeals to a different kind of market and it’s a very limited market.

John Grisham is a good writer not because he’s a lawyer but because as a lawyer, he was a fact-researcher. He was digging into other people’s lives, their backgrounds. See the power of a good researcher? Lawyers do the same kind of in-depth interviews that journalists do.

Q: So anyone who is by profession or by nature a curious person is going to be a better writer?

A: Yes, but let’s not make the mistake saying lawyers are good writers! At the very start, you need to learn to research and, then, of course, you need to learn how to write.

Q: How has your faith impacted your writing, both as a news writer and as a fiction writer?

A: I am a writer who is a Christian. A Christian carpenter doesn’t just build churches, right? I have never written anything that I would be embarrassed for someone in my Sunday School class or in my family to read or that I would worry about being held accountable for. I want it to be edifying and uplifting. I write for a living, but everything I write I think has a redeeming value to it. I don’t think if you’re a quality writer that you have to stoop to choosing either topics or styles or writing that are less than transferable to any audience. I’ve tried to hold certain standards to what I do. I don’t use off-color language; I don’t write graphic sex scenes and I don’t write about gratuitous violence. As a reporter, sometimes that is what the story is, but I haven’t set out to do that in my own writing.

I think, too, this decision has led me to be a point man for the secular world. In other words, I had a contract recently with Random House and prior to that it was Avon Books. Now these are top publishers in the secular world that will publish just about anything. When they approach me to do something, they know that there will be no off-color scenes and that it will be good, solid reporting. That’s what they call a “Hensley book.”

Q: You have deliberately built a reputation.

A: Yes, but that doesn’t mean you don’t fight over manuscripts. The editor may come back and ask me to spice it up by doing this or that, but the book belongs to the author. Publishing companies are in the business to make money, but the author may have to say no.

For instance, I wrote a book on time management for a secular publishing company, Bobbs-Merrill. The last chapter that I wrote was a testimonial to why I manage my time the way I do. I want quality time with my family, time in my community, time in my church and time for work. The publisher came back and said it sounded too religious and inspirational. I said but that’s who I am and there needs to be a chapter in the book that explains why I, or anyone, should manage their time. They fought me about that and eventually I told them that I wasn’t interested in doing more books with them unless I could have a voice in my work.

They agreed to go with the time management book the way that I wanted it and, amazingly, they got marvelous feedback. People wrote me and told me how much they particularly liked the last chapter!

So, guess what? The second book that I wrote for them, Uncommon sense, they told me, “Go with your best judgment!” So, that’s it. You earn your reputation one little challenge and response at a time.

Q: Why did you write some of your books under a pen name?

A: Holly Miller and I have co-authored seven books. When we started doing this work together, we didn’t want to write under a man’s name and we didn’t want to write under a woman’s name, so we devised it this way. H O L is from her name, Holly. D E N is from Dennis. Together that equals HOLDEN. We say, “It’s L E S of L I E to admit we’re HOL and DEN to make Leslie Holden, the pen name. Research shows that women purchase 91% of romance novels, and they will not buy a romance novel unless a woman writes it.

My friend, Sally Stuart, writes westerns, but they won’t let her write under her name. She uses George Dillon.

Q: Would there be an occasion that you wrote a book solo and used a pen name?

A: Yes. I wrote a book for Berkley under the name of Roberta Grimes because the average person who buys a mainstream novel is a woman between the ages of 38 and 46 years of age, a college graduate who expects the book to be written from a woman’s perspective.

Q: What about Memoirs of a Geisha, written by a male author, Arthur S. Golden?

A: But, you have to understand two things here. He presented himself as a man who has a master’s degree in ancient oriental history, so he’s a researcher and he was a man who was a journalist and had done a lot of writing before that. He went to Japan, studied about geishas, talked to geishas and learned all he could.

The reason that I spent so many years co-authoring novels with Holly Miller was because I didn’t know how women thought and she taught me. She didn’t know how men thought, so when I’d write a passage of dialogue, she’d say it was good dialogue, but it was not how a woman would express it. We taught each other as we went along. These days I can do my own dialogue for both men and women.

Q: Talk more about the concept of literary journalism and its worth today.

A: Print media has become polarized. In other words, either you’re getting just the facts thrown at you or you’re getting people who want incredible entertainment, such as the Harry Potter series. It’s one extreme or the other. The literary journalist comes in and says, all right, I can give you the information, but I can make it very palatable. In an era prior to radio and television, that is what people wanted. They wanted their information, but in a very entertaining form. So when Jack London wrote about the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, he put the reader right there. We’re coming back to that kind of writing because we’re such a visually-oriented society. Writers today know they have to give the facts, but in such a way that the reader stays with it. We have rediscovered literary journalism. You have to be a storyteller. That is the main thing. When you say a flood cascaded down Main Street causing $10 million worth of damage, no one is really going to pay any attention to that. But the minute you show a woman standing in her flooded basement, holding her child and everything is gone, then you have a story with which the reader can bond. If they don’t bond with the story, they don’t care.

As a professor of journalism and English and someone who runs a professional writing program, my focus for my students for the 21st century is going to be on pushing students both ways. I make my students take fiction writing and I make them take journalism. I tell them they’ve got to learn how to draw from the best of both. I tell them that if they learn to be a great interviewer, then they will be great novelists. Your dialogue will ring true and your settings will be visual. If you learn to be a good storyteller, your feature writing will come more alive. It worked for me and it will work for any feature writer.

A long way from home, a short story

By Dennis Hensley, Used with permission

George and Emma Rodgers got into their Ford Fairlane. Though the car was nearly 20 years old, it had not been used all that often. When it had, George–or “Pops” as he was affectionately called by the family–had made sure it was in excellent condition before leaving and on returning.

They set off for a short ride that day with the cool winds blowing in from the Pacific. Maybe they could find something that would make them feel less like strangers in a strange land. George and Emma really had no need for a car. They had been living with their eldest son and his family for twelve years. They had watched their three grandchildren grow. The older two had married and were busy with children of their own.

The car was George and Emma’s symbol of independence. Up until six months ago, the Rodgers family had lived in a small suburb of Columbus, Ohio. They had not always lived in Columbus. The entire family was originally from Pennsylvania. In fact, George and Emma had grown up in a small town in western Pennsylvania and had never been to the city of Pittsburgh.

Then, suddenly, because of their age and health, they found themselves being uprooted and moved to unfamiliar territory.

During the previous twelve years they had adjusted well to their new home. They had made friends in Columbus, become active in a local church, and had joined the senior citizen’s club.

All seemed to be going well for the Rodgers family . . . until the day their son came home and announced he had accepted a new job in southern California.

Of course, George and Emma were thrilled for their son. He was excited about the new opportunity, the challenges, and even where the job would take him and his family. What parents wouldn’t have been happy? But George and Emma had already made one major adjustment late in life and had finally found their niche in that community. Beginning anew, now that they were in their seventies, seemed to be such an effort.

Their son wouldn’t hear of leaving them behind. He reminded them that they had adjusted well to the Columbus area. Where they now were going wouldn’t be that different. And, besides, look at the same weather they would enjoy year round.

When George and Emma first arrived in southern California they were fascinated. After two weeks, however, their fascination wore off, and they were ready to go back to Columbus.

It was true, they liked the mild climate. Leaving Ohio in February with six inches of snow on the ground and arriving in California with its palm trees and sunshine had lifted their spirits. But after the newness wore off, they took a good look around. It just wasn’t home.

Many of the signs, billboards and advertisements were written in Spanish, Cantonese, and Vietnamese. Streets and residential areas all had foreign-sounding names that George and Emma could not pronounce. On both sides of their new home their neighbors spoke only foreign languages. No, it was just not “their” America.

Excursions with their son and his family proved dangerous and alien as well. The malls and stores were very different. The side streets looked like four lane highways. The residential speed they were used to, thirty-five, was now a fast forty-five. Cars were everywhere. George could not get over the number of cars–at all times of day and night.

But finally George and Emma had decided to take a ride on their own and try to turn negatives into positive. For the first 20 minutes, they experienced few problems. Some teenagers hung out of their car windows and yelled at the Rodgers’ creeping car, and a couple of horns sounded, announcing the impatience of other drivers. But for the most part, the drive was fairly calm.

George was beginning to feel more confident and decided to venture a little farther than he had originally planned. Soon, however, he discovered he was lost. Had he realized he had inadvertently changed neighborhoods, there would have been no need for panic. But when he glanced at the street sign and saw that the familiar name had suddenly changed, he immediately thought the worst.

Frantically, George looked around seeking a place to pull over to read his map in order to discover some way of correcting his error. He always seemed to be in the wrong lane, however, and could not leave the main boulevard.

The farther he drove, the more panicked he felt. His speed slowed even more, and his sense of direction became confused as the road gradually began to turn.

“This is it! I’ve had it with southern California,” George said. “I don’t know what’s so wonderful about it here. If I ever get us back to the house, we’re going home.”

“Home, dear,” Emma asked.

“Ohio,” he replied.

Emma watched helplessly as her husband’s confidence vanished. She tried to look ahead for something that could get them out of their predicament. But she had never driven in California.

She was equally lost.

Ten more minutes passed before George saw a sign announcing a community park. He jerked at the wheel and maneuvered his car into the street. The “entrance” he chose, however, turned out to be an “exit.” George didn’t realize this until he had driven his car over the spikes.

His hands were clasped to the wheel, but the car remained immobile as he felt the air whoosh from his front left tire.

Directly across from the park sat a Mercedes. The driver was a man in his mid-forties. He had left the office late and had only a half-hour to get to his next appointment. His car phone was out for repair and he had no way to get in touch with his client. He just hoped Mr. Decker would be understanding.

The man have been watching the traffic, praying for a break, when he had seen the old man purposely turn his car into the park exit. He shook his head in disbelief as he watched the car’s tire sink, Well, he though, I guess I’m not the only one having problems today.

He inched his car forward and made a break for it. He had just passed the park’s exit when he knew he could not consciously leave this elderly couple stranded. He pulled over to the curb and put on the flashers.

Meanwhile, Emma had turned toward her husband, speechless. She watched as George curled and uncurled his fingers around the steering wheel. She was just about to ask what they should do when she looked up and saw the man approaching their car.

The man bent down and waited for the driver to roll down his window. “Well, mister, it looks like your day’s going about the same as mine,” he said with a smile.

George grunted and Emma’s eyes grew wide.

The man laughed. “Why don’t you two get out? You can sit on that bench in the shade. I’ll just back the car up. No use changing the tire where it’s sitting now.”

Emma looked cautiously at her husband. As George started to open his car door, the man ran around to the other side of the car and assisted Emma.

“Name’s Ted Snider, Ma’am,” he said.

Emma tried to smile as Ted helped her out of the car. She waited for George before walking over to the bench.

Ted watched them sit down before he got back into the car and moved it back onto the main street. Then he quickly went about the business of jacking up the car and changing the flat.

George and Emma sat by, watching in surprise. Their car was soon fixed. They ambled over to the side of the road and George extracted his wallet.

“I really appreciate it more than I can tell you,” George said. “I don’t have much, but at least let me pay you for your time, young man.”

“No. You keep your money, mister. I was glad to help out.”

“But how ever can we repay you, Ted?” asked Emma.

“Do you believe in angels, ma’am?”

“When I saw you two,” Ted said, “I couldn’t get this verse out of my mind: ‘Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so some people have entertained angels without knowing it.’ So, if you two are angels, then you can do me a favor by watching over my folks.”

Emma chuckled. “We’re not angels, Ted. But we’d be happy to watch over your parents. Where do they live?”

“Unfortunately, back in Cleveland. I was transferred out here last fall. I tried my best to get my folks to leave their home. I can’t really blame them. California’s still not really home for me either. We try to keep in touch, but it just isn’t the same. Especially around holidays and all.”

“Why don’t you give us your address and your parents’ address,” said Emma. “I’d love to write and tell them how kind you’ve been. Besides, we’ve recently moved from Ohio and I miss it terribly. I like to keep in touch with people from my neck of the woods.”

Ted grinned as he took out a notebook and jotted down the addresses, then handed the paper to Emma.

As she took the paper from him, she patted his hand. “And you’ll definitely be hearing from us,” she said.

Ted smiled and waved as George and Emma drove down the road toward their home.

Emma turned toward her husband. “You know, Pops, I’ve been thinking. Being separated from the kids might be hard on us and them both.”

“Yeah, Em,” George replied, “I know what you mean. I guess we can learn to adjust to California. There has to be something out here that we’re bound to like.”

“There’s Ted, our new friend,” said Emma.

George smiled. “Not a bad start.”

“Can you find our way back home?”

“I just did . . . thanks to Ted.”


Re-read this short story.

  1. Identify the beginning, middle and end of this article.
  2. Can a feature article have a similar organization?
  3. Count the number of times home is mentioned.
  4. Can a feature article use a reoccurring device such as repeated phrase or theme?
  5. Re-read Dennis Hensley’s biography.
  6. What habit of successful living most impressed you about this writer?
  7. What Hensley habit can you adopt to become a better writer?
  8. What was Hensley’s biggest mistake? What can you learn from it?
  9. Does his writing career have a theme that you can adopt?
  10. Did you notice how Dennis Hensley was able to sell portions of his work as articles yet work the information into a bigger work? How could that work for you?
  11. Are there advantages to writing feature articles should a writer want to write fiction?


Because, since

Use “because” for a direct relationship with a cause and effect.

The senate president quit because the job was too demanding.

Use “since” to suggest a sequence that follows logically.

He moved to Griffin, Ga., since he found a job there.

Between, among

“Between” is used to introduce two items.

The contest was between Dole and Kemp.

“Among” is used to introduce more than two items.

Among those interested in the nomination were Kemp, Dole and Buchanan.

Fewer, less than

The rule for “fewer” and “less than” also involves the idea of numbers. Use “fewer” for items that can be counted.

The mass communication student possesses fewer marbles than the psychology major.

Use “less than” for items that can’t be counted.

However, the psychology student has less brains than the mass communication student.

Cannon, canon

A cannon, two “n’s,” is a weapon, but a canon is a law, and is primarily used in association with


The pastor and deacons admonished the congregation to uphold the canon of scripture.

Tip: Avoid “due to” particularly when starting a sentence. It sounds stuffy. If you must start a sentence with this kind of reasoning, use “because.”

Because of a death in the family, the shop will be closed for the next three days.

A better sentence, however, is:

The shop will be closed for the next three days following a death in the family.

Tip: Always use contractions of words suggesting negation. Use “don’t” instead of “do not” and “can’t” for “can not.” The reason: In mass media writing, the “not” may be omitted accidentally and the meaning would be distorted.

Don’t be like the writer of a sex manual that told her readers the wrong facts about ovulation because she left the crucial “not” out of the sentence.

Developing the story, an example

Not long ago, a magazine asked me to write a feature article on U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-4, who teaches an adult Sunday School class. The editor asked me to write a 1,000-word profile that examines this identity of an elected official’s life–a congressman who regularly teaches Sunday School.

Time management as Swiss cheese

When writing any article, it is good to think of the overall task as a series of tasks. Some tasks require more effort than others and can be accomplished without heavy lifting. Think of the project as a wheel of cheese the size of a Volkswagen tire. You can begin nicking away at the job by punching holes in the cheese. Make Swiss cheese out of the wheel. By reducing the big task into discreet parts, you manage your time. Once you think about it, it is the most efficient use of your time because you end up breaking the task down one way or the other.

The holes represent the small tasks that you must accomplish to achieve your goal.

Congressman often are pressed from moment to moment so I knew I had to apprise his staff that I wanted to observe a Sunday School class session and follow it up with an interview. In this case, I punched a hole in the entire project by making the mandatory calls to Forbes’s district office and then his Washington, D.C., office. The calls took nearly a week because the congressman’s communication person had to check with Forbes and others to make sure no other activity would overlap. To hedge my approach, I punched another hole into the project by calling Forbes at home to make sure he would be in town for the lesson. Writers can be a nuisance, but it’s all part of the job to make sure the plan will work.

For the article, I knew I wanted anecdotes so I contacted the class president and asked him to ruminate on humorous stories. Feature writers love those anecdotes that are too funny, almost unbelievable. I gave him a couple of days to mull it over, knowing that some of us can recite a funny story on the spot. It sometimes takes sleeping on it to produce a publishable quip. In this case, the anecdotes could be stronger.

Another source who I thought would be helpful is a state house representative who is a member of the class. I met with him and jotted down notes. He gave me his business card and I quickly asked if I could get his home telephone number. I also asked him if I could doublecheck my information by calling him that day. By obtaining permission in advance, I bought myself access to the official after hours. During business hours, elected officials can be difficult to locate so the home number and email address can be a real boon to the labor of gathering information and checking it for accuracy.

On the day of the class, I checked the batteries in my pocket tape recorder. I wanted the tool as a backup for getting information during that compressed time following class when the congressman would answer my profile questions. In addition, I took a 35mm camera with film and a digital camera. For the digital camera, I recharged the batteries and took an ample supply of floppy discs to make sure I’d get a good photograph. Next, I took a notebook and a couple of pens.

The congressman’s office supplied background and a canned headshot and I located a previously published article on the congressman. With this background in hand, I made my way to the class, getting there well before the class began. The night before I called the class leader as a courtesy to let him know that I’d be at the class. I knew he wouldn’t object; it’s just a matter of courtesy. When I arrived at the class, I checked in and asked who would lead the class in announcements. Next, I went to that person and told him that I’d like to take some photographs and would he mind alerting the class. That leader took a light-hearted approach to the announcement and put everyone at ease.

Once the congressman began his lesson, the only real distraction was when I stood on a chair to get a better angle. Knowing how intrusive writers can be, I took the photographs of Forbes at the podium and then retreated to the back of the horseshoe-shaped room to become a fly on the wall.

I listened to the presentation, did my follow-up interview and later that day, I typed up my notes that I retyped for myself to help me as I developed the article. Here’s the article that the publication accepted, 388 words, from about three days of work.

Congressman expresses faith on the job

CHESAPEAKE, Va.-Midway through the Sunday School class, U. S. Rep. Randy Forbes spread his arms wide and asked the class of nearly 50 adults: “Who here worries?” All but two hands went up.

“Come on. Put your hands up,” urged the two-term congressman, a playful smile creeping across his face—and then he asked those who said they don’t worry to give the remedy. The class spent the rest of the hour reviewing exhortations from the Sermon on the Mount as a strategy for beating the anxiety of finances, family and a world fraught with peril.

Mr. Forbes is known at his Great Bridge Baptist Church in Southeastern Virginia first as a Sunday School teacher–he’s been doing it for 15 years–and then as an elected official. The class of 162 members can be too impersonal for some, leading to a modest but regular exodus of people who yearn for an ordinary teacher, yet the Republican congressman maintains a loyal following.

An attorney, Mr. Forbes gained election to the state house of representatives in 1989 and then to the state senate in 1997. A special election in 2001 put him in the House, and he was elected to a second-term unopposed in 2002. He is one of four chief sponsors of HR 1897, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act of 2003. If enacted, this bill would make federal law the killing of a mother and her unborn child two deaths, not one. It is expected to come to a vote in the House sometime this summer.

For Ira M. Steingold, secretary of the Democratic committee in Suffolk, a part of the Forbes district, this law is a way for the GOP to expand its voter base: “It is a ruse to treat a fetus as a child.” But Mr. Forbes seems to have a ruse-free voting record: it’s 100% conservative, according to the American Conservative Union, which gave only 59 of the 435 members of Congress what it considers to be perfect scores.

Mr. Forbes received that rating on issues such as support for the partial birth abortion and tax exemption for religious organizations that participate in politics as long as it’s not their primary mission. Unsurprisingly, Americans for Democratic Action, the nation’s oldest independent liberal political organization, gave Forbes a zero on his 2002 voting record.


  1. What kind of lead is used here?
  2. Find an example of a transition. Does it work for you or not? Explain.


Building the article is a bit like fashioning a house. It can be a summer residence with a bit of paint and thatch, or it can be the manor house with canopies and turrets. Writers learn to arrange facts in some kind of order, from most important to least important, with attention to logic or some other system. For instance, quotations can be used to provide necessary information while providing needed transitions. Other strategies for arranging the article include a chronological development or an anecdotal pattern. Throughout the development of an article, good writers explore the value of observation, known as color.

In a jam, when the natural organization for the piece just won’t reveal itself, some writers have learned to resort to writing the end first, then the beginning, or they use a standard formula such as “lead, quotation and then background.” Ideas on the writing process are included in a long interview with writer Dennis Hensley who talked about the benefit of understanding fictional techniques in writing non-fiction. It ended with some suggestions on time management and two articles to illustrate the ways an article can be conceived and executed.

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

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

Photo by Amauri Mejía on Unsplash

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