Five Steps to Writing a Business Feature On a Tight Deadline

by March 16, 2016

You’ve gathered your data and interviews; now it’s time to write and organize your business feature. But where to start? Organizing and creating good flow in your business features takes time and practice. This week’s blog offers the core steps on how to get the article in great shape (and within a few hours).

Step One: Organize your feature interviews

Once I’ve completed my reporting, I organize my quotes in my mind, taking a little time to process the information and decide who’s my lead interview, who’s my supplementary interview and whether my reporting has covered all my bases. So, if I’m writing on the growing number of cities in the U.S. instating a tax on sugary sodas in 2016, have I ensured I have one impartial expert, one health expert concerned with the damaging effects of soda on child obesity and one large and/or small retailer concerned with lost revenues from increasing soda prices? This analytical step (and sharing my strategy with my editor) helps me preempt whether any holes exist in my reporting before I start writing. In this step, I also read through my notes and carefully circle (or bold within the Word document) the core quotes I plan to use in my feature.

Step Two: Decide on a feature structure

Next I analyze what structure works best to use for my business topic. Should I use the list format? The hourglass format? The news pyramid format? Because I write a lot on business trends, typically, I use a narrative lead, a two to three paragraph nut graph containing my core data and then I list the rest of the reporting by the pros and cons of the business trend I’m writing on, using subheads to break up the reporting and quotes.  For business profiles I often use the hourglass format, even though it’s typically reserved for crime writing. It makes sense (from a narrative standpoint) to explain up top what the business is, how it differentiates itself from its competitors, its key achievements etc., then loop back to chronologically explain how things got started. This business profile I wrote on a Durham, North Carolina dentist who started a venture making healthy candy for kids follows this format. I also enjoy ending my business feature with a short kicker quote summarizing the main emotion and intent behind the news, looping back to the person I started the piece with.

Step Three: Draft your rough draft

Now I’m ready for my rough draft—a base paint on the canvas. I throw in a tentative heading, dek, subheads then write up a tentative narrative introduction/lede. Without looking at my notes, I insert notes about which quotes to transcribe from my interviews. This method helps me determine the most compelling, relevant and memorable quotes. Within this draft I also write my full nutgraph, giving myself room for two to three data points, writing up this information scrappily for now.

Step Four: Revise and fill in the feature’s second draft

In my second draft I check that my quotes are accurate, plug in additional data, carefully check I’m quoting the organization name correctly and add the hyperlinks to any studies I’m referencing. I make sure in this second draft stage my data is genuinely helpful and relevant. I also spend a little time confirming I have the most current data for my readers and that nothing newer exists. Also, if any of my data seems wonky or confusing, I reach out to the source of the data and ask for clarity from their PR team.

Step Five: Polishing and fact checking your feature

At this point my draft is usually voluminous, well exceeding the word count restraint. So I must shave down, compress, consolidate and reorganize too. I also ensure a logical flow and a blend of full, partial and paraphrased quotes. Enjoy the creative challenge of compressing and getting your writing to its tightest and clearest stage. One step that helps me edit decisively is taking a break and doing something else joyous, like jogging or yoga, then returning to my final draft.  In the time away, I often remember a more compelling quote with which to start the piece. In this final stage I also read my draft out loud, to help me catch any redundancies, and I edit my final draft by paper and pen. Both steps help me edit more quickly. Typically, I allow an entire hour for fact-checking data, proper nouns and the names of my sources. Budgeting this amount of time keeps me in good stead with my editors.

“Writer’s Block” by Flickr user Street Smitty (Andrew Smith) on Creative Commons (CC By 2.0) 

Debbi G McCullough runs Hanging Rock Media, an editorial services company, and edits and writes for the Guardian’News & Media Guardian Labs studio. She also teaches business communication part-time at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and is a hobby artist.