TEXT review

Changing journalistic environments

Jane Johnston


Stephen Tanner, Molly Kasinger and Nick Richardson
Feature Writing: Telling the Story
Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2009
ISBN 9780195561746
Pb, 363pp, A$ 62.95 / NZ$ 79.95

If in any doubt about how to write a book review, it's covered in Chapter 13 in the book in question: reviewing, among many other sub-sets of feature writing, is explained in this latest text Feature Writing: Telling the Story by Stephen Tanner, Molly Kasinger and Nick Richardson.

Like many university-pitched texts, this book's chapters roughly correlate with teaching weeks (with a few spares) - 16 chapters comprising 'Part A: Mastering the Techniques' on topics like story ideas, research and story construction, and 'Part B: Different Styles' on profiles, reviews, columns and issues-based stories. Part B also includes chapters on 'Writing Indulgence: Travel, Food and Drink' and 'Book-length Writing: Creative Non-Fiction'. These final two chapters, together with ideas scattered elsewhere in the book, push the boundaries of simple feature writing. The book's blurb explains: 'While news reporting remains the staple of contemporary journalism, opportunities are increasingly opening up for feature writers and even those who aspire to write the longer forms of journalism and creative non-fiction'.

Tanner et al comes into the marketplace five years after Ricketson's Writing Feature Stories (2004) which was welcomed into the rather barren landscape of Australian feature writing texts. With a few titles which had either part-way filled the gap or become a bit dated - like Maskell and Perry's 1999 Write to Publish (more a manual for freelancers), David Leser's 2000 The Whites of their Eyes (a collection of profiles), and (the late) Len Granato's early foray onto the scene with Newspaper Feature Writing in 1992 - Ricketson became the confirmed text for many feature writing courses. Matthew Ricketson included in his contents a final chapter on Literary Journalism, which dipped a toe in the water of the creative non-fiction font. The trio behind this new book expand this approach, wading in ankle-deep. And when you consider the names behind the book, it's not at all surprising. While all three are journalism scholars and/or practitioners, Molly Kasinger's recent PhD investigated creative non-fiction and its use in journalism education and Stephen Tanner is head of the School of Journalism and Creative Writing at Wollongong University.

This approach introduces potentials and possibilities for feature writing, in part at least, through the peppering of examples and elements of creative non-fiction. For example, there's a longish section in Chapter 6 'Getting into Character' which deals with dialogue. Discussion about dialogue provides an unusual element in feature writing construction because it's not widely used, except in Q & A interviews. The authors cite an example from Sarah MacDonald's book-length travel memoir Holy Cow to illustrate their case, rather than using an example from a newspaper or magazine article (I would have loved a feature example - anywhere in the book - where dialogue was used). The influence of creative non-fiction is evident throughout the book, and Kasinger's research is very apparent here, with references to New Journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway and so on - names we might not once have found in undergraduate feature writing texts. This boundary blurring approach, which we also saw in Ricketson, is part of a wider move within journalism education and practice, which now operates within expanded frameworks and contexts. In changing journalistic environments, potentials and possibilities in writing style are now just as important as the basics.

And this book also does cover the basics, the standard elements of feature writing: finding story ideas; researching; interviewing; writing leads; bodies and endings; using quotes, anecdotes and description; developing tone, pace and rhythm. Much of it also deals with fundamental issues of journalistic practice and education. Chapter 7, 'Ethical Concerns,' analyses the MEAA Code of Ethics, clause by clause. It discusses a range of issues within the context of the 12-point code - from respecting private grief (clause 11) to placing unnecessary emphasis on characteristics (clause 2). The one disappointment with this chapter is that two key clauses - clause 4, which deals with accepting payments or gifts ('freebies'), and clause 11, which deals with photo manipulation, both of which are highly relevant to feature writing and have very real ramifications for this genre - are rather glossed over with warnings to be careful but no further references or explanation to tease out these contentious issues. Chapter 8 'Legal Pitfalls', on the other hand, provides a solid run-down on the legal environment for the feature writer, suggesting a comprehensive range of follow-up texts and websites for further information and investigation. Notwithstanding any limitations, the inclusion of these chapters is a definite plus for feature writing classes, which can attract both journalism and creative writing students who come with varied levels of experience and knowledge in the fields of law and ethics.

All chapters include objectives, a brief summary and questions and activities, and this at-a-glance approach makes the book very user-friendly. Most chapters conclude with a feature article example, usually accompanied by an interview with the journalist who wrote it. These features serve not only to illustrate and ground the chapters but provide a strong launching pad for class discussion. As working examples they provide the 'why' and 'how' of the journalistic process, so we read, for example, that John Hamilton used archival records, libraries, the Australian War Memorial, letters, interviews with family members, and visits to former schools of war diggers to research his story on ANZACs. We also read, for instance, how Tiffany Bakker's profile on Missy Higgins called for the writer to question her distance from her subject and to ask the 'usual' and the 'unusual' questions to get her story.

Likewise, there's a range of writing tools that help in story construction. Some chapters provide checklists to help navigate through specialised features, like reviewing literature, theatre, art and film in Chapter 13, and writing articles on food, wine and travel in Chapter 14. Chapter 5 ventures to illustrate feature writing structure diagrammatically, a risky move given feature writing's flexibility and movable boundaries (unlike the reliable inverted pyramid, which is easy to draw and simple to understand). Some of these diagrams work better than others - the 'Sleepy P', which describes chronological structure, starting in the middle, is by far the most effective.

For the most part, the elements of this book make it work and, most importantly, make it appeal to student readers. Feature Writing: Telling the Story is a balanced mix of practice and theory, illustration and technique. Journalism education in Australia will undoubtedly embrace this latest addition which, inclusive of its expanded contents and style, fills a place in the small suite of Australian titles that deal with longer-form journalistic writing.


Dr Jane Johnston teaches journalism and public relations at Griffith University, Gold Coast. Her most recent books are Media Relations: Issues and Strategies (Allen & Unwin 2007) and a third edition of Public Relations: Theory and Practice (Allen & Unwin 2009) co-edited with Clara Zawawi.


Return to Contents Page
Return to Home Page

Vol 13 No 1 April 2009
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb