Ask most people what a feature story is, and they'll say something soft and puffy, written for the arts or fashion section of the newspaper or website.
But in fact, features can be about any subject, from the fluffiest lifestyle piece to the toughest investigative report.
And features aren't just found in the back pages of the paper, the ones that focus on things like home decor and music reviews. In fact, features are found in every section of the paper, from news to business to sports.
So we know what features aren't; but what are they?
Feature stories aren't defined so much by subject matter as they are by the style in which they are written. In other words, anything written in a feature-oriented way is a feature story.
These are the characteristics that distinguish feature stories from hard news:
A feature lede doesn't have to have the who, what, where, when and why in the very first paragraph, the way a hard-news lede does. Instead, a feature lede can use description or an anecdote to set up the story. And a feature lede can run for several paragraphs instead of just one.
Feature stories often employ a more leisurely pace than news stories. Features take time to tell a story, instead of rushing through it the way news stories often seem to do.
Taking more time to tell a story means using more space, which is why features are usually, though not always, longer than hard news articles.
A Focus on the Human Element
If news stories tend to focus on events, then features tend to focus more on people. Features are designed to bring the human element into the picture, which is why many editors call features "people stories."
So if a hard news story recounts how 1,000 people are being laid off from a local factory, a feature story might focus on just one of those workers, portraying their grief at losing their job.
An Example: The Man Who Played Violin in the Subway
To demonstrate what we're talking about, take a look at the first few paragraphs of this story by Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post about a world-class violinist who, as an experiment, played beautiful music in a crowded subway stations. Note the expert use of the feature-oriented lede, the leisurely pace and length, and the focus on the human element:
HE EMERGED FROM THE METRO AT THE L'ENFANT PLAZA STATION AND POSITIONED HIMSELF AGAINST A WALL BESIDE A TRASH BASKET. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.
It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L'Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.