10 Feature Story Formats for Freelancers + Magazine Giveaway

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When I was a magazine editor, part of my job was to design the perfect mix of feature stories that kept readers turning the pages. I would lay out maybe two trend pieces, two service guides, one how-to, a round-up, and a profile, with different lengths for variety.

These types of feature stories are formulaic, and most magazines (newspapers and websites too) rely on them. Once you understand the 10 types of features and how they work, you’ll start thinking of story ideas that fit their molds.

When pitching your feature story to an editor in an email, identify the type, so editors can envision the story. Of course, before you pitch anything, go through the magazine’s features and make sure they publish the types listed here.

It might help to subscribe to magazines you’re thinking about pitching, to ensure your story ideas have merit. So at the end of this post, I’m offering 10 free subscriptions for 10 readers (randomly chosen) who leave comments. The magazine subs come from Zinio, a site offering 50 percent off subscriptions through January 7. (Just for the record, I have not been compensated for making this offer.)

Now, let’s get back to shaping story ideas. Here’s the rundown on popular magazine story formats:

1. Seasonal recipes. This is the most common format for food magazines and those with recipe sections. Usually the piece begins with an introductory paragraph or two and follows with three or four recipes. Time your content to the month the magazine will come out. For example, national magazines work around six months ahead, so don’t pitch a piece on pomegranates for the June issue. Conversely, you might have to find out-of-season produce to test recipes.

2. Profile. Features on a chef, founder of a company, or newsmaker detail the person’s background, influences, and decisions as an influential market leader. If you want the editor to jump on your story, tie the chef or founder to a trend or news angle. Try not to resort to an email list of questions. You might get skimpy or vague answers. Face-to-face meetings and interviews are best, or a telephone interview. Make sure you have done your homework on the person before the interview begins. That means interviewing friends and colleagues, perhaps family. Here’s one of my favorite profiles.

3. Interview with Questions and Answers. Similar to a profile, this type of feature is not a narrative story. Instead, a paragraph of introduction leads into a question and answer session. If you do a few of these for the same publication or website, you might get offered a regular column.

4. Resource Guide. An “all about” story where you detail the subject matter exhaustively. For a story on cooking with farro, you might include 3-4 recipes plus sidebars on storage tips, buying tips, and how chefs use farro in restaurants.

5. Service or How-to. These are such a mainstay of the magazine industry that you can probably think of a million subjects, such as how to figure out if you have a food allergy, how to set up a brunch buffet, or how to stretch meals with meat as a flavoring. How-to stories might give step-by-step instructions. They always provide insider tips and secrets on how to succeed. Because you know the topic so well, you are that expert.

6. Trend. These features are prominent in industry magazines, such as those tied to retail food stores and restaurants. These magazine editors want their readers to know about the latest national trend and how it can be applied to their businesses. For stories like this, you may need to interview people nationally.

For your town’s newspaper, however, the local angle is paramount. You may have better luck getting these types of stories published in the Business or Metro sections than the Food section, which relies mostly on recipes.

7. Round-up. Here’s a mainstay of alternative newspapers and snarky websites, such as “Ten Best Burger Joints in Los Angeles.” There’s a theme or focus, and you’ll need to have opinions and substantiate your choices.

8. Travel. Usually written as a first person essay, travel pieces often include resource boxes for where to stay and eat. It’s often easier to get a food story published in the Travel section of a newspaper than the Food section.

9. Reviews. Whether for books, restaurants, products or movies, critical thinking is a must for reviewers. You can do it if you’re comfortable discussing the grey area between “fabulous” and “hated it,” because reviewing is not about extremes. Know how to discuss the pros and cons, and you’ll make a good reviewer.

10. Personal essay. Publications feature these rarely, yet they are one of the most sought after published pieces for writers, especially beginners who want to tell their stories. Here’s a writer who excelled at them.

Did I forget some categories? Let me know. And comment to enter my free magazine subscription giveaway.

You might also like these previous posts:

(Photo courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Comments

  1. Betty Morton says

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge. It would be great to win a subscription. Happy New Year!!

  2. says

    Thank you, Dianne, for this especially helpful list. For new writers, like myself, it really helps put into perspective just what kind of writer you think you might want to be. I know reading through the list myself I find very few of those article styles appealing, which allows me to hone and focus my skills on the styles I am interested in, as well as focus my attention on the writers I might come to admire. I too have bookmarked this post for future reference!

    • diannejacob says

      It’s funny how times have changed, Calantha. Years ago this was pretty much it if you wanted to write. Now you have your blog, where you can do anything you want. It’s so much more freeing.

  3. Babs Hogan says

    The Texas Cheese Tour has big news to share in a few days. I’ll send an email to you soon. Thank you for your newsletter. Babs

  4. Amanda says

    Thanks for the advice, I’m also printing this!! Hope you had a great new years and that 2013 is good to you! What a great way to start the year off and even better for the lucky winner!

  5. Ellen says

    Clear, concise and well-written (as always). Thanks, Dianne for some really useful information. Food-based writing is always at the back of my mind (reviewed restaurants in a former life) these days, as I manage a high-end culinary store and serve Personal Chef clients. Now, if I could just find a few moments to sit down …

  6. says

    What a nice summary of magazine needs. Thanks for this and all the other resources you offer. This is really nice to see at the beginning of the year when I’m thinking about how to frame my work for the next few months.

  7. says

    Addressing the “grey” area when writing reviews is most challenging. I was asked to review a restaurant disappointed me each of the 3 times I ate there. I simply couldn’t find the grey area and eventually passed on writing it. I didn’t want to kill somebody’s new business but felt a great deal of conflict about not writing about my experiences. What would you suggest? Would you pass on the opportunity to write about it if you couldn’t write a balanced review?

    • Meredith says

      The same thing recently happened to me. I was asked to review a handmade artisan product, but I had more negative than positive to say, so I passed. I don’t want to kill a new business either! I wonder what others think?

      • diannejacob says

        I think that’s a pretty typical response. However, sometimes people respond in black and white — it’s either good or it isn’t — and I encourage you to look for subtleties.

    • diannejacob says

      It depends how disappointed you were. If the food was mostly good, then you can still review. If it was mostly bad, then many reviewers don’t bother.

    • says

      This is a great question… but from someone who actually reads reviews of restaurants before eating somewhere for the first time and who relies on honest reviews, I am disappointed that you chose not to write the piece. I don’t have money to throw away on a bad meal or bad restaurant which is why I read reviews. If only those who write rave reviews publish, then how can I as a potential customer judge? If you had three bad meals, three bad experiences and not just one, I think that is the basis of an honest review.

      • says

        I appreciate the dialogue here. I am considering returning to same resto for a 4th time, as a result. I realized that it has been about 6 months since I last checked it out and I am hoping to see positive changes. I am motivated to give a balanced review since this particular place serves a specific community (you guessed). You can see why I am even more hesitant to “kill” them in a mostly negative write-up. Stay tuned!

  8. Lynn Lekander says

    I love this posting. I have been wrestling with development of a food blog and this really gives me some good ideas and insight into how to move forward. Thank you!

  9. says

    Dianne,

    I received Will Write for Food from a dear friend for Christmas–she was thrilled that she had found the perfect book for me, so I didn’t tell her that I already have a dog-eared copy that I have read and reread. It will be the only non-virtual book that I tuck into my suitcase as I head off to a food writing class next week.

    Happy New Year!

    • diannejacob says

      How wonderful, thank you so much. The term “dog-eared” is my favorite when it comes to describing my book.

      Where is this food writing class? I always like to know who’s teaching and where.

  10. says

    What a fantastic list and helpful guide to writing feature articles. Thanks for generously sharing this, Dianne! And this giveaway will be a treat ~ so I hope I win. Will reshare this post on the networks. All the best to you for 2013 !

  11. says

    Hi. I’m the shy commenter, mainly because I’m new to food blogging and do not yet possess the knowledge to provide an insightful response to many of the in depth topics communicated. I also read every response. I will say however, if it were not for the book: Will Write For Food, I think it is highly unlikely I would have ever launched my Blog which has provided me immense joy since its inception. I sincerely get a sense of excitement whenever a new Will Write for Food Post comes out eager to see what I will learn in the newest feature, today’s Post is no exception. Thank you for the inspiration, and learning experience Dianne!

    • diannejacob says

      What a wonderful comment, Peggy. Looks like you are keeping up nicely with your blog posts. I too, always have a sense of excitement when I post, because I love hearing from people in the comments — and you have made my day!

  12. says

    Happy 2013 Dianne.

    Thanks as always for the timely information. I’ve bookmarked it as one of my blogs needs a new direction of some sort. :)

    I’m leaning towards a mix of #7 & #10.

  13. says

    I think you offer some of the most valuable information I’ve run across in food blogging.
    Some blogs I skim, and it takes me about two seconds to look at, but you actually offer value to your readers.
    I’d be glad to win those subscriptions, as well.
    Thanks for doing what you do.

    • diannejacob says

      A comment like this makes it worthwhile to give away quality content. Sometimes I do wonder about it, to tell you the truth. Thanks Susan.

  14. LoAnn says

    Happy New Year Dianne. Great timing for this as I (and I’m sure many others) have resolved to kick my writing into higher gear this year. Thanks so much!

  15. says

    Great post….how about “ingredient origin” stories? I’m always fascinated to learn, for example, how a favorite condiment is made, or the source & processes used to create beloved regional ingredients. Such a piece can take the form of a “trip to the farm” story, or of a factory or production room tour. These places and processes are often inaccessible to the general public/average reader, so the writer adds value through revealing rarely seen details.

    • diannejacob says

      Good one, Celeste. Not sure what category I would put that in. Maybe the general “all about” story, where you include the products’ history and see it being harvested or made.

  16. says

    Celeste – I love ingredient origin stories; they are the type of food writing pieces I enjoy reading. It’s this type of content that I search out most. And while it is rare, I find it is becoming more present in smaller, independent food publications, like the Art of Eating and Gastronomica (although I just heard that Gastronomica has closed shop, sadly).

    • diannejacob says

      I think I have read stories like that in The Smithsonian magazine. Re Gastronomica, it has not closed shop. I asked Darra Goldstein, the editor-in-chief, about this rumor. She is departing. The February issue will be a retrospective and the May issue is the first under the new editor.

  17. says

    These ideas are fantastic! Not only great print ideas but perfect for my blog as well, at the moment I’m only doing restuarant reviews and recipes. These would be great additions and fabulous ways to flesh out some of my current ideas!

    • diannejacob says

      Well why not, Claire! Although many of them are too long, traditionally, for a blog post, there’s nothing wrong with a list and other elements that you can tease out.

  18. says

    Thank you, Dianne, I feel like you have given us all a generous new year’s present with the many nuggets of information in your post. I’m no expert, but I’ve had success using a couple of these classic forms to gain entry into a magazine or paid online blog forum and then by putting my own spin on it, have gotten to write regular columns (of Ethnic Treats, Day Trips or Immigrant Food Journeys). Seems editors often want to have content they can count on issue after issue from a dependable writer. In this way, I end up writing about what really interests me.

    • diannejacob says

      My pleasure. I’m glad these formulas have been working for you, Anna. They’re not for everyone, but it’s true that dependable writers use them with success.

  19. says

    Wow Dianne, I just read your article on becoming an American citizen that you had written for Salon.com, and it was almost the exact same experience that I had! I was living in San Francisco at the time and I decided to become a citizen after living in the U.S. for almost 28 years (I was born in Italy, but moved with my family to Los Angeles when I was three years old). The process is so ludicrous! I was sworn in with about 900 others at some auditorium in downtown and I remember having to relinquish my Green Card and Italian passport. I was so proud that day!

    It’s kind worn off now… lol!

    • diannejacob says

      Oh yes, sometimes people find that article on my website. Thanks for reading it. Funny that you had the same experience.

      I wonder how much the citizenship process has changed in a post 9/11 world. I bet it’s much more difficult.

  20. says

    The timeliness of a post like this that makes me wonder if you sometimes vacation in my head. Going into my third year of freelance writing, I’ve slowly built up the gumption to finally pitch a feature. Not that I don’t love lurking in the front of book and back of book; I just feel like this is the year to make the stretch. This post will help me make sure I don’t pull anything.

    • diannejacob says

      Hah! I might like to vacation in your head, depending on what else is in there. I’m particularly fond of sandy beaches with turquoise water.

      Do you get my newsletter? I just sent one out at the end of the year about establishing a few goals for 2013. One suggestion I made was to pitch stories. So you are on my wavelength (get it? Waves? Beach?) if so.

  21. says

    More gold from you, thanks Dianne! So many of us are keen to submit to mags but, given the amount of competition out there for paid writing work, if we don’t get the submissions right we are wasting our time. Thanks.

    • diannejacob says

      Definitely people are wasting time if they don’t get it right, Amanda. The acceptance rate for query letters is maybe 2 or 3 percent.

  22. says

    Great post Dianne, as always. Your willingness to share your inside knowledge of the industry is a godsend to me. Thank you.

    I wonder why I didn’t receive a copy of your last newsletter….maybe I should re-subscribe?

  23. says

    Dianne,
    Thanks for the run-down. I just spent a couple of hours discussing how to make food writing pitches to local publications (newspapers, etc.), and this list of yours would have come in really handy!

    She (the friend) is looking to break into her local media market with features on seasonal food, gardening, and local producers. This gal has a masters in the subject (combo of education and sustainable ag) along with several years experience running her own farm and CSA, so she’s well set in the expert end of things. She just doesn’t have much of a publication portfolio, despite being a pithy and engaging writer.

    I’m wondering if you have any past blog posts that get at some of the key aspects of making the first pitch. Particularly, what would you recommend having in place (blog, online portfolio, PDF portfolio, resume, etc.) prior to making a pitch.

    • diannejacob says

      To consider pitching, first make a list of suitable publications and story ideas based on compatible interests. If she has a published relevant articles, she should put them online on a website, so she can link to them when she talks about herself in the pitch. She does not have to start a blog, but it’s a good way to get started as a writer, and at least there is something to link to!

  24. MD Smith says

    Thank you again, Dianne, for your timely (prescient?) posts and pitch-perfect responses. I look forward to seeing you at Food Blogger South in just a couple weeks!

  25. says

    Excellent breakdown! Thank you, Dianne. It’s incredibly helpful, for me anyway, to have the big picture broken down into unique parts. Helps keep focus and all.

    Out of curiosity, which of these would you suggest starting with for neophyte food writers with a local or hyper local focus? Do any types lend themselves especially well to producing quality work without massive resources or a lot of experience?

    • diannejacob says

      Lists are pretty easy, Joanna. Re massive resources and lots of experience — well yes, you’ll have to put your time in to compensate for a lack of both. It can be done! Everyone had to start somewhere.

  26. says

    Great list, Dianne. Also good inspiration for different types of blog posts! Most helpful for me is that you linked to examples to see some of them in action.

    • diannejacob says

      Thank you so much, Rosemary. “Pedantic” is a word I fear. Someone once described my husband as pedantic and he has never forgotten what it means. First he had to go look it up.

        • diannejacob says

          Not at all! I say go for it. The trick is to write the sentence in a way that readers can guess at their meaning without having to look them up.

  27. Susan Reiners says

    Just found your inspiring blog and subscribed. I’ve been reading magazines for about 60 (!) years, and never thought about your categories before. Thanks! You’re spot on. Still, I wouldn’t mind a new magazine subscription. Research, you know.

  28. Kristine says

    Great article! And I would love to win a subscription to one of Zinio’s Magazines, probably a cooking magazine!

  29. says

    This is a great post. I’m just gettingh (back into) blogging and these are useful ideas to help me map out what I can write about. Thanks!

  30. says

    Thank you, Dianne, for the great topic ideas! I started this blog after my Ma died. It developed into a food blog when I started comparing her recipes to Carmela Soprano’s. My Ma, who only knew how to play solitaire on the computer, is now googleable. I’m sure she’s smiling about this!!
    Wishing you all the best in 2013!

  31. says

    Another incredible, helpful and organized post. Thank you so much for your guidance.
    These story formats really help me focus on where I can pitch my too many ideas and unsubmitted articles. Wishing you a bountiful year of ideas and inspiration.

    Rose Mark

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