How to write a feature articleBMJ 2012; 344 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e3811 (Published 08 June 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e3811
- Rebecca Ghani, freelance journalist, London
Interested in writing for a medical journal? Rebecca Ghani finds out from the experts where you can start
You have an excellent idea for a feature article that you would like to publish: you know that the topic is relevant; you’re sure the audience would be interested; you can access the facts and statistics; and you know that you could source a great interview or two.
So where do you go from here?
Know the publication
Read the latest copies of the publication or journal to get a feel for the style and tone. Think about the different sections and where your idea would best fit.
Scan the online archives for similar subjects: it’s unlikely that your piece will be commissioned if the topic has already been covered recently.
Edward Davies, editor of BMJ Careers, says, “The first thing that I would say is absolutely crucial for anyone submitting a pitch is to make sure we haven’t done it before. Google is your friend on this; Google the idea you’re thinking of—and search within the BMJ, BMJ Careers, and Student BMJ websites to see if there’s anything that’s been done on this before.”
Know your audience
If you’re writing for the Student BMJ, and you’re a medical student, you’ll have a good idea of what your peers will be interested in reading about. Sound it out with your colleagues and get input about your idea. Remember that the Student BMJ has an international readership and that your piece should be accessible and relevant to a worldwide audience.
Other medical journals have an even wider reach: the BMJ has a circulation of over 100 000 and a mixed audience of hospital doctors, GPs, retired doctors, and almost 5000 international doctors.1
Even though most of your readers will be medics, don’t assume knowledge: there is always a lay audience, and keep in mind that the mainstream media often pick up on stories published in medical journals. Don’t dumb it down, but ensure it is accessible to a layperson.
In particular, spell out acronyms, explain colloquialisms, and use straightforward language. It shouldn’t be written as a research piece, so steer clear of academic jargon.
Udani Samarasekera, senior editor at the Lancet, makes the point that features are different from academic work: “Features are actually very different from essays: they’re a lot more colourful and journalistic and much more engaging. My advice would be not to think too much along the lines of an essay, which can be some students’ downfall,” she says.
Samarasekera also advises researching what makes a good feature: “There is a certain structure: they have an intro, background, new development, and then some debate. And often if it’s a journalistic piece it will describe the scene or have a character that draws you into the beginning of the story as well. So, very different from essays.”
When is a feature not a feature?
It’s important to understand what a feature is. Such articles showcase a topic or subject and weave in quotes, facts, and statistics to frame a topic and give it context and flavour. Although there is a place for opinion writing, this is a distinct type of writing and should be approached differently. A straight feature should not include your opinions: it will be your writing style that adds personality to the piece, not your viewpoint.
Davies outlines why it’s important to avoid airing your views if you’re pitching a standard feature: “We get a lot of things pitched as features that are actually opinion—so, people who’ve done a little survey or found a topic that bugs them. And actually what they’re writing about is their feelings on it, what they think of it. And you’ve got to be quite careful with that.”
Features will generally take straightforward news items or topical stories and examine them in more depth, bringing in original quotes from experts and often adding a human interest angle.
Profile articles focus on one person and should include a first hand interview and contextual information about the subject. The BMJ, BMJ Careers, and Student BMJ all publish profiles of eminent doctors or healthcare professionals, as do most general medical journals: the Lancet publishes a profile in its perspectives section.
This section of a publication can include editorials and first hand experience pieces; in Student BMJ and BMJ there’s the personal view section, and in BMJ Careers there is an opinion slot each week. Here, your voice and your opinions shape the piece and give readers an understanding of your experience and viewpoint. You should still support your opinions with facts and evidence, where appropriate.
Most features will have a peg or a hook on which the rest of the item will hang. This helps to shape the piece and give it a focus. Think about what will draw in your reader: something funny, controversial, or shocking; a new angle on an old subject; or something that generates conflicting viewpoints.
Human interest stories usually work well and can liven up an otherwise dry feature. Generally, features published in medical journals have a topical peg. One example is “The case of M,”2 which took a recent court ruling about a patient’s right to die and then looked more closely at the current debate and research about ethics and the law surrounding this issue.
Samarasekera of the Lancet emphasises the importance of this: “Topicality is a big thing,” she says. “A feature needs to have something that’s interesting—maybe a recent controversy with an issue, but also a recent development to expand the feature—and to tell your readers why you’re covering it now.” She goes on to say the peg can be “a new piece of research, a report, a pending court case, or something like the first world hepatitis day or some big global health news.”
Once you have a firm idea of your subject, the publication, the audience, and the appropriate section, you are ready to make a pitch to the editor.
Be targeted—Once you’ve selected the journal, think about which section to target within the journal, and make this clear.
Be concise—Your pitch should be one or two paragraphs in the main body of an email. Do not send attachments, as editors may not have time to open them. Ensure that the subject line of the email is descriptive and introduces the pitch in a few words.
Engage—Say why your idea is relevant, why the audience will be interested, and what it adds to existing published work.
Follow up—If you don’t hear back within two weeks, follow up with a phone call to talk your idea through.
Davies says: “Put it down in writing—send an email pitch. And then if you haven’t heard within two weeks, get the phone number and pester them.
“And while the editor might not like it, giving them a quick nag on the phone is no bad thing, as your pitch comes back to the top of their pile and they reconsider it,” he advises.
Liaise with your editor
If your pitch is successful, your editor might allow you to run with it in your own style or could be more prescriptive and will brief you with some guidelines on tone, style, and what to include or avoid.
Make sure you and your editor are thinking along the same tracks. Should the piece be informal, chatty, or serious? Is there anyone specific you should be interviewing? Do you need to reference any other research or articles—particularly if the BMJ itself has published a relevant piece.
Agree a word count and deadline and stick to them.
Although the final product will be one article, you will use many sources of information to inform your piece, which can easily get lost or mixed up.
Approach writing a feature like a mini-project. Keep your electronic files in a properly labelled folder and use descriptive file names—labelling a file “interview” probably won’t be that useful. Use dates and names to help you keep track of your research and interviews.
Log all requested interviews with latest notes, press office details, contact details, and any other notes that could be useful. Note whether a potential interviewee is in your own time zone or abroad and calculate time differences to make sure that you don’t call them in the middle of the night.
Keep links to any online research. You might find the perfect statistic or fact to back up your article, but it will be of no use if you can’t reference it properly.
Interviews can be face to face or on the phone. Although face to face is best, Skype is a great way to conduct international interviews.
Keep interviews to the point. Although it’s tempting to veer off to other topics, this can waste time and means that you have more audio to wade through.
Record or take shorthand notes. If you’re quoting someone directly, this needs to be an accurate representation of what they have said. Request permission if recording, and check equipment beforehand.
Don’t allow copy approval. It’s sometimes acceptable to show interviewees their words before publication, but for viewing—not for approval.
Features should contain original quotes from experts in the subject area. This will give your piece a fresh angle on a subject and first hand quotes will help to bring the story to life.
Allow interviews to shine through and don’t stifle with too much “framing”—often direct quotes don’t need much explanation and add to the authority of the piece.
Try not to use “quote sluts”3—overused media friendly sources who can churn out the same old line to each interviewer they speak to. Think about who might give a different, fresh, and possibly more controversial viewpoint.
Approach more interviewees than required. People may not respond, may be too busy, or just might not be interested. The risk here is that you end up with too much material, but that is better than not enough.
Your piece needs to be accurate, and any statements should be backed up by well sourced references. Try to verify statistics and facts from at least two sources, at first hand from the original source if possible. Don’t just repeat a fact you’ve read elsewhere. Libel laws apply each time a defamatory comment is repeated. If you’re using a non-primary quote or text, reference it properly so that the reader can see it in its original context.
Unlike news stories, which are written with the least important information at the end, the final paragraphs of a feature often tie up the loose ends. This could be an answer to the original question; a quote that sums up the gist of the piece; or a weighing up of the arguments within.
Competing interests: None declared.
From the Student BMJ.