Read between the lines of a magazine article, and you will see that feature writing is not solely factual, although it is based on hard facts. It is not personal opinion, but it allows a hint of an opinion. It is not fiction, but elements of fiction writing are often apparent. And although a magazine piece may provide social commentary in places, it is also not meant to be a moral essay.

If this sounds like a bit of a riddle to you, here’s another way of defining magazine journalism.

Feature writing lies between a work of fiction and hard news reporting. The magazine or webzine article can have all the entertainment value of fiction, using plot, scenes, characters and description. At the same time, the magazine journalist presents interesting, topical information – hard facts gained from research and interviews.

Also known as creative non-fiction, some believe magazine writing to be the highest form of journalism.

To illustrate, here is an excerpt of typical magazine writing:  

Are Cell Masts Making You Sick?

By Biddi Rorke, Femina Magazine

When Elizabeth Forbes* moved into her beautiful Randburg home more than 10 years ago, she imagined sharing a blissful life with her husband in their semi-rural retreat. The reality is somewhat different.

When a cellphone operator erected a base station just 250 metres from the Forbes’ front door a few years ago, Elizabeth started experiencing a host of physical complaints – and she is convinced that they are related to the radio frequency waves emitted by the unsightly cellphone mast. “I’ve lost almost 12 kg, I feel a constant burning sensation in my limbs and excruciating pain in my muscles,” she says …  

Although doctors have been unable to offer a specific reason for Elizabeth’s deterioration in health, the 53-year-old is adamant that she is sensitive to the electromagnetic field around her home. “Whenever I am away from my house, I feel better instantly. Just 15 minutes back in my lounge can drain me of all my colour,” she says …

Elizabeth is not the only person to blame her extraordinary symptoms on the presence of a cellphone mast. Last year, six reports found that …

Let’s analyse the key elements of this writing.

1. Feature writing has elements of storytelling

Like fiction (i.e. the novel), magazine writing has an element of entertainment. The magazine writer strives to “show” scenes rather than merely telling the reader the facts. How? By describing people, places or issues.

Scenes created often have dramatic sensory appeal and atmosphere, seducing the reader into finishing the story.

Like fiction writers use characters in their novels, magazine writers use stories from real people (called case studies), as well as dialogue.

2. Feature writing includes detail and description 

Feature writing mimics the novel in that it pays close attention to detail that would be considered unnecessary and inappropriate in newspaper journalism.

Details draw the reader in; generalisations keep them out. Yet, the details included are relevant, entertaining, to the point and written in the short sentences that epitomise most good journalism.

For example, see the underlined descriptive phrases in this sentence from the excerpt above, something you would not see in a front-page news report:

When Elizabeth Forbes* moved into her beautiful Randburg home more than 10 years ago, she imagined sharing a blissful life with her husband in their semi-rural retreat. The reality is somewhat different.

3. Include facts and opinions in magazine articles

Newspaper reporting handles hard facts rather than the writer’s opinion. Fiction is just that – pure storytelling from the author’s point of view. Magazine writing, however, tends to present both fact and a little of the writer’s opinion.

This does not mean that magazine writers suck the content for their articles out of their thumb. They must gather everything they write from interviews and research.

What we mean by “opinion” is that in most articles, you could glean the writer’s opinion on their subject by paying careful attention to the structure of their argument, and tone of the piece.

In all magazine writing, the writer must strive to present facts that are correct, and an opinion that is balanced and informed.

4. Base your article on a strong angle

An angle is the very specific subject of the article.

For example:

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The angle, which may be controversial, edgy or sensational, provides the focus of a magazine article. Every line of the magazine article must be congruent with this angle.  

5. Feature writing is structured like an argument

Feature writing uses quotations to support or dramatically oppose the argument underlying the piece. Not just experts or authorities are interviewed, but personal stories and unusual, offbeat personalities are frequently cited.

So in the piece, “Are Cell Masts Making You Sick?”, Rorke is giving you the facts, and asking you to make an educated choice on the matter.

6. It makes use of literary devices

Magazine writing makes use of all the literary devices common to fiction writing, including rhetorical questions, metaphors, similes, and bathos. These would be inappropriate in hard news journalism.

7. Has a relatively slow pace

Unlike news articles that provide the 5 W’s (who, what, where, when and why) and H (how) in the first paragraph, the opening in a feature often withholds this information for later, first hooking the reader with story-telling, and then producing the hard facts later.

Generally, each paragraph presents one or two hard facts, whereas in newspaper writing you have up to four or five facts per paragraph.

8. Feature writing can tell a story from a personal viewpoint

The point of view taken may be personal, whereas in news reporting, this would be inappropriate. News reporting is almost always in the third person, e.g. He said…; She said…. In magazine writing, the use of first person, “I”, is sometimes appropriate, particularly in humour columns. Remember though, that social rants, or opinions on, for example, crime, if they are not funny or satirical, belong in a newspaper “Letter to the editor”.

9. It has a more informal, even colloquial style

News reporting makes use of a writing style that could be described as factual, formal and crisp. Magazine writing, on the other hand, may be informal, personal, even colloquial. For instance, slang and colloquial expressions are common in this genre. However, the style of writing remains plain and accessible, rather than the poetic, meandering writing that the novelist may indulge in.

10. A feature article can display a wide range of tones

Tone refers to the emotional feel underlying an article.

In news reporting, most articles have a serious, neutral tone. This is very different from the tone of a magazine piece. Here the tone could be humorous, questioning, persuasive, irreverent, sarcastic, sentimental, heart-warming or informative.
11. Features may be controversial

Whereas news reports present factual coverage of events, the writer of magazine articles is encouraged to be original, creative and edgy. Anything goes, depending on the type of article the magazine is interested in publishing.  

12. Magazine articles can use jargon

Magazine articles often include jargon pertaining to the subject, where jargon refers to terms that are specific to the subject matter. For instance, an article about trans fatty acids would use “jargon” like “molecular structure”, “hydrogenated vegetable fats”, “cholesterol”, among others.

13. Long-form journalism may play with perspective

One way of analysing magazine articles is to see the piece through a camera lens. The writer might start by describing a fine detail (a personal experience or perspective, a specific moment in the narrative), then open up the lens to take in the wide view (the general/global backdrop), then close the piece by narrowing back to the fine detail. Or the writer could go the other way: starting with the wide view, focusing in, then opening up to the wide view again.

14. An article in a magazine may run like a movie

Many magazine articles, like the work of fiction, unfold like a movie with characters, plot, dialogue, climax and a sharp ending. The magazine piece often first works to establish setting and character, and then, once the reader is hooked, introduces the facts.

© Nichola Meyer, All Rights Reserved

About the Author

Nichola Meyer is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in O Magazine, Femina, Essentials, Baby & Me, Your Baby, Your Pregnancy, Little People and Cape Town’s Child. Previously a lecturer in Magazine Journalism at CityVarsity and Boston Language College, she currently tutors the Advanced Freelance journalism Course at SA Writers College –, NZ Writers College – and UK Writers College –