Tips for writing features #1: find the armpits

tips for freelance writers
Posted on April 7, 2010


This revelation may surprise you, but sometimes I’m not, um, fascinated by the subjects I’m commissioned to write about.

Superannuation springs to mind.

Supermarkets follow close behind (mostly because that’s what I’m meant to be doing even as I write this post).

Budgeting. The best age to have a baby (not as interesting once you’ve had a couple). Forty thousand words on how to pay off your credit cards (the big challenge there was not repeating ‘spend less, pay more than the minimum’ 8000-odd times).

What often surprises me, however, is how fascinating some of these things become once I start. (Some. Superannuation has yet to work its magic on me.)

When I first started writing features for women’s magazines (beyond the world-famous James Reyne interview), I used to ask endless questions and take endless notes. It would often take me an hour to interview a girl for a 200-word section of a ‘Wedding Dress, Never Worn’ feature.

And she’d be one of five I had to get through.

I felt as though I needed to know every single thing about her, and often found it difficult to keep my word counts in check. (To be fair, there’s never a short story behind an unworn wedding dress, now is there?)

One memorable conversation with a straight-talking, well-meaning deputy editor sorted me out. I’d filed 3000 words for a 1200-word commission about why some women choose to have hairy armpits. (I know, investigative journalism hits new heights.)

She flicked through the story while I sat there, nervous as all hell, and then gave it back to me.

“It’s a story about hairy armpits, Al,” she said. “Just give me the hairy armpits.”

I went home, cut out the background noise and focused on the armpits.

Features writing is about finding the armpits in any subject.

No reader wants to know every single thing about, say, supermarkets. They just want the bit that relates to them. The bit they’ll find compelling and fascinating. The armpits.

So I look for what I find compelling and fascinating, and try to give it to them in a way they’ll find digestible. Accessible. Maybe even a little bit amusing and entertaining.

And if I ever work out where the armpits are in the subject of superannuation…well, I’ll be rich enough not to need any.

If you’d like more tips for freelance writers, you’ll find a wealth of them in So You Want To Be A Writer (How to get started while you still have a day job), my book co-written with the wonderful Valerie Khoo.  Buy your copy here


  1. 4 kids, 20 suitcases and a beagle

    What a brilliant post. I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing when it comes to writing (if that isn’t plainly obvious).

    When it comes to the blog post its just a case of thinking of something and running with it (and then making yourself push the publish button before self doubt and loathing take over your soul) but I have also done a few mag pieces lately and am now in awe of freelance mag writers. Having now had to write pieces about people I don’t really like and products I think are over priced and pretentious I realize what an art form it is. Must remember. Armpits. Fabulous advice.

  2. BlondeMomBlog (Jamie)

    I do mostly business copy editing by day (you’re jealous aren’t you!) and occasionally do a freelance piece. Like you, they are often subjects that um ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.

    Wait, what was I saying?

    Any way, I love your writerly advice. 🙂

  3. Kakka

    Armpits, haa haa, armpits, love it. Just stick to the armpits – got to remember that one. Thanks so much for this great post.

  4. Shauna

    I always have trouble just sticking to the armpits. A 2000 word essay finishes at 3000 and every word is VITAL

  5. Seraphim

    Brilliant analogy. No wonder you write so well. Thank you for this timely reminder. x

  6. Annieb

    I love this post. Thank you. I have trouble sticking to the armpits as well.

  7. Ivan M

    I heard a report in the news about identity theft and superannuation. Theifs steal your identity and then transfer your super to a sham super fund. I would like to know more about that.

    I don’t know if its the “armpits” but it would definetly be an area with hair.


  8. Lisa Heidke

    Loved your post Al!
    Very funny and sound advice!

  9. sharpestpencil

    I think when you grow your armpit hair to a certain length you should be forced to make extra super contributions.

    Seriously though. Such sage advice. I loved this post. It spoke straight to me.

  10. deer baby

    That is a really great tip. I’m a magazine feature writer too (small world). When I trained they said I was too old for TV/Radio (I was 27)and too thin skinned for News so I plumped for magazines. One of my friends had to write a feature recently on security systems in Abu Dhabi and was stumped. I’ll tell her next time to look for the armpits. And next time I’m writing one on education issues or how to make your home into an office…..snooze.

  11. Megan

    Great tips! And good luck with superannuation – it must be THE most boring topic in the entire universe. 🙂

  12. allison t

    Hi everyone, thanks for the comments! It does get easier with experience but, to be honest, there are still days when I can’t tell an armpit from an elbow.

  13. brismod

    Yes, there is definitely a novel in you!!

  14. Stacia

    Ugh, I’ve got one of those projects staring up at me from the table as I studiously ignore it and blog instead. I seriously think I’d rather be writing about armpits! Or unworn wedding dresses, now that’s intriguing. =>

  15. Chantelle {fat mum slim}

    I wondered how you managed to muster up interest in topics that you aren’t passionate about.

    You’re so talented though, I’m sure it comes really easy now. x

  16. Writergrrl

    Can I just say, this is one of my fave (non-sentimental) posts…”find the armpits” is fan-bloody-tastic advice! Though I must admit, when I had to do my article on supermarkets (savvy shopping angle) the editor passed it back to me asking for more. Apparently, my lack of enthusiasm for shopping the meat aisle was glaring. 😉

  17. Catherine Shields

    This is a very good tip, thanks Allison. But I am wondering why DO some girls like hairy armpits?

  18. allison t

    Thanks! Good luck with it.

  19. life and the memoirs

    Hi Allison, A very appealing post for me, with my aspiring feature writer just starting out hat on. I shall take your tip on board 🙂

Pin It on Pinterest