Tips for writing features #1: find the armpits


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.

My job 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 on writing features, you’ll find a wealth of them in my ebook Get Paid To Write: The secrets of freelance writing success.