Writing features #2: A simple explanation

In honour of the fact that I am sitting here with very little inspiration, save my newly cut hair (which looked a bit Leather Tuscadero whilst wet, but has dried much less Rock Chick) and the fact that I had a successful brow maintenance moment today, I thought I might continue my very occasional series about writing features. Last time I tried this, I got bogged down in armpits, but hopefully things will fly a little straighter tonight.

I was speaking to a friend a couple of weeks ago about a complicated story she was trying to write. It involved genetics and I wasn’t much use to her. So I asked her who’d she’d spoken to. Her answer was no-one. She was trying to work her away through Rocket Science-level research papers so that she’d know what questions to ask an expert once she got around to interviewing him or her.

Um, no. My theory when writing features about subjects about which I know nothing (which happens more often than you might imagine – I know, surprising…) is that readers want to know what you want to know. Chances are, they know nothing about genetics/pruning roses/the secrets of happiness either. What interests you about a subject will probably interest them. And you/they need it explained in words of one syllable.

The secret to this equation is that experts don’t expect you to know anything. Well, they don’t expect me to know anything once I tell them that I know nothing. It gives me permission to ask the dumbest questions I can think of because, and this is the key, I need to know this stuff on a very elementary level so that I can write it into an entertaining story.

With features writing, you’re not just trying to show off your gargantuan knowledge of the subject at hand, you’re trying to share it with a reader in such a way that they’ll get right to the end of the story with you. If they don’t get it, they won’t get past the first paragraph one. If they don’t like it, they won’t get past the first sentence.

Quotes are what keeps a story lively. Dialogue, conversation, call it what you like. Back it up with all the research in the world, but make sure you’ve got your simple explanation front and centre.

And now, I’m going back to admiring my new eyebrows.

*PS: I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the experts in every field that I’ve interviewed over the years. Thank you for your patience. Thank you for your understanding. Thank you for not laughing.