Finding rewards in feature writing

Assistant university archivist Janet Olson looks over a decades-old scrapbook written by a Northwestern student. Photo by Sai Rayala

Cherub Sarah Strubbe’s parents were married beneath the stained glass windows at Northwestern University’s Alice Millar Chapel.

That’s why Strubbe, of Riverside, Illinois, opted to write about the history and impact of the windows when instructor Karen Springen assigned the feature article. The assignment required at least three sources and had to appeal to either Northwestern or Evanston readers. Like the other 82 cherubs, she had 56 hours to complete the assignment.

Springen assigned the story after her lecture on writing feature stories. As opposed to hard-news articles, features concentrate on one topic at length and often explore the human condition.

Springen began her lecture asking three questions: So what? Who cares? Why now?

Cherub Sai Rayala of Powell, Ohio, said her greatest takeaway from the lecture was the importance of questioning your surroundings. She wrote about the 150th anniversary of co-education at Northwestern.

“A lot of people now have this story radar,” Rayala said. “We’re looking for story ideas and trying to understand how the world around us works.”

Medill Dean Charles Whitaker spoke to cherubs about “Building the Feature Story: Structure and Style.”

The chancel windows in the Alice Millar Chapel date back to 1962. Photo by Sarah Strubbe

Before joining the Medill faculty as a professor in 1993, Whitaker was a senior editor at Ebony magazine. He has also been a deputy feature editor and enterprise feature and arts writer at The Louisville Times and a reporter for the Miami Herald.

Whitaker walked cherubs through the details of feature writing, breaking down information into a step-by-step guide. Strubbe said she benefited most from the tip to include “killer stats to quantify success.”

“That was the first time I thought about using a lot of numbers in my piece,” Strubbe said. “I made sure that when I went to the chapel, I didn’t ask about general things. I found out that it’s a 700-seat chapel. It seats a lot more people than you would think. Those little details add to the article.”

Danielle Bennett of Roseville, California, said her main challenge was finding sources within two days. Her school paper works on three-week deadlines, and her school’s broadcast network works biweekly.

She said she is more aware of how real-world journalism functions because of the feature assignment. Bennett covered Evanston becoming the first Illinois city to earn a Community Wildlife Habitat Certification.

Evanston’s wildlife, from beetles to bees, qualified the city for a Community Wildlife Habitat Certification. Photo by Danielle Bennett

“You need to contact as many people as possible because you don’t know who’s going to get back to you,” Bennett said. “Once you have all of that, you don’t put off the writing because your deadline is in two hours. You write.”

Because the assignment fulfilled the publication requirements of The Daily Northwestern, students were able to pitch their stories to the outlet. The Daily published Strubbe’s feature, as well as articles by three other cherubs.

“It’s rewarding,” Strubbe said. “It’s nice to know that this article that you spent time and effort on is going to be seen by the public.”