Monday, April 17, 2006

The Art and Craft of Feature Writing by William E. Blundell

As a writer, I enjoy nothing more than sitting down with a good book that can give me ideas about how to become better at what I do. Since there are hundreds of writing books out there to choose from, I normally rely on word-of-mouth or customer recommendations before making a purchase. This approach generally works very well for me -- except in a few cases, including this one.

I purchased The Art and Craft of Feature Writing by William E. Blundell. Blundell is (or was; I couldn't really tell) on the staff of the Wall Street Journal, and this particular book has apparently been making the rounds for close to 20 years now. These were two additional features that really sold me on the book. The Wall Street Journal, of course, has an excellent reputation as far as writer goes. And, any nonfiction book that is still kicking around in print after two decades must have some terrific advice to offer.

So imagine my disappointment when I actually received the book (I ordered it from an online store) and discovered that, at least in my own humble opinion, it's not everything that it is cracked up to be. Let me explain.

The book is clearly outdated both in terms of style and presentation. If you're anything like me, then you're a product of the Internet Age where almost all information comes in small chunks that are easy to handle no matter how short your attention span happens to be. That has usually been the case with the other nonfiction how-to writing books that I have on my shelves. But not so with The Art and Craft of Feature Writing. The author tends to drone on and on about the various topics that he covers, which makes reading this book quite a laborious undertaking. In addition, the sample articles that he provides are very, very long (several pages in some instances). Since this book seems to be directed at inexperienced writers, I found the articles to be of little help. Yes, they were well-written. But it's not likely that a freelancer would get the kinds of assignments that would necessitate writing similarly lengthy, deeply-researched stories. These were also very difficult to read  (and it didn't help much that they were printed in a smaller font than the rest of the text).

As is usually the case with "how-to" books, some of the author's advice gets to be repetitive after a bit. He constantly repeats that it is the writer's job to make the article interesting for the reader, or the reader is likely to go elsewhere. That's not exactly a groundbreaking journalistic sentiment, yet Blundell decides that he has to repeat it in one form or other throughout the entire book.

That brings me to the most ironic aspect of The Art and Craft of Feature Writing: again, in my opinion, the author failed to do what he constantly exhorts his readers to do. That is to say, he didn't make his book very interesting. I found it extremely difficult to sit with this book for more than a few minutes at a time because it simply wasn't interesting or fun to read. Nevertheless, I stuck it out until the end in the hopes that something in the pages would stand out as the reason this book has received so much praise over the years. Unfortunately, that never happened. Instead, I was simply left scratching my head and wondering what all the fuss was about.

In the author's defense, he does cover many topics that budding writers could potentially find to be useful. For example, he has a chapter on where you can go for ideas, how to look for a unique angle when every other newspaper is covering the same story, and how to effectively use quotes in order to bolster your story. Remember, I didn't find fault with the actual content of the book, but rather with the writing style and presentation.

Overall I have to say that although The Art and Craft of Feature Writing contains a lot of advice about how to write a good newspaper story, younger writers might be turned off by the dated quality of the author's own writing. It's hard to go against the grain here, but I simply can't recommend this book.

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