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Anatomy of a feature article

Anatomy of a feature article

In the survey I sent out a few weeks ago, lots of you mentioned that you’d like to see how one of my feature articles developed – from the initial idea and pitching the editor to interviewing case studies and experts, writing the article, submitting it and getting published. In this post I take you through an example of a feature story and all the steps involved in getting the article published in one of Australia’s newspapers.

An example of a feature article

feature article example.jpg

This article (this link takes you to an edited online version - you can read a PDF of the piece at the end of this post) was one that was published fairly early on in my freelance career, but it’s a piece of writing that I still feel strongly about – it has evocative personal stories and a strong 'trend' hook and research base, as well as having people share how they have grown despite enormous trauma to do incredible things.

Before I wrote this story, I hadn’t had any articles of this length (over 2200 words) published. I must admit I felt as if I was flying blind but I feel very grateful that the Australian Writers Centre course that I did in feature writing for magazines and newspapers (affiliate link) prepared me for writing such a big piece so early in my freelance writing career.

How I came up with the idea for the article

In 2013 I was having coffee with an older friend of mine (let’s call her Jane) and something was on her mind. One of Jane’s friend’s sons had passed away while travelling in South America. The details were sketchy – but he had apparently jumped out of a window after a big night out.

Jane spoke about how the mother (let’s call her Alice) was distraught about her son's death, and how Alice’s distress was exacerbated by the distance, negotiating a system and a language she didn’t understand in order to bring her son home to Australia.

The story stayed with me for months. As someone who has travelled in developing countries and had a couple of near misses myself, I could appreciate that this must be every parent’s worst nightmare.

I wondered how many young Australians died while travelling overseas – something I knew my parents were concerned about when I travelled, but a possibility that I had always dismissed as incredibly remote. 

Even though I felt like there was a story here, I knew the likelihood of Alice wanting to speak to me so soon after losing her son would be slim, and so I forgot about it for a bit.

{Related post - Where to find the best story ideas for articles}

I caught up with Jane months later and during the conversation remembered to ask about how Alice was. I asked about whether Alice had any more clarity about what had happened. Rather than understanding more about the situation, it had become complex and Jane said Alice was not only experiencing grief but also frustration at not knowing about her son’s final moments. 

As I went home I knew this was an important story to tell. I did a quick search on the internet to see if the number of deaths of young Australians overseas had increased in recent years. They had.

I texted Jane and asked if Alice may be willing to speak to me about her experience. Jane rang Alice and I received this reply: “She’s happy to talk to you. She thinks it’d be carthartic.”

The pitch

I pitched the idea to one of the newspapers in Australia – I could imagine it would be a good fit for one of their weekend sections. I pitched to an editor who I had written for at the paper and she forwarded it to the features editor. 

This is the query letter that I sent to the editor:

Hi [editor],

 I hope you are well.

 I am wondering if you would be interested in a story about young Australians who die while travelling overseas for "Extra" in The Sunday Age.

It is every parent’s worst nightmare to farewell their child at the airport for an overseas trip of a lifetime and for their child never to return. More than 900 Australians died overseas in 2012 - a 13 per cent jump from the year before. While illness was the leading cause of death, accidents were also a common cause of fatalities for Australians travelling overseas.

DFAT have noted that there are increasing numbers of young travellers who are more likely to get into trouble and run out of money while travelling, and in this way the demand for Australian consular services has risen enormously.

So what happens to families when they receive the news that their young son or daughter has passed away while overseas? When incidents happen abroad, families very often feel disconnected to the way they might find the answers to their questions, the culture, the language, the absence of local knowledge means they feel left out of the loop, both in terms of their loved ones last moments but also the justice system if it’s a criminal case.

 If you were interested in this article, I’d like to interview families who have lost a son or daughter while they were travelling overseas. I’d also like to speak with young people who have had “near misses”. Furthermore, I’d also interview experts in assessing the risk of travel, and a spokesperson from DFAT.

 Let me know what you think?



Within half an hour I had a reply from the features editor.

The commission

Hi Lindy - 

I'd be interested to pursue this. Quite a lot has been written about consular support obligations on government, but parents’ perspectives would be valuable. It'd be good to get into the tension of wanting to see children have full and worldly experience and the fear of not having control.

Extra pieces run to 2000-2200 words, and would benefit from a little list of top destinations or the like.

I'm on [phone number] to discuss further.


As you can imagine I was excited but also apprehensive about tackling such a big subject and with a big word count – the longest article I had written.

And then I realised I actually had to call and speak with the editor on the phone!

I rang him and we fleshed out the idea a little more. He asked me to keep him updated as I secured interviewees.

He was also mentioned that he was leaving his post in three weeks and asked if I could have the article to him within the fortnight.

I said yes.

The interviews

Alice was willing to talk and via text message I organised a time to speak with her.

I emailed the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to see if a spokesperson would be happy to be interviewed, and I reach out to an expert from Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (about increased risk taking behaviour while overseas), and a senior lecturer in tourism and risk management (to discuss the statistics around deaths of young people overseas). I also got in touch with a psychologist (via the Australian Association of Psychologists) for comment about parental perspectives around grief and loss when a young adult child dies overseas.

I still needed a couple more case studies, so I searched on the internet and read some stories about families who had lost young adult children while they had been travelling overseas.

I read about one mother, Jan, who had lost her son after he had gone tubing in Laos, and who had advocated for a change in tubing practices. I got in touch with her via email and she said she was prepared to be interviewed.

It was a terribly sad interview – but Jan told me she took great comfort in speaking about her son and remembering him.

Jan had become part of an informal network of parents who lost their children in accidents overseas and recommended that I get in touch with another family who had lost their daughter Nicole in a motorbike accident in Thailand. I did so and interviewed the mother and Nicole's sister, Kate.

The hiccup

My deadline was approaching and I was due to speak over the phone with Alice. An hour before we were scheduled to speak, she texted me to let me know that she wasn’t going to go ahead with the interview.

While Alice was happy to speak to me, her youngest son was struggling and she felt any media around her son’s death would make it harder for her youngest child. She apologised but said she had to put her family first.

Of course I understood. As writers and journalists it takes an incredible amount of trust for people to tell us their stories and for us to write their words in a way that is authentic and respectful. I replied to Alice and reassured her that it was absolutely the right thing to do – family comes first.

I must admit that I was frantic after I spoke to her because I now needed to find another case study with less than a week before I was due to submit the article.

I sent off emails to every kind of organisation that may support grieving parents but heard nothing.

Then I remembered that when I interviewed the psychologist about the impact these kinds of deaths can have on families, that she happened to mention in passing that one of her friends had had a similar thing happen with their 20 year old son. 

I got in touch again with the psychologist and explained what had happened. I asked if she thought her friends may be wiling to speak to me. She said she’d check. She rang me back and said her friends were happy to be interviewed, but on the condition of anonymity.

Crisis averted.

Writing the article

When I was interviewing Jan I knew I wanted to start with her story – I felt what happened to her (being woken in the middle of the night by a phone call) was something that parents everywhere could relate to. 

Then I mapped out the feature article format - I wrote down what each interviewee had to say and what points I wanted to include. I knew I wanted to end with Nicole’s story, especially given her family had set up a foundation in her honour to educate other young people about the dangers of travelling on motorbikes without helmets while overseas.

Submission and publication

I submitted the article and the editor had a few minor questions and requests for changes.

Five days later it was published.

I received this email from the editor:

Hi Lindy - 

 Hope you're happy with the run. It's rated extremely well online - a credit to your excellent efforts.

 Cheers, and thanks again


As many of you will know, emails like that from busy editors are few and far between, so I was chuffed to receive it.

I was even more pleased to know that the families I interviewed were happy with the way I wrote the article, and how they were presented.

If the editor had stayed in that role, I would have pitched to him again because building relationships with editors and clients is the key to being a successful freelance writer, but as it was, that was the first and only time I have written for that section in that paper. 

Since I wrote this piece, I've written other articles that I feel proud of, but this one has really stayed with me.

Do you have articles that you have written that have made an impact on you? Do you approach writing feature articles in a similar way?

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