Blogs and online features are standard elements in the digital presence of most news sources and magazines.
That’s good news for today’s freelancers, many of whom routinely reap work from such outlets. Online readers rely on both of these digital siblings for daily news and entertainment.
But for the writer, the terms aren’t interchangeable, and understanding what’s expected with each is key to landing more assignments.
When Mary Quigley originally launched her personal blog, mothering21.com, she was looking for an opportunity to flex her writing skills on a topic she was passionate about – mothering adult children.
After years of carefully building a readership and an establishing a trusted online presence, she received an offer to contribute regularly to AARP’s blog.
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Quigley, a professor at the Carter Institute of Journalism at New York University, says that cultivating a personal blog on a niche topic gives writers the opportunity for editors to see their voice and authority in the subject matter, something important to a blog writer.
“The editor assumes you know something about the topic, and they want you to bring your voice and expertise to the table,” Quigley describes.
“Writing style is friendly, conversational. But it’s also informed, you’re sharing your educational take on a subject.”
Features, in contrast, don’t typically embrace the voice of the writer; instead, writers should demonstrate their ability to follow the age-old advice given to many aspiring journalists.
“Adapt the voice of the magazine,” advices Aileen E. Gallagher, assistant professor of magazine journalism at Syracuse University.
“Read similar features, and follow that. The writing style is largely dependent upon the publication.”
In blogs’ infancy, it wasn’t uncommon for a post to reflect a solo voice: a writer’s reflections, opinion, or unique musings.
But as blogs rose to assume a prominent place in the digital landscape, success followed the meatier blogs that delivered substance to their readers.
“A blog for a client always has original interviews and/or research, such as a recent study or event that makes the piece timely,” says journalist and writing coach Rebecca Weber, of Cape Town, South Africa.
Links have been – and still are – almost expected in a blog post. They’re a useful way to maintain a tight focus, while still giving the reader some additional information.
“You might cite a survey or a study with a link,” adds Quigley.
Traditionally, a feature article is driven by firsthand research, and this remains true regardless if it’s for a print or online medium. But linking to other reputable sources has also become a common practice in online features.
“Be careful not to aggregate data, but do use outside links and research to enhance your own reporting,” says Gallagher.
“Data, transcripts, or another document can enhance the value of your piece, but you should choose wisely.”
She also cautions that, particularly with features that run long, the nature of the link can work against the writer: “You don’t want to lose your readers before they reach the end of the article.”
Basing length on a fixed word count is generally a concept of print journalism and is helpful for planning out physical pages.
In the digital space, online experts agree that counting words takes a backseat to delivering focused writing: keeping your reader’s attention, delivering what’s promised, and inspiring return visitors. This holds true to both blog post or feature.
Blog posts, which debuted as short and sweet, have seen their length inflate over the years, with the wordier posts becoming more standard.
“Some blogs are still aiming for a 500-word sweet spot: one interview, maybe a few bullet points, in and out. Other blogs allow for more complexity and are more like traditional articles,” shares Weber.
A study published by Medium suggests that length of a blog post is best measured in reading time, targeting seven minutes as ideal.
With the popularity of tablets and smartphones, online features have embraced the green light to run longer; articles running upwards of 3000-4000 words are common.
But as with a blog, it’s not the length but the value that both readers and editors applaud.
“It’s not always true that longer is better. It is hard to write a really long feature that’s compelling enough to get the reader to stick with it,” says Gallagher.
“I would rather read a tight, well-structured article of 1500 than a meandering, flabby 4000-word piece.”
Organization and structure
The structure of blog posts tends to be flexible; writers might organize their content as a list, a Q&A from an interview, a step-by-step how-to, traditional prose, or a photo-heavy layout.
When done correctly, this adds to the blog’s appeal; readers appreciate a fresh approach with return visits or the regularity of certain structures delivered on set days of the week.
On the other hand, a feature article sticks with tradition: roughly, beginning with a catchy headline and a focused, promising introduction, followed by body text to tell the story and wrapped up with a neat conclusion.
“The writing style of a reported feature hasn’t changed at all (since moving online),” says Gallagher. “What has changed is that an online feature may include other forms of storytelling – such as multimedia, an infographic, or video.”
Gallagher adds that writers should use this to their advantage and include interactive suggestions to make their pitch stand out: “For example, suggesting something interactive in place of the traditional sidebar.”
Years ago, no one may have predicted the stronghold of blogs in the online world, or the regularity with which a reader fires up their tablet to pour over the news. But to today’s freelancer, the popularity of both of these forms of journalism is a welcome outlet, and understanding the nuances and commonalities between the two can be key to success.
Debbie Swanson is a freelance writer based north of Boston, Massachusetts.
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