“Writing nonfiction is more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing.”
— Joan Didion, American journalist, essayist and novelist

Anatomy of a feature

See the structure at work in this financial piece

How do you organize a compelling feature?

UNDER CONSTRUCTION How do you build a good feature story? Model this masterful piece.

UNDER CONSTRUCTION How do you build a good feature story? Model this masterful piece.

Model this piece, which Loring Leifer wrote for Northern Funds’ marketing magazine, Northern Update. In it, the Wylie Communications head writer and senior writing coach includes all of the elements you need to craft a compelling feature story.


Start with a feature head. A creative feature deserves a creative headline. Wordplay works beautifully for this one.

Bridge the gap


Summarize the story in your deck. Clever headlines grab attention, but they don’t fully explain the story. So write a summary deck in 14 words or less.

May-December marriage? Here’s how to
span the age divide and retire together


Show instead of tell in a feature lead. Feature leads are concrete, creative and provocative. In this example, compression of details gets the piece off to a good start.

Long before Tim Robbins hooked up with Susan Sarandon, 12 years his senior, William Shakespeare, at 18, married 26-year-old Anne Hathaway.

New World settler John Rolfe wed Indian princess Pocahontas, 10 years his junior, in 1614. John Kennedy was 12 years older than Jacqueline Bouvier. John McCain is 17 years older than spouse Cindy.

Age disparity in marriage has been the subject of speculation throughout history. Mixed-aged couples endure raise eyebrows, ribbing and the occasional awkward situation. Imagine having a mother-in-law younger than you or a stepson who beats you to Social Security.


Broaden the story in the background section. Here, you explain why we’re covering this story now, give broader context for the piece and fill in the details readers need to understand the rest of the story.

These couples also face special financial challenges when they want to retire at the same time, according to Tiffany Irving, a Wealth Strategist for Northern Trust.

(Loring also included a sidebar, which explained in detail the special financial problems challenges confronting May-September couples.)

Nut graph

Put the story into a nutshell in the nut paragraph. Here, you tell people what you’re going to tell them.

If your spouse is much younger or older than you, here are some steps you can take today to span the financial divide in retirement.

Body: Section one

Avoid the muddle in the middle: Organize the body of your feature-style story into clear, complete parts. Then use subheads to label the parts for your readers.

Calculate the load

Age differences of 10 years or more change the math for couples who want to retire together.

See how Loring writes like a roller coaster. That is, she weaves metaphors, examples and concrete details throughout the piece to keep readers’ interest.

Imagine retirement as building a bridge to span your post-work life. Because a mixed-age retirement may have to last four or five decades instead of two or three, you’ll have to build the Golden Gate Bridge (almost 9,000 feet) while the Brooklyn Bridge (about 6,000 feet) might suffice for a same-age couple. The assumptions will differ; the calculations are more complex; and the tolerances are tighter.

“A longer period of retirement means your income has to last much longer,” Irving says. “And there are more opportunities to miscalculate.”

Plus, May-December marriages often come with complications, like ex-spouses or children from prior unions. The couple may face a wider range of lifestyle challenges, like toilet-training toddlers while caring for elderly parents.

So, if you want your retirement to lap those of same-age couples, you’ll need a head start. And, you may need to be more diligent in your financial planning efforts than a same-age couple, advises Irving.

Body: Section two

Although this is a linear feature, Loring uses subheads, bullets, bold-faced lead-ins and other display copy. These make scanning easier and lift ideas off of the page.

Span the divide with assets

You’ll want to allocate your portfolio to make sure it addresses the need to provide income now and growth to generate income in the future. Irving suggests that you:

  • Save expansively. Retirement may cost you more, so you’ll need more assets. Max out your IRAs, 401(k)s or pension plans to increase your retirement assets. The same million dollars that might be enough for two 65 year olds might not suffice for a 65-year-old married to someone who’s 40. They’ll have to make the money last twice as long.
  • Calculate cautiously. To cover more decades, use more conservative assumptions about the growth of your assets. While a same-age couple might assume 7% growth, a mixed-age couple might want to choose a more conservative 5% or 6%. The more aggressive your assumptions are, the less likely they’ll come to fruition.
  • Balance your risk profile. Where a same-age couple at retirement age might want to invest half their portfolios in equities, a mixed-age couple might move that up to 55% to support the longer life of the younger spouse — with perhaps a higher percentage in cash to offset the increased risk.
  • Revisit your assumptions regularly. This is important to all couples, but, as your marriage may span more generations, you’ll be more at risk for life changes, like weddings, births and funerals. So, you will want to make sure that your investments stay relevant to your circumstances.

Body: Section three

Notice how Loring has developed her bridge analogy in the display copy. One key to using an extended metaphor is to do so lightly. If Loring used a bridge reference in every paragraph, we’d soon grow weary of the analogy.

Paying the tolls

Before you both quit your jobs, figure out how much money you’ll need to support your retirement habit. Will you maintain your current level of expenses or add to them with a second home or sailboat?

“You’ll need to plan your cash-flow needs more carefully than those who married their high-school sweethearts,” Irving says. She cautions couples to:

  • Avoid early overspending. New retirees are the ones most likely to blow their budgets. You’ll need to stretch your resources over a longer period of time. That means mistakes can have more dramatic consequences.
  • Take care of health care. A younger spouse who retires will not be eligible for Medicare, so you’ll likely have to pay out of pocket for health insurance or health care for many years. And have a plan for how you will manage if one of you needs long-term care.
  • Let your budget decide when it’s time to retire. Maybe you can’t retire at the same time or you’ll both have to postpone retirement for another five years

“By being realistic upfront about what is possible for the future, you can ward off putting your younger spouse in a detrimental situation… and alone,” she says.


Finally, draw to a close in the conclusion. The conclusion has two parts:

1. The wrap up, where you tell readers what you’ve told them. Again, note the concrete details here and throughout the piece.

The other side

May-December retirements may have their financial challenges, but they have perks as well. Having a younger spouse means you’re more likely to have someone with more pep to take care of you as you age, who will keep you up on the latest computer tricks and add some Mos Def to your Mozart.

By marrying a younger woman and fathering children, you may even be helping future generations live longer. A study published in PLoS ONE found that when older men father children with younger women, their offspring tend to live longer.

2. The kicker, where you leave a lasting impression with concrete, creative, provocative information. Here, Loring returns to and spins her bridge analogy for a satisfying final note.

So you may be part of a bridge to a longer life for the next generation.

How can you craft a feature-style story like Loring’s?

Get the word out with clear, compelling copy

Each day, your readers are bombarded with 5,000 attempts to get their attention. That’s nearly 2 million messages a year. Is your copy getting through to your tired, busy, distracted audience?

These days — when people are more inclined to discard information than to read it — you need copy that captures attention, cuts through the clutter and leaves a lasting impression.

Wylie Communications can help. With Wylie Communications on your team, you can:

  • Deliver copy that sells. When Ann’s not writing or editing, she’s training other writers. Or helping companies get the word out to their audiences. She applies the best practices she develops for her training and consulting business to her writing and editing projects. So your project will cut through the clutter, lift your ideas off the page or screen and deliver copy that sells products, services and ideas.
  • Bring award-winning talent to your project. Ann’s work has earned nearly 60 communication awards, including two IABC Gold Quills. Let us help you produce world-class business communications, as well.
  • Get writers who get business. Ann has interviewed George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Robert Redford. But she really enjoys chatting with economists, engineers and surgeons. At Wylie Communications, we’ve written about communication technology for Sprint, about personal finance for Northern Trust and — despite the fact that Ann’s preferred form of exercise is the hike from recliner to refrigerator — about fitness medicine for the Mayo Clinic. We’ll get up to speed on your industry, quickly and thoroughly.
  • Stop working weekends. Our team provides a virtual staff to write and edit newsletters and magazines for Saint Luke’s, Northern Trust, State Street/Kansas City and Sprint. Let us pick up the slack in your department, too.

Want to reach more readers? To discuss your next writing project, contact Ann Wylie. We’ll deliver copy that gets read and remembered.

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“What we gain from the scene is not information, but experience.”
— Roy Peter Clark, Poynter Institute senior scholar, in Writing Tools

Set the scene for story

Take readers there

Your story has to happen somewhere. The setting is the time and place where it happens.

HANG THE MOON Put readers in the moment with scene-setting description.

HANG THE MOON Put readers in the moment with scene-setting description.

The setting helps readers visualize and feel connected to the story.

“Our lives unfold in scenes,” says reporter Adam Hochschild. “Make readers feel that they are there.”

Elements of setting

To set a scene, include:

  • Where the story takes place. Mention the location and city (and state, if AP Style demands it) at the very least. Depending on the length of your narrative, you might also set the scene with description.
  • When the story takes place. Include the month and date, if nothing else.

Locales and scenes may change, but the setting remains the same. In Cinderella, for instance, the setting might be a principality somewhere in Europe. But the scenes and locale change from the hovel in the woods to the palace.

Use description to set a scene.

When setting the scene, think of creating a movie in your reader’s mind. Description and metaphor will help you do so.

“Don’t use adjectives or adverbs to try to describe or hype the emotions,” writes Tom Huang, Sunday & Enterprise Editor at The Dallas Morning News. “Just write with spare language, and use details to put readers there. They will likely experience some of the emotions you felt as you observed the scene.”

Here’s how Gerald M. Carbone did it in The Providence Journal:

“Below the tree line, the White Mountains in winter are a vision of heaven. Deep snow gives them the texture of whipping cream. Boulders become soft pillows. Sounds are muted by the snow. Wind in the frosted pines is a whisper, a caress.”

Now you do it.

Master the Art of the Storyteller

Storytelling is “the most powerful form of human communication,” according to Peg Neuhauser, author of Corporate Legends and Lore.

Indeed, stories can help you:

  • Get and keep attention
  • Enhance credibility
  • Make your message more memorable
  • Communicate better
  • Create a “buzz” for your ideas

In my Master the Art of the Storyteller workshop, you’ll learn to identify, develop and tell stories that will illustrate your points, communicate your messages and sell your products, services and ideas. Specifically, you’ll learn:

  • Where to find stories to illustrate and cement your key points
  • How to reframe the five journalistic W’s — who, what, when, where and why — to tell a story instead of just cranking out another boring inverted pyramid
  • The key question to ask during an interview to elicit juicy anecdotes
  • A seven-second rule to apply to determine whether your material is really an anecdote
  • How “WBHA” can help you find anecdotes in the making
  • The secret to organizing your material into a powerful story
  • The best place to start an anecdote — and the worst place
  • A quick, easy-to-use template for building an anecdote

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“How lovely are the wiles of words.”
— Emily Dickinson, American poet

From apostrofly to throuple

Create new words by merging old ones

Tracy Ousdahl and Paul Pinney — let’s call them Ouspin — have traveled the globe. But sometimes, instead of venturing out to a cool destination, they use their time off to visit their families.

FROM BRANGELINA TO GLAMPING Surprise and delight readers with portmanteau.

FROM BRANGELINA TO GLAMPING Surprise and delight readers with portmanteau.

Don’t call that a vacation, though. To Ouspin, that’s a famcation.

Half-and-half words like famcation — linguists call these portmanteaus — not only grab readers’ attention. They also move further and faster on social media.

In fact, new research by HubSpot’s Dan Zarrella shows that tweets containing novel words tend to get retweeted more often than those that don’t.

Get inspired by WordSpy.

Here are some novel words that have surprised and delighted me lately, from one of my favorite blogs, WordSpy:

  • Apostrofly n. An errant or misplaced apostrophe, particularly one that seems to have been added randomly to the text.
  • Blizzaster n. A massive snowstorm; the negative effects of such a storm.
  • Calligraffiti n. Graffiti that uses or is inspired by calligraphic letterforms and techniques.
  • Cheapuccino n. An inexpensive, low-quality cappuccino, particularly one from a vending machine; a cappuccino made from brewed or instant coffee.
  • Diworsify v. To make something worse by diversifying.
  • Faitheist n. An atheist who respects or accommodates other people’s religious beliefs, or who attends religious services.
  • Fauxductivity n. Pretending to work hard; busyness that consists of trivial or unproductive activities.
  • Googleganger n. A person who has the same name as you, and whose online references are mixed in with yours when you run a Google search on your name.
  • Halfalogue n. One side of a two-person conversation.
  • Landscraper n. An imposingly long building, particularly one that houses a commercial enterprise, such as a factory or hotel.
  • Momoir n. A memoir about motherhood. — momoirist n.
  • On-call-ogist n. A doctor who is frequently on call, particularly one who earns a living by filling in for other doctors.
  • Phubbing pp. Snubbing another person by using your smartphone instead of interacting with that person.
  • Proem n. A prose poem; a work written in prose but incorporating poetic imagery and rhythms.
  • Shampaign n. A fake, insincere, or misleading campaign, particularly for political office.
  • Sharent n. A parent who shares too much information about his or her children.
  • Throuple n. Three people in a romantic relationship.

Then there’s fake-ation: n. A vacation where you spend most of your time reading email and performing other work-related tasks.

Ouspin would be proud.

Learn how to create portmanteaus.

October writing contest

Create a half-and-half word, define it, use it in a sentence, and send it to me by Dec. 1. If yours is the best entry, I’ll send you my favorite coined-words-themed gift.

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“We are lulled by the sway of a hammock, and we are excited by the beat of a drum.”
— Louis Untermeyer, American poet and anthologist

More Google Poetics

Readers share search-phrase verses

The brilliant folks behind Google Poetics create found poetry from search terms. When you search on Google, it provides a list of most-frequently-searched-for phrases. The best create poetry like:

She wrote

She wrote
She wrote me a letter
She wrote love on her arms
She wrote lonely on her body
She wrote the book

Recently, I invited you to share your found poetry in a writing contest. Here are some of the best pieces.

Claire Sturgeon, media communications specialist at Institute for Genomic Biology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, submitted this piece:

He studies

He studies at university
He studies how things originated
He studies where morals come from
He studies the impact of human behavior on emotion
He studies her

Claire, I love the way the progressively longer lines build up a rhythm that’s broken by the short last line. That approach really emphasizes the twist in your final line.

Patti Tironi, director of Employee Communications — Climate Solutions Sector at Ingersoll Rand, was our most prolific entrant. She submitted several pieces, including this one:

Kill me

Kill me
Kill me baby
Kill me now
Kill me deadly
Kill me softly
Kill me
Kiss me
Kill me

Tironi also submitted a found poem made of email subject lines:

Compendium of All Things Ridiculous

Compendium of All Things Ridiculous
You can’t always reason with those who make the decisions
Change is rarely as easy as it is necessary
No sense delaying the inevitable
You can feel the tires rubbing against you
It’s just a matter of when they hit drive

And the winner is …

Tironi wins the prize not just for being prolific, but also for this fine found poem:

I am born

I am born
I am born again
I am born in thunder
I am born to win

Congratulations, Patti. Watch your mailbox for a little found poem-related prize.

And thanks to everyone who played!

Play with your words

Want to master the art of making your copy more creative and engaging through wordplay?

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“Ann helped us elevate the professionalism and quality of our materials and communications that our investors find both relevant and appealing.”
— Roberta J. Laughlin, vice president, Mutual Funds Marketing, Northern Trust

Get expert advice

Improve your communications with Ann’s consulting services

Do you need to create a communication vehicle that brings in new clients? Communicates corporate messages? Helps your organization achieve its goals and objectives?

If so, Wylie Communications can help — from critiquing your website to launching a newsletter from scratch. Let us help you:

  • Get an extra pair of hands — or four. We provide a virtual staff to write and edit newsletters and magazines for Saint Luke’s, Northern Trust, State Street/Kansas City and Sprint Corp. Let us pick up the slack in your department, too.
  • Revitalize a flagship piece. We revamped Saint Luke’s Health into a more effective, attractive, popular magazine — for the same budget as its less-appealing predecessor. We’d love to help you reboot an old favorite, as well.
  • Make communications more effective. We gave FedEx a blueprint for transforming its management magazine into a strategic tool for the organization’s success. Bring us in to help you align your communications to your organization’s goals.
  • Stop reinventing the wheel. We developed Web page templates, samples and guidelines to help PetSmart Charities and Tellabs streamline the process of rewriting their websites. We gave General Dynamics C4 Systems a fill-in-the-blanks proposal template for closing more details. Let us create formulas, checklists and templates to make your communications more effective and less time-consuming.
  • Outmaneuver the competition. We benchmarked a Motorola company’s press releases against those of its competitors, then delivered guidelines to help the company set the standards for media relations writing in the industry. Let us help make your communications best-of-class, too.
  • And more. See a fuller list of consulting projects.

Why Wylie Communications?

  • When Ann Wylie served as editor of Hallmark Cards’ employee magazine, CROWN, the publication was named the best of its kind in the world by the International Association of Business Communicators and the best of its kind in the nation by Women In Communications.
  • In all, Ann’s communications have earned more than 60 awards, including two IABC Gold Quills.
  • During Ann’s editorship of Ingram’s, the regional business magazine’s editorial and design earned dozens of awards for excellence, its circulation increased by 35 percent and its ad sales soared by one-third.
  • No wonder IABC called on Ann to write the book on publication planning. The resulting manual, Planning Powerful Publications, has been called “the bible” of corporate publications.
  • Since then, we’ve helped dozens of companies launch or revitalize their communication vehicles.

Wylie Communications can help you, too, improve your social media vehicles, publications or websites.

Put yourself in good company

Organization from Accenture to State Street/Kansas City have already improved their communications with our consulting services.

Are you ready to take the next step to make your communications more effective? Contact Ann Wylie. We’ll help you breathe new life into your publication or website.

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“This workshop was a great way to refresh my writing skills and really learn what’s important — the reader.”
— Kaley Miller, communications manager, The Mosaic Company

Ann’s touring schedule

Polish your skills at one of these events

Alas, I can’t invite you to the in-house seminars I present for private organizations.

COME ALONG FOR THE RIDE Catch Ann at one of her upcoming workshops.

But everyone’s invited to these upcoming public seminars in:

  • New York City on Dec. 2. Catch Your Readers, a full-day workshop for PRSA
  • Salt Lake City on May 15: Think Like a Reader, a 90-minute preconference session, and Cut Through the Clutter, a 90-minute keynote, for the Salt Lake City PRSA chapter’s Spring Conference.
  • Tulsa, Okla., on Nov. 20.  Catch Your Readers, a one-day workshop for IABC/Tulsa
  • Your own home or office on Jan. 30: Write for Readability, a one-hour webinar for PRSA

Would you like to attend? Please contact meeting planners directly for details.

Can’t make these events? If you’d like to bring me in for a workshop at your organization, contact me.

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Where in the world is Ann?

Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program

Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.

Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:

  • Austin, Texas: Nov. 7
  • Chicago: Dec. 10
  • Cincinnati: Nov. 13
  • New York City: Dec. 2
  • Northbrook, Il: Dec. 11
  • Salt Lake City: May 15
  • Tulsa, Okla.: Nov. 20

Save even more: Ask about my communication-association discounts and second-day fee reductions.

Contact me to discuss piggybacking.

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What are we up to?

The folks at Wylie Communications have been enjoying:

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Keep up with my calendar

Find out when I’m coming to your neighborhood, learn when you can sign up for one of my programs and otherwise keep up with my calendar.

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Let’s connect

Keep in touch via:

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Please share this issue

… with two of your colleagues by directing them to our current issue. Better yet, invite them to subscribe to Wylie’s Writing Tips. They’ll thank you — and so will I!

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For more info …

… about my seminars, publication consulting or writing and editing services, please contact me or visit my website.

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