Defining feature-writing is this prolific writer


V Sundaram

Monday, 03 August, 2009 , 02:59 PM

After doing her Post Graduate programme in English Literature, she took a Diploma in Journalism. She also holds a Certificate in Public Relations and Public Speaking. She is a Professor of Journalism at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s School of Journalism, Chennai.

As an avid reader, I can testify from my personal experience that she is aMeera author remarkably prolific writer. She has to her credit more than thousand articles which include interviews, features, travelogues, humour and satire, middles and book reviews in various newspapers in India. She has interviewed many leading personalities for AIR and different TV channels.

Meera Raghavendra Rao’s debut novel, Madras Mosaic was recently released. It was greatly acclaimed by the readers. This novel is a social and cultural commentary on the people who have made Madras city what it is. I am not surprised that she has been captivated by the charm and variety of Madras City. Many journalists and writers of colonial British India were equally thrilled by different aspects of sparkling Madras city.

Let me now come to Meera Raghavendra Rao’s book on ‘FEATURE WRITING’ (FW). Meera Raghavendra Rao has said in her preface that the motive to write this book came to her when she was teaching the subject of “Writing for Print” to her journalism students. When she was explaining the difference between hard news and soft news and the importance of FW or Feature Stories, one of the students asked her: “What is a Feature?” She tells us that this question took her back to her own student days in the same college when she had put the same question to her Professor V.P.V Rajan, who was an eminent editor of the evening news paper, The Madras Mail. Prof. Rajan, quoting the apt words of Brian Nicholls (author of the book ‘Features and Flair’), gave this reply to Meera Raghavendra Rao: “The good newspaper is not just paper and ink. The good news paper lives. News is its life blood. Readers are its heart. And Features may be said to be its soul.”

Another way of looking at this will be to say that what is not viewed as News goes into FW. FW has its own style and its own flavour which goes beyond the scope of news reporting. News should be viewed as solid, verifiable physical facts. FW could be a subjective slant on the news, bringing in creative views, increasing the existing corpus of total physical information.

Book launch photo

Dr M S Swaminathan speaking on the occasion of the release of Meera Raghavendra Rao’s Book on FW

In my view Meera Raghavendra Rao’s book on FW is an exceptionally good and useful book not only for all students of Journalism but also for all writers interested in FW. She shares her rich experience as a writer and teacher. She has drawn most of the illustrations for her book from her own published material. In less than 125 pages, spread over 10 chapters, she has covered all the aspects, contours, dimensions and ramifications of FW. Anyone can note that she is a pain-staking and serious scholar.

In Chapter 1 titled ‘Introduction to Journalism’, she quotes Cyril Connolly:” Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism is what will be grasped at once.” In particular I like the quotations of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and Mathew Arnold (1822-1888). Oscar Wilde said:” The difference between Journalism and Literature is that Journalism is unreadable and Literature remains unread.Mathew Arnold said:” Journalism is literature in a hurry.”  

In Chapter 1, the author asks the question: “Is Journalism an art, profession or business?” Here she quotes Rajaji (1878-1972), who was himself an ace journalist. Rajaji, addressing a meeting of professional journalists, said: “I want to look upon Journalism as an art and not as an industry. Journalists are like painters and poets, rather than factory workers. They are really creating works of art. When you journalists write an article or a leading article or even when you present an item of news, you are creating a work of art. Whatever may be your difficulties, whatever your internal pains and travails, you must look upon what you produce as productive, creative art.

In Chapter 1, Meera Raghavendra Rao distinguishes between different kinds of Journalistic Writing. She has described the difference between Feature Stories (FW) and News Stories (NW). She makes it clear that if reporting is fun, then FW is the funniest of all. It is also the hardest.

She has classified the Features or FW under the following categories: a) Bright or brite; b) News Feature (NW) / Sidebar; c) Human interest; d)Personality Sketch or Profile; e) Personal Experience Feature; f) Interview Feature; g) Travel Feature; h) Seasonal Feature and i) Service Feature or Utility Feature. In Chapter 2, she deals with FW techniques. In Chapter 3, she has dealt with Brights. She tells us that the function of News is to inform and educate and that of Brights is to educate and entertain. Here she quotes Daniel R. Williamson: “As the name implies, a ‘Bright’ is a sunny light story that brightens an otherwise gloomy page filled with an assortment of mayhem, disaster and crisis. It serves as a lump of sugar to make more serious information a little more palatable to the depressed reader.

Different forms or types of FW can also be classified as Reflecting, Reporting, Explaining and Arguing. I cannot help observing that our civilization today is decadent and our language must inevitably share in the general collapse. Our language has become ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts. In most forms of FW today, we find two chief defects. One is staleness of imagery and the other is lack of precision. Thus there is a continuous mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence in most FWs. Today’s journalistic prose consists less and less of WORDS chosen for the sake of their MEANING, and more and more of PHRASES tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. What is above all needed is to let the meaning chose the word, and not the other way around. In FW the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them. This should be avoided like fire.

A scrupulous Feature Writer should ask himself at least SIX questions in every sentence. What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have en effect? Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Here this book gives us clear instructions for precise and effective FW. If I can paraphrase the guidelines given by Meera Raghavendra Rao for effective FW, then I would like to put it in the form of a brilliant verse of Rudyard Kipling. Every writer of FW should keep in mind the following lines of Rudyard Kipling:

I had six faithful friends
who taught me all I knew,
they were when, and how, and what
and where and why and who!

In Chapter 4, Meera Raghavendra Rao deals with Humour and satire. The world is a perpetual caricature of itself; at every moment it is the mockery and the contradiction of what it is pretending to be. She tells us that good humour is one of the best forms of dress one can wear in society. Humour is a way to break the ice when we meet people. Humour helps in establishing an instant rapport with them. It can come in many forms, the simplest of which is relating a joke.

In satire, the writer of FW makes use of humour, irony, exaggeration, sarcasm, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in politics or public life. For instance Winston Churchill (1874-1965) described Clement Attlee (1883-1867) as: “You are not a sheep in lion’s skin; you are indeed a sheep in sheep’s skin.Churchill once said that satire should not be like a saw, but a sword; it should cut, and not mangle.

In this delightful book on FW, Meera Raghavendra Rao brings home to us that writing a story or a novel is one way of discovering sequence in experience, of stumbling upon cause and effect in the happenings of a writer’s own life. It has been so in her case. She seems to tell us: “Writing fiction or doing FW has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to construct, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists. The strands are all there: to the memory nothing is lost.” We can see clearly from this book that effective FW involves three fundamental activities done in a continuous and tireless sequence with commitment and conviction — Listening, Learning to See and Finding a Voice.

As a journalist myself, I have interacted with Meera Raghavendra Rao. As a talker she is lively and incomparable. She is endowed with a sharp, quick brain, a masterful personality, an impulsive heart, great gaiety, a brilliant, ironical and rapier sharp wit, contempt for all that is slovenly, craven and yet pompous. She has a tender social conscience.

In my view Meera Raghavendra Rao’s book on FW should be made a compulsory reading for all students of Journalism as well as English Literature in India. All the students of Journalism ought to be indebted to her for her splendid and imaginative effort marked by thoroughness, great application and disinterested pursuit of the truth.

(The writer is a retired IAS officer)

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