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Feature Article

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by deviljets7, Sep 29, 2007.

  1. deviljets7

    deviljets7 Member

    I just started working at a daily a little more than three weeks ago. This is the first true feature I've done since starting. Any and all comments are greatly appreciated.

    Valuable Lessons
    World-class swimmer offers Bayonne kids words of wisdom and water safety

    BAYONNE - For Cullen Jones it was a reminder of where he's been and what he can teach from his own experiences.

    Jones, a World Champion swimmer and Olympic hopeful, had a captive audience during yesterday's visit to Bayonne's Lincoln Community School Pool, a place where he particpated in a swim meet at age 10.

    "It's a joy for me," Jones said about teaching kids to swim. "It just comes naturally for some reason. I love to hear the kids laughing when I'm telling corny jokes. Sometimes I see some of the adults and parents laughing and I just have fun with it."

    But Jones' visit to Bayonne was more than just fun and games. As part of Toyota's "Engines of Change" program, Jones is helping to create swim instructional programs in Bayonne and Newark to reduce drownings, especially among African American youth.

    Statistics show that African American youth drown at rates three times as often as white children in similar age groups.

    It's easy to understand why the cause is so important to Jones - he nearly drowned on a Dorney Park water ride when he was eight.

    "I hit the water, flipped over and was upside down on the inner tube because I promised my dad that I was going to hold on," Jones recounted, noting that he had only been taking swim lessons for three weeks at the time.

    "I held on the entire time, upside down until I passed out. I woke up with a lifeguard giving me CPR and I was coughing up water."

    But not even the near-death experience has deterred Jones from continuing his adventures in the water. The 23-year-old New Brunswick native spends more than four hours a day, six days a week, in the pool as he prepares for next year's Summer Olympics in Beijing, China.

    At the 2006 Pan Pacific Games, Jones became the first African American to break a world record in swimming as a part of Team USA's 4x100 Freestyle Relay Team.

    He also earned a gold medal in the 50-meter sprint at the 2005 World University Games.

    Among other stories, Jones told the young Bayonne swimmers about the advice he received as a 9-year-old from Olympic swimmer Ron Karnaugh.

    "'You won't impress me by doing it fast, but by doing it perfectly,'" Jones recalled Karnaugh advising.

    It wasn't until Jones got to high school that he realized that he could have a future in swimming.

    "My coach (St. Benedict's Prep's Ed Nessel) was really adament about trying to get me to step up to the next level," Jones said. "He had a lot of influence. I owe a lot of things to him."

    Jones has since moved on to North Carolina State where he was a four-time ACC Champion and a 2006 NCAA Champion. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, but he still jumps at the chance to return to his home state.

    "I just love to come home," Jones said. "I just love Jersey so much. For Toyota to help the place where I come from is amazing."
  2. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    dj -

    First, congratulations on the job. Very much hope you're enjoying yourself there.

    Second, thanks so much for taking the time to post your work for us to share. We're happy to have you in the Workshop.

    As to the piece, just a couple of thoughts this morning.

    - As I always do, even in features this short, I'm going to ask you to deliver a physical description of the subject. It needn't be long or lyrical or overwritten, but the reader wants to see this young man in their mind's eye: is he tall? Short? Wide? Slender? What about his smile? His voice? His hands? Does he gesture when he speaks? If so, how? Does he laugh at his own corny jokes? Etc. Even in short features, you need detail. Not a list of details - rather, one or two perfect details. Physical details that reveal character.

    - This young man has a remarkable story as it relates to the content of his talk to the kids. He nearly died in a pool. I'd think very hard about using that as your lede.

    - Then move up the list of his accomplishments.

    - Then detail the nature of his talk to the youngsters.

    - I'm on the fence about mentioning his corporate sponsor twice in the piece, but can see why you had to do so. It's tangled up in his last quote in a way that would make it very hard to extract. Still, I try to tread carefully when mentioning sponsors, even in service of a good cause.

    - I think I'd rather give you the last line in this story. Ending on a quote is sound strategy if you have a great quote - especially if it echoes your lede. (Always try to make your beginnings and endings work together.) In this case though, I'd rather the writer have the last word. If we reordered your lede to begin with the near-drowning, I think a well-turned last line on the matter could have a lot of resonance given the subject. Just a thought.

    In any case, welcome to the Workshop, and thanks for posting with us. I hope this finds you well. And again, congratulations on the job.
  3. deviljets7

    deviljets7 Member

    Thanks for the kind words and advice. Here are a couple of things, in regards to your comments as well as the story itself.

    1. A very good point about the physical characteristics. That is definitely something I should remember for future stories.

    2.At first I tried something with the nearly drowning lede, but I felt like my story was reaching a dead end when I started with that (how do I transition into the accomplishments and teaching, etc.)

    3. I agree with you about the sponsorship issue, but I did find it did seem hard to completely remove it, especially since they are the ones that funded the program. While it's still corporate sponsorship, I felt it was a little different than say the "Tostitos Fiesta Bowl."

    4. I felt I struggled finding with a way to wrap everything up.

    In retrospect, I would have tried to dig a little deeper into the past drowning and how it affected him, but with the limited interview time (I only got to talk to Cullen for 5-10 minutes) and time to write the article (was published the next day), I'm not sure how much further I had the ability to go on the potential drowning aspect.
  4. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    dj -

    #3 aside, which is a bugaboo for every writer everywhere, I think the best solution to #s 1, 2, and 4 is to read everything you can lay your hands on. Inside the field of sportswriting and out.

    Good transitions, especially in shorter pieces, are hard. Finding your story architecture - especially great endings in short pieces - is also hard. Discovering the one telling physical detail, likewise very hard. And synthesizing all those elements into a moving, informative, coherent whole not only by the method of your construction, but by imbuing it with your sense of the wider world, is very, very hard indeed.

    But mastering those things makes the difference between writing and great writing.

    So read great writers - in every genre, and from every age - to see how it's been done.

    And again, mazel tov. Keep at it.
  5. friend of the friendless

    friend of the friendless Active Member

    Young 7,

    I'm with Mr macg on the lede being the near-drowning. That said, if you wanted the swim class as a lede (stubborn), you'd better do it a bit through the eyes of the students, maybe try to find an analogue for our subject as a boy. And, of course, if that's where you dive in, that must be where you touch the wall, ending back in class, back with the student, not the teacher.

    YHS, etc
  6. deviljets7

    deviljets7 Member


    I originally planned to lead with the near-drowning, but I felt at the time that I was hitting a dead end in the story when I did. I apologize if it came off that I was stubborn about the lede, but that couldn't be further from the truth.


    For "short" features, what writers would you recommend I read?
  7. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Lemme think on it. Off the top of my head, though, I'd start with the great columnists, who often used their 700 words to write featurettes. Red Smith and Jim Murray leap to mind among sports writers. Mike Royko. Even Rick Reilly, for whom many columns are really small features. I'll come up with others.

    Somewhere on the site is posted a copy of WC Heinz's astonishing "Death of a Racehorse." Just search "death" and "racehorse" and you'll find it. It's a column, but it's not. It's a perfect, powerful little feature story.
  8. TyWebb

    TyWebb Well-Known Member

    One thing that stuck out to me that I didn't see mentioned by jg or fotf is the line about the statistics. You don't say where the statistics come from and that is just as important as the statistics themselves. If your source said "Statistics show..." ask him what statistics. If he doesn't know, make sure you attribute that to him.
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