Monday, February 27, 2012

Why I cried when reading "The Help"

I can't remember the last time a book made me cry.

Last Friday, I was reading The Help on my Kindle Fire on the Volvo bus to work. I had been doing this for the better part of a week. And I was on the last couple of chapters.

Reading this tale of the segregation era in America — when "coloured" people were considered "separate but equal" and treated, especially in the South, worse than animals — had already had a big emotional impact on me.

And I had also been struck by the originality of the writing. Kathryn Stockett tells us the story in three distinctive voices: there is Aibileen, a "coloured" maid; Minny, her best friend and fellow maid; and Skeeter, a young — white — woman who has a worldview different from that of her peers.

On Friday, in the bus that morning, I came to a particularly moving passage.

And the floodgates just opened up.

I was not shedding tears of sadness, though; rather, my eyes welled up because I had become so involved in the book that I was able to share the characters' moment of triumph at that point in the story. It felt so real to me.

At the end of this exceptional and uplifting tale (the movie version is a hit, too), I could not help thinking to myself again: This is Kathryn Stockett's debut novel? What will she do for an encore?


Sunday, February 26, 2012

10 quotations from writers and editors on the importance of editing (or revision)

You may be a great writer, but you still need a good editor. That is what I believe as an editor with 30 years of experience. And that is the belief of the best writers and editors, too.

Here are 10 quotations from writers and editors that underscore the importance of editing (or revision).

[I'm greatly obliged to Dr Mardy Grothe for this list.]

Sit down, and put down everything that comes into your head
   and then you're a writer.
But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth,
   without pity, and destroy most of it.

Cut out all those exclamation marks.
An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.
         F. Scott Fitzgerald

My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers:
     when you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.
         Elmore Leonard

 A writer is unfair to himself when he is unable to be hard on himself.
         Marianne Moore

Editing is the same as quarreling with writers — same thing exactly.
         Harold Ross

In composing, as a general rule, run a pen through every other word
     you have written; you have no idea what vigour it will give your style.
         Sydney Smith

It is with words as with sunbeams —
      the more they are condensed, the deeper they burn.
         Robert Southey

Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise.
 A sentence should contain no unnecessary words,
    a paragraph no unnecessary sentences,
    for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines
    and a machine no unnecessary parts.
         William Strunk, Jr.

Writing is not like painting where you add.
It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees.
Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove,
    you eliminate in order to make the work visible.
Even those pages you remove somehow remain.
         Elie Wiesel

The very bitter lesson that everyone who wants to write
   has got to learn, was that a thing may in itself be
   the finest piece of writing one has ever done, and yet
   have absolutely no place in the manuscript one hopes to publish.
         Thomas Wolfe

My favourites? Fitzgerald's quote on the unnecessary use of exclamation marks and the one by Elmore Leonard which says so much (without saying as much) on why everything we write must be written keeping our audience in mind.

Also read:

Saturday, February 25, 2012

"Wha-aaat? You have FOUR HUNDRED AND NINETY-SEVEN unread E-MAILS in your INBOX!"

That was my cry of astonishment and anguish yesterday when one of my students came into my cabin with her laptop to show me her inbox and to explain why she had not seen an important e-mail I had sent her three weeks ago.

Once I had taken a look at the staggering number of unread e-mails, she did not have to offer any explanation.

I know many people like her. The philosophy at work here seems to be, "We'll get to it later." But before these people know it, another dozen or more e-mails have arrived, and that all-important e-mail has been pushed to the next "page".

Clearly, this is a philosophy that does not work.

How many of you have tons of unread e-mails? Is it really that difficult to maintain a clean inbox?

I have two primary e-mail addresses. Here's a screenshot of my Gmail inbox:

Now here's a screenshot of my Commits Mail inbox:

I have a simple 1-2-3 formula for dealing with e-mail:

1. After you log in and check out your inbox, take quick decisions on "deleting", "marking as spam", and "opening", in that order.

2. Reply ASAP to the e-mails remaining in the inbox.

3. After you reply to each e-mail, take a quick decision on whether to delete it or move it into a folder for future reference. (I have upwards of 40 folders, termed "labels" by Gmail, for each of my e-mail addresses. It may seem like a lot, but believe me, this system is a very efficient one, especially since, additionally, the search function allows me to zero in on ANY e-mail in these folders.)

Want to use this 1-2-3 formula over the weekend to organise your inbox? Be my guest. And send me a screenshot afterwards.
  • By the way, I prefer my desktop to be uncluttered, too. See image below:

Friday, February 24, 2012

10 things you should not say to your boss (or to your journalism professor)

Your boss has just given you a job to do. Are you going to tell him, "I will try [to do this]"? Is your boss going to be happy with your response?

No, he won't. That is why you should put your brain in gear before opening your mouth when interacting with your boss. Sunanda Poduwal, writing in The Economic Times on Sunday, elaborates on the issue. She also provides a list of 10 things you should not say to your boss ("I will try" is on the list):
  1. That's Not in My Job Description
  2. I Can't Do This Task
  3. I Just Never Got Around To It
  4. I Don't Know How To Do It
  5. I Am Overqualified For This
  6. Sorry, I Missed That Point
  7. I Need to Talk to You, It's Important
  8. I Will Try
  9. Don't Blame Me — It's Not My Fault
  10. Why Do I Need To Do This? This is Stupid!
Each item on this list comes with an example. Read the feature in its entirety here.
  • I would like to add No. 11: "I haven't had time to read your e-mail."
  • And here's No. 12 from my perspective as a journalism professor: "I find reading a bore and writing a chore... but I want to be a media professional."
UPDATE (October 1, 2103): More than 1,400 comments (at the time of writing) have been posted already. So you may want to head on over and see what the fuss is all about: Seventeen young "bosses" leaders from The Young Entrepreneur Council talk about the worst thing they'd ever been told by their employees. Read this enlightening piece here: "17 Things You Should Never Say to Your Boss".

ADDITIONAL READING: "17 Things The Boss Should Never Say", by Dave Kerpen, an American CEO who is also a New York Times best-selling author and keynote speaker.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Journalists in the line of fire-2


In 2001 Marie Colvin lost her eye in an ambush in the Sri Lankan civil war. She described the harrowing experience in a speech she gave in November 2010 on the importance of war reporting:

I had gone to the northern Tamil area from which journalists were banned and found an unreported humanitarian disaster. As I was smuggled back across the internal border, a soldier launched a grenade at me and the shrapnel sliced into my face and chest. He knew what he was doing.

Yesterday the US-born Colvin and French photographer Remi Ochlik were killed by shelling in the Syrian city of Homs. A veteran war correspondent, Colvin worked for Britain's Sunday Times for more than 25 years covering conflict.

Read the text of Colvin’s November 2010 speech here: “Our mission is to report these horrors of war with accuracy and without prejudice”.

Also read a tribute to photographer Remi Ochlik here: “Parting Glance”.
  • UPDATE (June 6, 2016): Listen to this superb podcast produced by American media icons Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone on the journalists being held hostage in Syria, one of the most dangerous places in the world today for journalists: Kidnapped.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why long-form narrative journalism is important for all of us

A work of non-fiction about a slum in Mumbai is a leading contender for best book of the year. But you are unlikely to read it, says Prashant Agrawal, writing in today's Mint.

The book in question is Behind the Beautiful Forevers by American journalist Katherine Boo. Agrawal writes:

[It] has won praise from India’s leading historian Ramachandra Guha, as “Without question the best book yet written on contemporary India. Also, the best work of narrative non-fiction I’ve read in 25 years.” Shashi Tharoor, an MP and best-selling author, has sung similar praises. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others have also been effusive in praise. East or West, Katherine Boo’s India book has emerged as the best.

But Agrawal also says that statistics point to the fact that not many of us are going to pick up this book and Boo will be lucky to sell 50,000 copies in India.

Agrawal does not actually give us any statistical data; he does give his reasons, though, for his concerns and I share those concerns. Long-form journalism (Boo's book is a good example) is not for the faint of heart, Agrawal writes. It takes time and effort to read long-form journalism, and we in India are just awakening to its power.

Agrawal explains why we should not underestimate narrative non-fiction books or long-form journalism:

The stories illuminate the world around us, make us think and feel about the issues in a relatable human manner. And often the stories impact and influence public policy. ... Atul Gawande, the best-selling author, wrote a piece in The New Yorker on the rising cost of healthcare costs in the US and how to control them. President Barack Obama had his entire healthcare team read the piece and some of the outcomes were adopted in his landmark healthcare reform.

 We also get some encouraging news:

Today, in India, we are witnessing the birth of non-fiction. Meenal Baghel wrote Death in Mumbai about the Neeraj Grover murder. Beautiful Thing by Sonia Faleiro explores the dance bars of Mumbai; the book has been praised in the pages of Vanity Fair and The Economist.

Every Saturday, our paper [Mint] puts out among the best pieces of narrative journalism in India. Last Saturday, readers were led into the workings and prospects of India’s female boxing team.

Mint’s partner publication, The Wall Street Journal, recently ran an in-depth five-part series on the heinous murder of a nun in Chhattisgarh.

The Caravan magazine is trying to fill the gap of long-form journalism in India and become The New Yorker of India; The New Yorker, along with the Atlantic, are institutions of long-form journalism in the US.

As we grow as a democracy, we will see more long-form journalism — for there are many stories to tell.

Agrawal's article is a good trend story that helps us to understand how long-form narrative journalism can impact our lives. Read the piece in its entirety here: "Birth of long-form journalism".
  • Also, visit Longreads for the best long-form stories on the web.
  • ADDITIONAL READING: "MATTER styles itself as "the new home for in-depth, independent journalism about the ideas that are shaping our future". The founders say it isn't quite a website, it's not really a magazine, and it's not exactly a book publisher either: "Instead, MATTER is something else — a new model for high-quality journalism...." For details, check out "Heart of the MATTER".
UPDATE (June 30, 2013): I have just placed a copy of Behind the Beautiful Forevers in the Commits library.

UPDATE (July 25, 2013): Natasha Rego (Class of 2013) loved the book so much, she has bought a copy for herself so she can read it again.

UPDATE (June 25, 2014): Read up on the latest journalism cooperative, whose aim is to produce in-depth stories, here: "Deca".

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The man who has proved — literally — that journalism is an art form

What a boon it must be to be a great reporter and an accomplished cartoonist. And what an honour it must be to be hailed as the pioneer of "comics journalism".

Have you heard of Joe Sacco, the journalist I am referring to? I hadn't, either, till I chanced upon his most recent creation in The Caravan. The January 2012 issue of the magazine has published an astonishing work of comics journalism in which Sacco tells the real — and tragic — stories of Dalit villagers in the Kushinagar district of Uttar Pradesh.

We learn from the brief profile in Caravan that Joe Sacco came to India with an assignment from a French magazine to produce a long-form feature on rural poverty.

The profile continues:

Over the past 20 years, he has pioneered an entirely new form of graphic storytelling, travelling into conflict zones as a journalist and then recreating them as a visual artist, producing a series of stand-alone reports and a handful of books widely regarded as masterpieces: Palestine, a narrative of his journeys and encounters in the Palestinian territories after the first Gulf War; Safe Area Gorazde, about the end of the Bosnian War; and Footnotes in Gaza, on the legacy of two long-forgotten massacres from the early years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Sacco turned his attention to India, he says, out of a desire to step back from war and conflict, and to test himself in a country where he had never worked. He decided to focus his attention on Uttar Pradesh, and set out — with the assistance of Piyush Srivastava, a Lucknow-based journalist — to gather the stories of poor Dalit villagers in Kushinagar district, along the border with Bihar.


Reading the comic gave me a better understanding of the issue of Dalit rights than perhaps any article I have read in recent times. I was also captivated by Sacco's detailed drawings. I have been involved with journalism for more than 30 years and I have seen nothing like this before. Now all I can think of is how to lay my hands on Joe Sacco's other works.
  • Read "Kushinagar" in its entirety here.
PS (11.55 a.m., February 22): I have just ordered both Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza from Flipkart.

UPDATE (December 10, 2012): After reading both Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza, I became impatient to lay my hands on his magnum opus, Journalism, which was to be published later in the year. As soon as the book became available on Flipkart, which was last month, I bought a copy, which I am reading avidly now and which I'll place later in the college library. Details: Another work of art from the pioneer of comics journalism.

Monday, February 20, 2012

What it takes to be a PR professional-2

Commits alumna SAMARPITA SAMADDAR (Class of 2010) worked as the Public Relations Officer for a non-profit organisation in Bangalore for a total of four years before moving to Mumbai to join Eros International's PR team. Here she explains why PR is a mixed bag of goodies and what it takes to succeed in PR:

When I was a teenager, an uncle suggested that I should take up PR as a profession. I asked him: “What is PR?” My uncle quipped: “Wining and dining with famous people, wooing handsome clients, attending exotic dinner meetings, travelling, and talking — lots of talking!” I never forgot his suggestion and I did make talking — lots of talking — my profession.

Not that it has been easy. A recent study by CNBC/CareerCast ranked PR as the second-most stressful job of 2011 (airline pilots took top honours). So, yes, PR can be stressful. After all, the right pitch has to be timed just right for the right reporter if you want to see your story placed in the right medium. But isn’t life all about meeting challenges? 

PR, let me make it clear, is a mixed bag of goodies: in addition to containing many things you love, that goodie bag might also hold chocolates you hate in the form of a few annoying clients, some stuck-up journalists, and two or three articles in which your client has been misquoted or where the wrong words have been put in your mouth. But when you get to travel to beautiful places, live in fancy hotels, “hang out” with famous celebrities, get articles published regularly in the best of publications, and you are showered with praise aplenty from the people who really matter, believe me, it’s worth it.

For me, PR is not only about getting media coverage, though it is one of the most important aspects; PR is strategic communications, as Sai Sir has always explained it to me. It’s about creating different strategies for different clients depending on their needs. For example, if your client is a start-up, you should plan a PR burst that will mainly concentrate on building media relations and getting media coverage. Introduce your client to the media and your target audience with a bang. Say, “We have arrived!”

And that should be the key message delivered.

But when your client is a restaurant which, having been in the market for a few years, is now seeking brand recognition and brand recall, the plan can have PR events and coverage around them to create a buzz. You might want to create special nights on weekdays to drive more traffic, and organise special property events on weekends to attract new customers.

Innovation, creativity, passion, and persistence are a few things that help you to stand out in the PR industry. But be warned: there’s hardly any method to this madness. It’s a battlefield where there are many others trying to hunt down the same accounts you want.


I started my career two-and-a-half years ago with the Bangalore-based India Foundation for the Arts (IFA). India’s only arts foundation, IFA gives individual grants to artists, scholars, and researchers. It was my first dream job! And I will be forever indebted to IFA for what I learnt and for the exposure I got.

Handling PR for IFA was interesting — and extremely challenging. When you work as the in-house PR Officer, you focus only on your organisation; you don’t have to work for different clients, which is what you would do at a PR agency. For me the challenge at IFA lay in the fact that I was working for an organisation that is one of the most reputed, one-of-a-kind foundations in India — maintaining that reputation was quite a job for a fresher.

When I was new at IFA, I was plagued by one thought: “How the hell am I going to build and maintain relations with so many journalists? HOW?” But I did it. It sounds impossible but it wasn’t. Because when you love what you do, you almost unknowingly push yourself to achieve excellence. And you become addicted to success.


I did PR for my passion at IFA: theatre, documentaries, contemporary arts practices, research on literature, visual arts, and performing arts. Among other things I learnt that meeting celebrities is one thing but handling PR for celebrities is a completely different ball game, especially when they are Bollywood’s most respected veterans, actors even your dad reveres and admires.

Sitting right next to Anupam Kher in the car and literally begging him to mention IFA during his live chat on Radio One; sitting down in a hotel lobby to discuss a press conference with a few Bollywood stalwarts and some of our best stage actors; Naseeruddin Shah bestowing a nickname on me; Lillete Dubey showering praise; Benjamin Gilani writing regularly to keep in touch — such things were not just awesome; they were dream-come-true moments when I’d feel sick with happiness and giddy with satisfaction, satisfaction that comes with success achieved after a lot of hard work.

More than 22 cities, districts, and towns; 1,200 journalists (print, broadcast, and radio); more than 800 media notices; multiple media partnerships; nearly 300 grants; five big fundraisers (celebrity plays, art exhibitions); 16 grantee presentations and four film and theatre festivals across India (where grantees showcase the work IFA supports); a dozen media tours to meet journalists in different parts of the country twice a quarter: to sum up, THAT was IFA for me.


A few things that I think are extremely important in this profession:

Every publicist must be good at making friends. A few of the journalists I have worked with have become very good friends of mine now. Pitching a story to them is a little easier than pitching to a journalist who doesn’t know you at all. You can brainstorm for longer with them and if you’re lucky they will give you better news pegs. As RP Sir always says, “If your story is newsworthy, journalists will definitely write about them.” Very true! When you have interesting stories that you know your audience would want to read, you won’t have to call, push, or beg; the media will call you. And if you do have to pitch a dull story, spend quality time with your journo-friends!


No matter how much you dislike a person you just met at a party or at a press conference or while you went out shopping at a mall, keep your contacts intact. Never ever cut off anyone — you never know who will be of use when and how. For that matter, be “just friends” even with your ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends, if you think they can be of any help.


Know your competition; where your competitor’s strategy ends, your game should begin. Know enough about the market and the industry in which your client is involved. And for that you need to do a lot of research. There’s no shortcut to success. To beat someone at their own game, you have to know the game yourself — and be better at it. Go a step ahead while you strategise and make the plan.

Ever wondered why there are more women than men in the PR industry? Simple, we have better instincts, we are more charming, and we are better at convincing (no offence to the fabulous men out there). Be polite yet firm with clients who want you to grab stars from the sky and hang them in their closet. Be precise and coherent with the ones who want you to make them famous in a wink. Let’s be honest: we only have one life to earn a fortune, and in that one life we have to live long enough to actually enjoy that fortune. With targets and deadlines hanging on your head all the time, time is more precious than diamonds and expensive shoes and the most coveted designer couture.

Believe in what you think and love what you do. Keep reminding yourself, “Nothing in this world is impossible.” You’re worth it! :-)


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Anchoring news programmes, documentaries, travel shows, youth shows, lifestyle shows... and covering the Grammys in Beverly Hills


On May 8, 2010, I watched Commitscion Priyali Sur (Class of 2005) in action as she anchored a documentary on CNN-IBN [TV grab below] that exposed the controversial cervical cancer vaccine trials being conducted by some well-known pharma companies in the rural areas of Andhra Pradesh. It was an investigative report of the highest standards, standards that we have come to expect of Priyali since her first year at Commits when she and her group members put together a news bulletin story on Bangalore's bar girls. This story received a lot of praise from the senior journalists who had come for the evaluation then.

Also, we all thought Priyali was a natural as an anchor. And she has proved us right. In 2008, Priyali, who had recently joined CNN-IBN in Delhi as a producer, was in Cuba to shoot a travelogue which was later aired on the channel. The show was amazing.

At the time she had sent me her insights on her show — there's lots here for television aspirants to learn from:

* On Cuba being chosen as the destination for the programme: As a producer-cum-reporter I decide the destination. But it's ultimately also about what works out and what doesn't. So for a travel show, you send out emails and are in conversation with at least 7-8 embassies. At the end, the ministry of tourism that agrees to your travel requirements is the one you finally choose. Yes, they are the ones who sponsor the entire trip. :) Quite cool, right? And the best part — you get to stay in all the prime places because you and your team are treated by the ministry as Indian diplomats.

* On the visa process: Visas were not an issue at all. The entire process was dealt with by the embassy people. We travelled on journalist visas.

* On the team and teamwork: There were three of us: my camera person, the camera assistant, and yours truly. Trust me, the smaller the team, the better. Oh, talking about having a good relationship with your crew... you've just got to work on that because at the end of it all, your visuals are all COURTESY THE CAMERAMAN. So if you get along with your cameraman you're lucky; if you don't, make sure YOU DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

* On the stay/shoot in Cuba: For a 30-minute show you ideally get seven days to shoot, but we had less time because we had a deadline to meet and the edit alone would take a week. So we shot in Cuba for only five days while the travel to and fro came to four days, with a halt in Paris :) I know what you must be thinking! Well, you've also got to live it up a bit when you're working, right?

But the five days in Cuba meant waking up at 4:30 am, getting your make-up on (a killer when you have to do it all by yourself, especially the hair-fixing bit; I'm sure the girls will agree with me on that!) and then starting the shoot/travel at 5:30 am... and shooting, then shooting, and shooting... and shooting till 11-12 at night.

* On the people she met: People... hmmmm!!! They speak only Spanish, except for my guide who spoke good English and who was our saviour. So the only communication between me and the Cubans was "si si si"...which means "yes yes yes" to everything. Yes, that could also have got me in trouble... but what the heck, I was an Indian diplomat there (ha ha ha!).

* On the highlight of the trip: It has to be the finale to the travel show: skydiving! It's the best thing I've ever done… free-falling from a plane at 10,000 ft… it really wasn't scary but phew! the views I got!

* On her work method on trips like this one: Take along a shooting script: you've got to tie up a certain set of activities that you'll do there even before you get there because it's the activities that make a travel show interesting and pacy. Once you get there things may not go as planned, so be prepared to go with the flow and always remember "YOU'VE GOT TO HAVE FUN". That applies even while you're working: if you're happy it shows on camera.

After you get back, the first thing is to finalise the script and then edit… edit… and edit... till you see your show on air. After all that hard work, it's a great feeling :)

After watching Trial And Error that night, I asked Priyali to share some details on the making of the documentary. Here's her response:

THE IDEA: The story idea came from the fact that my sister was insisting that I get this new vaccine that she had heard about because it is supposed to prevent cervical cancer. I told her no one should take a shot just like that without any research and a simple Google search threw up the controversy surrounding the vaccine — that was the starting point.

THE WORK: In terms of production there was a lot to do, but in terms of research you handle it on your own.

THE SHOOT: Two days of shoot in Khammam and Warangal; a few interviews in Delhi (approx. 2 weeks).

THE RESPONSE: At work, everyone liked it a lot and there was lots of viewer feedback on IBNlive too. :) Also, some people who saw and liked the show found me on Facebook and made appreciative comments.

THE FUTURE: I will be doing more of these documentaries but only when I can be spared from my regular work. I have to do them simultaneously with taking care of Living It Up and ynot... so let's see when I can do this next.


On March 17, 2011, Priyali Sur was presented the NT (News Television) "Young Journalist of the Year" award in New Delhi. The News Television Awards, instituted by, are selected by a jury comprising journalists from the country's television news channels. So the awards are a measure of the value Priyali's peers and seniors put on her work.

And take a look at the list of winners: Rajdeep Sardesai, Udayan Mukherjee, Bhupendra Chaubey, Rajiv Masand, Karan Thapar. Priyali is in august company, indeed.

Well done, Priyali! Congratulations to you from the Commits family!



On the weekend after the NT Awards presentation ceremony, Priyali Sur's latest documentary was being aired by CNN-IBN. "Sampa's Diary" is all about a woman's fight to get her husband, being held hostage by Somali pirates, back to India safe and sound. Watch the documentary here.

Priyali Sur's most recent international assignment took her to Beverly Hills in Los Angeles in February 2012 to cover the 54th Grammy Awards. She also reported on the sudden death of superstar singer Whitney Houston on the eve of the Grammys (TV grab below).

You can watch Priyali's report here: "Whitney Houston no more". She also got some of the stars to answer questions about visiting India you can watch that report here: "Grammy stars would love to come to India".

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Some great advice for first-time bloggers

Julie Powell launched a career from of all things a food blog which then morphed into a tell-all memoir that ultimately landed her a sweet film deal. Heard of Julie & Julia, the 2009 movie starring Meryl Streep? Yep, that Julie is who we're talking about.

Why did Julie Powell start her blog? Why did her blog attract such a large following? And how did it help her to become a better writer? She answers all these questions here.

Powell also offers five tips for developing a personal blog that will interest the public and not just your friends and family (they are the first to say they "just loved" your post, and also the first to lose interest):

1. Use blogs to develop your voice and become a working writer.

2. Identify a blog’s appeal, and build on content that keeps readers involved.

3. Be acutely aware of ethical considerations in personal writing, and keep your motives and emotions in check.

4. View blogs as tools to address subjects of interest and a way to become a public writer.

5. Remain focused on the craft of writing.

For each tip, she offers a personal anecdote to help you understand how this advice can be used to your advantage. Read the feature in its entirety here: Julie Powell’s Advice For Bloggers.
  • Photo courtesy: FishbowlNY

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What it means to be a features journalist with a daily newspaper

Commitscion SHREYA DUTT (Class of 2010) was, till recently, a features writer with the Deccan Chronicle in Hyderabad; she was in charge of the tabloid section, Hyderabad Chronicle. Here she gives us the lowdown on the responsibilities of a features journalist.

How good you are as a writer depends on your ability to think out of the box; that is what sets apart your story from those on the same or similar subjects in other newspapers. Very honestly, all stories come from the same pool and there is only so much scope for doing something completely original. However, what will make your story stand out or give your readers that extra bit is the way you approach your subject. And that's the best part of being a member of the features team in a daily newspaper.

With features you can think out of the box and adopt a different writing style by avoiding the formulaic route if you feel that is what your story requires. Feature writing, after all, allows you to either stick to the basic rules of writing or to throw those rules out the window. Of course, you can junk the rules only AFTER you have mastered them.

At the Deccan Chronicle, many a time there was healthy competition among my colleagues with regard to who would write a particular story. When the Anna Hazare movement caught on in Hyderabad, I covered it first; later the editor offered the team an opportunity to do another story on Anna, but with the proviso that it should be something different. There were pitches for stories on the innovative methods Hyderabadis were using to support the movement while someone suggested profiling some of the youngest and oldest members. That's when my next idea struck me: a feature on people who had ulterior motives in supporting the movement, people who came to the gatherings to publicise their own organisations, and also people who turned up at the meetings not even knowing what the Lokpal Bill was all about.

The story was approved and DC was flooded with divided opinion. The article made people uncomfortable, sure, but it also made them think. This was one of many stories I wrote that got reactions from readers. I mention this because, contrary to the popular notion that feature writing only deals with "fluff" or light topics, features can be written on serious subjects and in a way that moves the reader to action.


If you need stories, you need contacts. Period. This holds true for a features writer as well as a general news reporter. How you build your network of contacts, I would say, bears testimony to the kind of journalist you are.


Surely editorial meetings are the most crucial and challenging part of being in the newspaper business. In our case, most ideas were shot down while the best ones were slotted for the next day’s edition. Often, at these meetings, deadlines were advanced. Every day, at these meetings, our work was assessed. A strong heart and suitable armour are strongly advised.

As a features journalist, you will inevitably have to do research on the subject or subjects of the story you are attempting to write. If you haven’t done enough research, it’s sure to show in your writing. Which is another way of saying there’s no alternative to research. Especially when you have been assigned to do an interview, because then you have to know almost EVERYTHING about the person you’re going to meet. The last thing you want to do is appear ignorant, during the interview, of a small but significant factor that might have turned around this person’s life. This is challenging because there is always that little tick-tock at the back of your head… called the deadline.

However, despite all your preparations, you may find to your surprise that your story has taken a different shape eventually. That’s because, and I am speaking from experience here, people ARE your story and it is what they have to say to you that can either make or break your story. Quite a few of my stories turned out differently from how I had imagined them because of the kind of responses my interviewees gave me.

One last point: It is important to connect with the people you speak with, but it’s also important to have a very good bullshit detector as well (RP Sir is sure to have addressed this issue). While you may be getting some information that, on the surface, seems important, you need to figure out how authentic it is. As a reporter you will meet all sorts of people who are willing to dish the dirt. You have to be able to determine what is fact and what is fiction; this is an art all journalists need to master. And quickly.

As a features journalist you do not work alone. You will need to form a tight unit with your photographer. Even more than your contacts, it is the photographers who sometimes give you a good story idea. Often their nose for news is more efficient than ours at sniffing out juicy items. And, of course, a good photograph adds value and credibility to your story like nothing else.

As a features writer, and as a member of the Hyderabad Chronicle team, my other responsibility was to lay out the pages. My daily routine as the person in charge of the tabloid section consisted of writing a feature, coordinating with the paper’s national centres on common stories, and laying out a minimum of two pages using QuarkXPress, in addition to looking into the work done by the others, lending an extra hand to speed up the process so as to meet deadlines AND liaising with the editor AND redoing an entire page if necessary depending on the kind of news coming in.

Page-making involved designing the pages, which included choosing pictures and illustrations, and getting approval for the final design. We would get some 15 minutes 20 if the editor was in a good mood and you were exceptionally lucky to wrap up the last page. The page had to be error-free; if not, the penalty was nothing compared with the gentle ruler-taps RP Sir bestowed on us when we goofed up as co-editors of the college newspaper.