On Tuesday, April 5th, The Writers’ Institute hosted a panel titled “The Art of the Feature Essay.” Paul Goldberger, Jane Kramer, Daniel Mendelsohn, and George Packer, all regular contributors to the New Yorker, among other venues for the long form, shared their perspectives on this distinctly American genre.
The key to writing an effective feature essay, Kramer said, is finding something that excites you, and then sticking with it through the inevitable ups and downs of the writing process. Be open to whatever fresh insights an editor can bring to bear on your chosen topic, she added. And remember: if it bores you, it will likely bore the readers. Refresh, reboot, and seek out a new perspective on things. When it’s time to move on from a familiar issue or theme, move on.
The panelists admitted that the art of writing can also entail some pain. What we see in print–lively, engaging, and often brilliant–rarely starts out that way. With much hilarity, all the panelists recounted their own process, which invariably incorporates a good deal of procrastination: sudden urges to clean the bathroom, being one among many reasons these writers find for not writing. Mendelsohn, for one, writes fast, and late, sometimes waiting until the deadline, waking at five-thirty in the morning, and writing all day. But that’s only after days and sometimes weeks setting out a piece in his head before he even steps to the computer.
Despite increasing competition for peoples’ attention–not to mention their money–the long form feature essay continues to hold a special appeal. True, the pieces that appear in today’s pages of the New Yorker are a good deal shorter on average than they used to be once upon a time. But judging by the audience turnout, and the many print copies that still appear regularly in the subway, in so many young hands, talk of a dying tradition may be premature. We can only hope.