Featuring features: Part II of What Makes Your Research News

My Astronomy magazine cover story told the tale of violence in the early solar system.

As a freelance writer, most of my assignments fall in the realm of news articles. News articles generally focus on a single piece of research, and include quotes from one of the researchers and, occasionally, one other outside source.

Far more time-consuming are the longer features, such as those found in magazines. Features can contain information from multiple studies, as well as comments from researchers in the field. These are the types of stories you find in a magazine, though online features are also quite common (and something that I need to work on breaking into).

What makes research interesting enough for a feature? Many of the same factors that I mentioned last week—the wow factor, a first, the evolution of a theory, or oddities—are quite the same. But because features often focus on multiple lines of research, it means things need to mesh well together; it’s very rare for a feature to hinge on a single piece of research. Because they take a larger investment for both the author and the publisher, features don’t tend to focus on new or ‘fringe’ theories, though they might mention one in passing.

While news pieces are timely, with publication days to weeks after a paper is accepted or released, features have a bit more wiggle room. They can include research that took place years or even decades before. All features require a ‘hook’, something that makes it matter to the folks reading today, but the research itself can be a bit broader in when it came out.

Features have a different timescale than news articles. I’ve had news pieces that turned around in less than 24 hours, from assignment to publication. Features, especially in magazines, can take months. Last April, while at the Lunar and Planetary Sciences conference, I pulled together several threads to pitch a feature. My deadline was early November (it was originally October, but I realized that the Division of Planetary Sciences conference was in October and could produce more research on the subject). As of early May, more than a year later, it’s now moving through the fact checkers. Other publications are more timely, with turnarounds of three to four months.

One of my favorite features is the article I wrote for Sky & Telescope about phoenix planets. While most planets form soon after their star, some can survive or even be reborn after the death of their sun. For this article, I drew from research on white dwarf pollution, the first exoplanet (discovered around a pulsar left behind after a supernova), and outer system moons that could become habitable once their star dies. Together, all of these created an excellent theme of phoenix planets.

Another great piece came from evolving theories on solar system formation. In my notes, I called it ‘the solar system that might have been’, and I believe that’s how it was originally pitched. The article, which was the Astronomy February 2017 cover story, went to press with a stronger focus on the collisions and violence of the early solar system. In addition to discussing the Nice and Grand Tack models, I also spoke about research by Katherine Volk about how the solar system could have included a batch of rocky worlds inside Mercury’s orbit and David Nesvorny’s work on an ejected planet (which he said would NOT be the hypothesized Planet 9).

What are some good threads of space and astronomical research you would like to see written up as a feature?

See last week’s piece on news articles and what makes a piece of research newsworthy.

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