This week’s chapter of America’s Best Newspaper Writing highlighted a personal interest of mine, the profile and feature story. This is the kind of story that can only be done well, in that a writer peers into the backstory of a famous writer, athlete or visionary and comes out bearing careful and plentiful information that no one before has gotten their hands on. It’s delicate subject matter and it is handled with ease by the notable writers whose work is featured in this chapter.
First and foremost, the talented Cynthia Gorney, a reporter for The Washington Post when she won the ASNE award for feature writing in 1980 brings feature writing to a whole new level where she digs her hands into the incredible secret life of one Ted Geisel, known by many as Dr. Seuss.
She brings the following to the list of Top Ten Tips for Profile and Feature Writing: have a sharp eye for detail, maintain a strong relationship with your editor and become passionately interested in everything. Gorney’s piece, Dr. Seuss: Wild Orchestrator of Plausible Nonsense for Kids, demonstrates all of her strengths in these areas. Firstly, she delves into the story of his life in striking detail, writing a lengthy section about the man’s search to find the right color green from a collection of 60 swatches from the Random House art department printing chart, none of which match his fancy. He is a man of great detail, and this aids Gorney’s story about him. Finally, she finishes up by explaining how he had to have the art department print a different, individual shade of green for him that matched his vision. As far as the editor-writer relationship goes, we can only assume Gorney’s relationship with her editor is concerned, we can only assume it’s as good as she believes one should be. She speaks about how her relationship with her editor should stand as an example to writers and editors everywhere, she explains this with the quotation, “what makes an editor great is support.” By employing such a relationship with her boss, Gorney’s work is bettered as a result. Lastly, her tip to become passionately interested in everything is the fuel in her fire as a journalist; she pours her heart into whatever work she is involved in in order to render the best possible story from it. Dr. Seuss isn’t a particularly challenging thing to become passionate about, so she makes it look easy.
Next, the works of writer Saul Pett have something remarkable to add to the repertoire of tips for the feature journalist. Pett’s enchanting feature on New York City mayor Edward Koch revolutionizes what anyone has in their mind prior to reading it – it changes the reader’s outlook on New York, the position of the governor, and frankly, government as a whole. Pett makes bold statements about Koch’s character while backing up his claims with solid information and evidence; therefore the piece is a prime example of what a good profile is all about. The introspective glance into Koch’s background allows people to really dig into what it means to be a governor in a changing world (the world that the 70s and 80s had for Koch) and the anecdotes about him and his actions make him a three-dimensional human so real that you leave the story feeling like you just sat down in an interview with him yourself. The things that Sett brings to the list of Top Ten Tips for Profile and Feature Writing are: remind yourself what a grand writer you are, utilize anecdote and illustrate a compelling feature. Sett mentions in an interview that after he collects interviews or information for a story, he never goes immediately to the office but, “stop at a bar and tell myself what a grand interview I am.” While this comes off as a tad cocky and perhaps overconfident, Sett reminds us that confidence doesn’t usually hurt – and can boost morale right before the writer starts his story. Next, Sett utilizes anecdote like nobody’s business, delving into tireless detail about Koch and his political pursuits. Lastly, Sett tells a compelling story, delving into conflict and resolution by detailing parts of Koch’s administration that received complaints and criticism from others. This moves the story forward, and the way that he handles the attacks really pushes the conflict and allows Koch’s character to unfold.
Next, Mirta Ojito brings quite the different hue of work to the table. Her story, which breaks the traditional journalistic mold, is told in first person and was printed on the front page of the New York Times where she worked. What Ojito brings to the table of Top Ten Tips for Profile and Feature Writing are: have an eye for meticulous detail and don’t be afraid to push the boundaries. The first of these stems from Ojito’s obviously detailed
memory of her past and the rush of emotion that came to her as she revisited her home for the first time in 17 years and tiny, delicate memories are sure to suffice, and it’s due to her weaving in of these meticulous memories that her story comes to life so breathlessly. The mention of a chipped tile or a painting of red, white and yellow hibiscus flowers that used to hang above her bed adds to the beauty of the story she unravels, and further adds to the meticulous detail she employs. Next, Ojito’s story clearly pushes the boundaries in that she writes about her own experience and does so in first person. She is the example, however for pushing the boundaries and doing so successfully. Sometimes, a risk pays off. This is something we can learn from Ojito.
Next, David Finkel brings a new perspective to the handful of feature writing legends we are presented with. Now a writer for the Post, he was working for the St. Petersburg Times when he won the ASNE award for non-deadline writing in 1986. Finkel tells the long-awaited story of a man who was the cause of a tragic accident; a May morning in 1980 where a freak storm drove a huge tanker into the Sunshine Skyway bridge, where cars collapsed and a greyhound bus fell into the bay, killing 35. John Lerro was the man who steered the Summit Venture into the bridge, a mistake, and who endured hate, suspicion and attacks for many years. Finkel’s subject, then, was a challenging person to interview, as he had faced years of attack, hate mail and whimsical fancy centered around him he had grown hard and cold towards those who sought to ask him questions and dig the truth out of him. The language of Finkel’s profile is different from Pett’s flowery, descriptive style – Finkel’s writing is basic and blunt, but this makes an even bigger impact in revealing the tragic nature of John Lerro’s story. There’s a sense of irony in the details revealed, and the careful, chronological retelling of the infamous day when Lerro crashed his ship into a bridge is the perfect method for painting a picture of what happened.The things that Finkel brings to the table of Top Ten Tips for Profile and Feature Writing are: practice the unnatural art of listening and tell a thorough story. Finkel, in order to evoke a telling story from Lerro, had to first gain his trust by sitting and getting to know the man off the record for quite some time before the formal interview process began. The other tip he brings to the table is to tell a thorough story; Finkel doesn’t tell just the basic retelling of how the event happened, but tells the man’s entire story, not missing a part of information on a number of occasions surrounding the event itself. He speaks about the man’s past, his time after the accident, his personal health and his story today.
The next author, Tomlinson, uses a unique structure to reflect the theme of his story by posing questions at the beginning of each new section instead of subheads. Additionally, he makes sure to list his subject John Swallow’s accomplishments without overshadowing his personality, which is why the article includes details about his personal life with his family in addition to his academic career path.