Profile & feature story writing: the importance of good listening and scoping out the human interest

by Mariah Posey | Feb. 15, 2017
Once a ploy to increase circulation, stories that focused on the “human interest” were deemed as yellow journalism. But in modern times, good journalists have learned that even hard news benefits from elements of a feature—scenes, anecdotes, and voices of the people involved. More importantly, they’ve learned that journalistic integrity does not have to be compromised to evoke a good story. In fact, the best stories are those that are honest, fair, and thorough. They can even “reflect powerfully upon the issues of the day,” according to chapter seven of America’s Best News Writing: “The Profile and Feature Story.”

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Graphic by Mariah Posey

Below are distinguished examples of journalists who remembered how to be good listeners and found the human interest in their stories.


Cynthia Gorney – “Dr. Seuss: Wild Orchestrator of Plausible Nonsense for Kids” (1979)20434

When Gorney profiled the acclaimed children’s book writer, Theodor Seuss Geisel, she captured the storybook essence of his character. The precise details she was able to pick up are due to nothing less than pristine attention paid on-the-scene, and it won her the ASNE award for feature writing in 1980. Even more impressive is her ability to jump in and out of the story, finding a neat balance between telling us what we should know and then letting her writing show us for itself. For example, telling us that Geisel had struggled over his Lorax character for a full year, and then showing us through Geisel’s own reflections:

“’I hadn’t thought of the Lorax for three weeks,’ Geisel said. ‘And a herd of elephants came across the hill … And I picked up a laundry pad and wrote the whole book that afternoon on a laundry pad.’” (p. 172)

Saul Pett – “Koch Grabs Big Apple and Shakes It” (1980)

saul_pettPett takes pride in taking the unconventional route and doing more than what’s called for, and it shows in his 1980 piece on popular New York City mayor, Edward Koch. His 65-word lead takes the times describe the many quirks of Koch’s being: “irrepressible,” “impolitic,” “unsexy.” His summary of it all? “Clearly, an original.”

Instead of focusing on mundane facts, he brings Koch’s character to life weaving history and current-day happenings into stream of narrative. It was this skill that led him to win both the 1981 ASNE award for non-deadline writing and a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

Mirta Ojito – “A Sentimental Journey to la Casa of Childhood” (1998)

mirta_ojito-e1407185554203In Ojito’s account of life in Cuba, she reminds reporters of the importance of living in the moment. She even said that she could not take much credit for what manifested in “A Sentimental Journey” because she “just sat there and it happened.”

Though untraditional, Ojito chose to write the story in first-person, illustrating the discontinuity between the memory and reality of her childhood home. And though specific to Cuba, she wrote in a way that could relate to readers across the board in reveling the call of an old childhood nickname and the comfort of family household items. Through her point of view, she establishes that Cuba remains undivided despite propaganda campaigns.

Ojito’s ability to let the scope of her experience guide her writing not only earned her the front page of The New York Times, but also the 1999 ASNE award for covering the world. 

David Finkel – “For Lerro, Skyway Nightmare Never Ends” (1985) 

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In his 1985 piece, Finkel places his focus on John Lerro, the man who drove a huge tanker into the Sunshine Skyway Bridge the day a big storm hit. He chronicles the day it happened, Lerro’s history and the after.

While interviewing for the story, Finkel mentioned how important it was for him that Lerro not tell him how everything happened, but show him through his movements and actions. The success of his approach is reflected in his writing and won him the 1986 ASNE award for non-deadline writing.

Tommy Tomlinson- “A Beautiful Find” (2003)

tommy_tomlinson1Tomlinson turns math into a thing of beauty in reconstructing the four-year quest of mathematician John Swallow to solve a problem that no one else had yet been able to. He uses an interesting question format to guide his narrative, and uses quotes sparingly in order to highlight the ones that offer “deep insight” into his subject.

With his piece, Tomlinson demonstrates his grasp on the story when he bring it full circle by writing that Swallow’s left eye brow rose up after finally solving the problem, a small detail he planted in the lead of his article. It won him multiple honors, including ASNE award for profile writing.

Blaine Harden – “Life, Death and Corruption on an African Mainstream” (1987)

0lgw1l4rUsing Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” as inspiration, Harden covered the African river trip as a way to educate readers on the country of Zaire and the effect of its leadership. But above all, he made sure his voice shone through countless revisions.

“I spent a tremendous amount of time writing the first 25 to 30 paragraphs of the story I rewrote it maybe 35 or 40 times … I wanted to have elegant language there … I wanted to have some echoes of Conrad there, but I also wanted to have my own writing.”

Throughout his article, Harden references Conrad and the imagery displayed in his novel while weaving in his own observations and discussing the changes. He relies heavily on two archetypes according to ABNW: “the river as a symbol of the flow of life, and the ship as a microcosm for the world.” Though literary in nature, Harden’s writing won him the 1988 ASNE award for non-deadline writing.

Ken Fuson – “Ah, What A Day!” (1995)

kenfuson_lr1Weather has proven to be one of the most symbolic tools in storytelling and Fuson uses it as a tool in his 1995 piece to reflect deeply on the human experience. Challenging himself to write a truly short story (as a reporter used to long, in-depth pieces), he succeeded in writing efficiently, yet impactful. As a reporter, he reminds us that all forms of short writing including headline, photo captions and news briefs when mastered can act as small gifts to readers. Even his lead is simple and to-the-point: “Here’s how Iowa celebrates a 70-degree day in the middle of March.” However, how Fuson propels his challenge to the next level is by continuing to write the rest of the article in one seamless flow of narrative, compacting it all into a single sentence. His is the type of writing that reminds others of the daily surprises a day can bring, and gets them to enjoy it.


More Examples of Feature Writing

Sam Anderson – “The James Franco Project” (2010)

In Anderson’s06-samandersonphoto-articleinline piece, he draws from one of the first tips of feature and profile writing: find the human being behind the celebrity. In his in-depth following on James Franco, he does exactly that, using a series of quotes as the format to break his coverage up and move the story along. He also uses quotes sparingly choosing rather to depend on narrative, but makes use of meaningful dialogue when relevant.

Julia Keller – “Part 1: A Wicked Wind Takes Aim” (2004)

unknown7Keller also knows the value of a good weather piece as shown in her article covering the 2004 tornado that ripped through Utica, Illinois for 10 seconds. Her telling is the opposite of Fuson’s in many ways: it’s long, it isn’t a bright retelling, and it makes use of several quotes and perspectives. But it works. She pays particular attention the logistics of the event, using it depict the horror that can happen in a simple 10 seconds: “It’s a long, deep breath. It’s no time at all.” Her reporting won the 2005 Pulitzers Prize for feature writing and serves as yet another reminder than nothing beats shoe-leather journalism.

Gene Weingarten – “Pearls Before Breakfast: Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let’s find out.” (2007)

As weingarteng0-van experiment to test just how busy the people a part of D.C.’s rush hour are, The Washington Post got professional violinist Joshua Bell to play the violin posted up on a wall of the Metro. Though Bell is considered one of America’s great musicians, many passerby ignored the stellar performance or offered chump change before moving on with their day. Weingarten was able to capture the nerves of Bell as well as the general atmosphere felt in the Metro as many D.C. residents felt too preoccupied to stop and enjoy the classical tunes. His chronicling of the event won him a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2008.

 

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