Writing to show: Reaction to Chapter 7 of ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’

Chapter 7: The Profile and Feature Story

Feature and profile writing has been called the art of journalism, the art of journalistic writing. The feature story can be about diverse topics and issues. But what all good feature stories have in common is rich details, possibly metaphorical or figurative language and a person at the center of the story. Feature stories are about people — they are about issues and events, but they are truly focused on people. Feature stories offer the human side of a story. Features writers try to show the faces, the people behind the faceless institutions, as Clark and Scanlan said.

The profile offers a deep, detailed look into a person’s life. There are moments and scenes in the story that describe a person in extreme detail, that show who they are. These stories can get into the universal concepts and events that cross all our lives, that connect all of us. But these stories also show how people are their own, as well.

The great writers Clark and Scanlan chose to include in this chapter exemplified many of these qualities. They included storytelling quotes, several voices and sources. They wrote with details, many details. They worked to make their writing place the reader in a situation, in a moment or scene where he could understand better.

The writers didn’t only tell readers the details or points of the story. These great writers practiced one of writing’s great mottos: Show, don’t tell. Good writing doesn’t tell readers everything, it does show them, though. It shows them through details, descriptions, scenes with dialogue and settings and characters that come alive through the words.

As David Finkel, one of the great writers included in the chapter, said, “No matter whether he was at fault or not, there was so much tragedy in what had happened to him since the day he hit that bridge. But I didn’t want him to say that to me. I wanted to be able to show it in the things he did, by the way he carried himself, by his posture, by the conditions of his life.”

Finkel wanted to show the tragedy of John Lerro, not just have Lerro say, “It’s terrible. It’s sad.” He wanted to show readers. Showing can be a more effective strategy.

Sources should also be treated with fairness, honesty and thoroughness, as the editors said. This will give reporters access to places and events and sources’ homes or jobs, to get to know them better, to get to know all sides of them. But reporters should realize that this access is gained, and should always work to represent and write about sources truthfully, accurately and fairly.

One of the most important parts of writing a story or interviewing is listening. Writers, journalists, have to be good listeners. Allowing a source to talk, picking out the way he speaks, his dialect, how he acts, if he has nervous hand gestures or habits, these quirks and details go into feature stories and profiles. Letting a source talk and then listening to him is so important in feature writing and all writing. Writers gather so much information from listening and observing a source.

Top 5 list of profile and feature stories:

1. Pearls Before Breakfast, The Washington Post

Gene Weingarten

Weingarten describes a violinist through scenes, through moments and details. His description and portrayal of the violinist at a metro stop helps readers see, hear and know more about him.

The Washington Post set up a sort of stunt with a great violinist — Joshua Bell. He would wear street clothes and perform to unaware commuters.

Weingarten offers an interesting question to readers: “In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

In this article, Weingarten is helping readers get to know this violinist, without meeting him. They get to know him through several moments Weingarten included in the article, through the details. Readers walk away feeling that they know the violinist. He even describes the violin in detail, comparing it to the human voice.

Weingarten not only offers a picture of this man’s life, but also the passersby, the thousands of commuters who walk past him every day. He gives fragments of potential thoughts:

Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?

This sort of creative strategy of rhetorical questions helps the reader understand, places the reader in a situation he has most likely been in before, or if not, he can understand.

Weingarten goes into details of how Bell plays the violin, “he’s almost dancing with the instrument, and his hair flies.” He writes to show readers the violinist and Bell as a person.

2. The girl in the window: part one The Feral Child, St. Petersburg Times

Lane DeGregory

Danielle was emaciated, thin and wore diapers when investigators found her. Photo courtesy of http://www.pulitzer.org.

DeGregory gives many scenes and details to describe this difficult, saddening topic. He wrote a series of articles about a malnourished girl who was neglected by her mother. The first few paragraphs describe the terrible condition of the house and the girl’s room when investigators went in.

“I’ve been in rooms with bodies rotting there for a week and it never stunk that bad,” Holste said later. “There’s just no way to describe it. Urine and feces — dog, cat and human excrement — smeared on the walls, mashed into the carpet. Everything dank and rotting.”Tattered curtains, yellow with cigarette smoke, dangling from bent metal rods. Cardboard and old comforters stuffed into broken, grimy windows. Trash blanketing the stained couch, the sticky counters.

The floor, walls, even the ceiling seemed to sway beneath legions of scuttling roaches.

“It sounded like you were walking on eggshells. You couldn’t take a step without crunching German cockroaches,” the detective said. “They were in the lights, in the furniture. Even inside the freezer. The freezer!”

This writing is descriptive and highly detailed to give readers the sense of the house, the extent of the child abuse.

When DeGregory writes about the daughter, he doesn’t hold back any details. He isn’t afraid of showing the truth to the readers, though it may be hard to get through and difficult to understand that this neglect could happen and be allowed.

She lay on a torn, moldy mattress on the floor. She was curled on her side, long legs tucked into her emaciated chest. Her ribs and collarbone jutted out; one skinny arm was slung over her face; her black hair was matted, crawling with lice. Insect bites, rashes and sores pocked her skin. Though she looked old enough to be in school, she was naked — except for a swollen diaper.

These scenes include storytelling, powerful quotes from several people involved in the child abuse case.  DeGregory takes care in writing these articles, he finds out all the information and gives it to the reader clearly. This topic can be confusing or difficult to read, but DeGregory writes honestly, with thoroughness and care.

3. At a certain age, nothing is more important than fitting in, The Oregonian

Tom Hallman Jr.

This series of articles details a 14-year-old boy’s life living with a vascular anomaly, a mass of tissue that deformed the right side of his face. The articles focus on the boy, Sam.

Hallman uses details, figurative comparisons and pictures to show Sam’s deformity.

A huge mass of flesh balloons out from the left side of his face.

His left ear, purple and misshapen, bulges from the side of his head. His chin juts forward. The main body of tissue, laced with blue veins, swells in a dome that runs from sideburn level to chin. The mass draws his left eye into a slit, warps his mouth into a small, inverted half moon. It looks as though someone has slapped three pounds of wet clay onto his face, where it clings, burying the boy inside.

In many ways Sam Lightner is another normal 14-year-old boy. He is a Boy Scout. Photo courtesy of http://www.pulitzer.org.

The articles are framed through different scenes of Sam. Hallman starts out with, goes into Sam’s birth and follows him on his many medical journeys — doctor appointments, surgeries and potential surgeries.

Hallman includes many scenes throughout the article. He describes Sam’s difficulty keeping up with others in sports, exercise and play. He shows how Sam struggles to keep up with his younger brother when they go bike riding.

Hallman also gets several emotions across without completely declaring them. For instance, he shows Sam’s shame or sadness about his deformity with this line, “He must imagine what he looks like. There’s no mirror to examine his face.” Hallman doesn’t flesh out all the details of how Sam feels, but this detail is enough.

While Hallman shows the difficulties and differences that Sam faces, the stares and people calling him “ugly” or “different, throughout the article he also shows how Sam is a normal 14-year-old boy. He includes details of Sam’s breakfast, cereal topped with chocolate syrup, and how the girl he has a crush on makes his palms sweat. Hallman includes details of the struggles as well as how he is another adolescent boy. In this way, he doesn’t sensationalize, he doesn’t glorify a life with deformity, he shows Sam more accurately and honestly.

4. The Umpire’s Sons, The Sun

Lisa Pollak

Pollak writes about a family’s struggle with a genetic disease. The disease kills one of John Hirschbeck’s, an American umpire, sons.

Pollak explains how baseball was comforting to the Hirschbeck family. She uses scenes and emotions to help explain the disease and its effects to the reader.

When the worst thing happened to Hirschbeck, when his children were diagnosed with a deadly neurological illness, he was thankful for baseball. Not just for the season off, or the fund-raiser where famous players sold shirts and signatures to help pay medical bills — but for that simplest of baseball pleasures: games to watch with his son.

Pollak uses parallel structure, a technique often used in creative writing or literature that helps to get a point across and serves as a clarity tool. The same sentence structure is repeated throughout the sentence or paragraph. Pollak uses the technique in several paragraphs.

The Hirschbeck boys shared. They shared a big bedroom in a warm, tidy house in Poland, Ohio. They shared a mutated gene, passed silently from grandmother to mother to children, silently because it didn’t kill girls, silently because it is so rare few people have ever heard of it. So difficult to say that it goes by initials: ALD.

The various sentence structures Pollak uses are very deliberate. She becomes direct in her writing, in what she wants readers to feel and get out of the story with her sentence structure. She uses brief, terse sentences when giving sad information. “The diagnosis was ALD. A year to live. No cure.”

Pollak describes scenes and moments to help the reader see, feel and understand.

Years later, Moser would still remember how the umpire cried. How he sobbed, inconsolable. How he held the doctor’s hand and begged him to say it wasn’t true, that he wasn’t going to lose both sons, not John, not Michael, too.

Again, the sentence structure here works to produce an effect, an effect of hopelessness and sadness that parents feel when they find out their children have medical problems, don’t have long to live. That feeling is so raw, so terrible, and Pollak decided to describe it through sentence structure.

5. One Man’s Trash, The New York Times

Kate Murphy

Dan Phillips makes affordable housing out of recycled material that would end up in landfills. Photo couresty of The New York Times.

Murphy offers a great example of a profile story. She profiles Dan Phillips, a man with a very interesting job. He takes trash, recycled material and extra material to make low-income houses.

Murphy describes Phillips’ reasoning for constructing low-income houses. “He was disturbed by the irony of landfills choked with building materials and yet a lack of affordable housing.”

She gives details about the building materials Phillips uses, from picture frames to cattle bones from nearby farms.

A few houses stand out: their roofs are made of license plates, and their windows of crystal platters. They are the creations of Dan Phillips, 64.

80 percent of the materials are salvaged from other construction projects, hauled out of trash heaps or just picked up from the side of the road.

Murphy describes Phillips as a person and by what he does. She includes in the article that he is a self-taught carpenter, electrician and plumber, helping readers understand that he did not go into this job at first. Murphy call’s Murphy’s life “astonishingly varied.” He has worked as an intelligence officer in the Army, a college dance instructor, an antiques dealer and a syndicated cryptogram puzzle maker. It was a deliberate choice for Murphy to include these details that add to the reader’s understanding of Phillips and that he teaches himself and gets involved in different projects.

Murphy gives the reader insight into what Phillips values and thinks is important, such as sustainability and using recycled materials. She describes Phillips’ biggest reward as “giving less-fortunate people the opportunity to own a home and watching them develop a sense of satisfaction and self-determination in the course of building it.”

An example is Kristie Stevens, a single mother of two school-age sons who earned a college degree last spring while working part time as a restaurant and catering manager. She has spent the months since graduation hammering away on what will be her home.

“If something goes wrong with this house, I won’t have to call someone to fix it because I know where all the wires and pipes are — I can do it myself,” she said. “And if the walls are wonky, it will be my fault but also my pride.”

While Murphy quotes another person other than Phillips, Stevens describes him as she describes her new home and her pride in being able to build it. Incorporating other voices and people in Phillips life is important to give readers a more conclusive view of Phillips.

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About Marlena Chertock

Marlena Chertock's first collection of poetry, On that one-way trip to Mars, is available from Bottlecap Press. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, and WTOP. Her poems and fiction has appeared in The Deaf Poets Society, Moonsick Magazine, and Paper Darts.

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