The First Rule of Personality Features…

Posted on Jul 25, 2018

The first rule of personality features is you do not write one-source stories. The second rule of personality features is … you do not write one-source stories.

There’s an old journalistic maxim that goes something like this: If someone tells you the sky is blue, get a second source.

Journalists are professional skeptics, and the key ingredient for great journalistic writing is great reporting.

Interviewing the person you’re writing about is just one step in the difficult process of bringing an interesting character to life on the page, and it’s often not even the most important step.

In 1965, Gay Talese—a literary master of the New Journalism movement—wrote “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” for Esquire Magazine. The roughly 15,000-word feature is widely considered one of the greatest personality profiles ever produced. What is perhaps most impressive about Talese’s classic is that Sinatra refused to be interviewed for the piece. So, like any good journalist (with a supportive editor and a budget), Talese spent three months following Sinatra and his entourage around, observing and documenting as much as possible and talking to as many of Sinatra’s friends and family members as he could.

The results speak for themselves, and Talese’s Sinatra profile serves as a testament to the value of multi-dimensional reporting.

Tom Wolfe, the legendary patriarch of the New Journalism movement, defined the literary style as having four main characteristics: scene-by-scene construction; lots of dialogue; a marked point of view within the story; and the recording of “status life” details.

More simply, Wolfe championed the ideal that journalists should apply the same devices fiction writers have traditionally used to craft engaging, immersive narratives. One of the fundamentals of fiction writing is that it is better to show than to tell, meaning descriptive writing is superior to expository writing. For journalists, this requires direct observation of events or exhaustive interviewing with a focus on mining enough details from your subjects to recreate a scene on the page that they observed or experienced directly.

This scene from Frank Sinatra Has a Cold is a great example of Talese applying all four New Journalism pillars:

Even now, resting his shot glass on the blackjack table, facing the dealer, Sinatra stood a bit back from the table, not leaning against it. He reached under his tuxedo jacket into his trouser pocket and came up with a thick but clean wad of bills. Gently he peeled off a one-hundred-dollar bill and placed it on the green-felt table. The dealer dealt him two cards. Sinatra called for a third card, overbid, lost the hundred.

Without a change of expression, Sinatra put down a second hundred-dollar bill. He lost that. Then he put down a third, and lost that. Then he placed two one-hundred-dollar bills on the table and lost those. Finally, putting his sixth hundred-dollar bill on the table, and losing it, Sinatra moved away from the table, nodding to the man, and announcing, “Good dealer.”

Reading this one wonders, was Talese there? Did he observe this scene himself, or did one of Sinatra’s friends tell Talese the story after the fact? What makes Talese a master is that we’ll never know.

So why am I telling you about literary powerhouses with huge budgets and several months to spend reporting a single feature? Because the standards and techniques for great feature writing persist today, and if you want to grow and improve as a writer, you have to push yourself and experiment with the tried and tested techniques of the greats.

I could just tell you to always interview at least two people for every story you write, but that’s really the bare-minimum standard. Great stories are the product of great reporting, and most writers want to produce great stories.

So the next time you set out to write a feature, get out and spend some time with your subjects. Conduct interviews in person whenever possible. Be an obsessive observer and thoroughly document what you observe. I promise that if you step up your reporting game, you’ll find that the writing will come easier, and your stories will get better.

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