Personality profiles are among the best stories journalists will ever write. When reporters get the chance to enter the lives of the rich and famous, the eccentric and reclusive or even the “known but unknown” people around them, they can paint some amazing word pictures that will allow readers to gain incredible insight.
That said, journalists have ruined more than a few of these opportunities because they can’t manage to get out of their own way in telling the story.
It’s a Saturday in June and I’m running on time to meet Woody Harrelson, but one subway delay, one wrong turn, one mother with a double stroller failing to keep pace and clogging the already clogged sidewalks of midtown and I’ll be running behind. Adding to my anxiety: the possibility that I have no voice, not so much as a croak (laryngitis, a bad case).
Brushing past a pair of doormen, I enter the lobby of a residential tower on the southwest tip of Central Park. I beeline for the elevator bank, press the up button, and glance at my phone. Two minutes after the hour. I’m now officially late. My pores open, sweat gushing out. At last, a muted ding as the doors slide apart. I board.
To calm myself, I pull from my bag a sheaf of clippings on Woody. The big takeaway of recent years: He spent his entire adult life cuckoo for cannabis and then, in 2016, gave it up.
In 164 words, the author references herself 12 times. Her subject? Twice.
Profiles recently have suffered from a lot of this kind of masturbatory self-importance, with the writers weaving themselves into the piece as being the one consequential element of the story.
The fact the writer is present should be considered both obvious and inconsequential: The readers came to this piece because they wanted to learn about the person being profiled, not about the writer.
In short, nobody cares about you. The more you find yourself verbally photo-bombing your way into the story for your own edification or out of sheer laziness, the more annoying you will be to your readers and the less valuable your piece will be.
This point became clear this weekend when several folks online were discussing a recent Adam Sandler profile that kept popping up in our news feeds. The opening wasn’t as self-absorbed as the one for the Harrelson profile, but it was similarly focused and similarly annoying:
We cruised down West Pico in Adam Sandler’s ride, a custom Chevy passenger van tricked out in the style of an orthopedic shoe. The cup holders jangled with suburban odds and ends — a pair of tiny glasses belonging to his daughter; a bottle of Dry-n-Clear ear drops. We were bound for Hillcrest Country Club, the oldest Jewish country club in Los Angeles. “You’re going to like this,” Sandler said. He whipped the van into the valet station. Alongside the row of town cars and coupes, it looked like an airport courtesy shuttle.
Compare this to the opening of Mary Jo Sales’ look at “Jon and Kate Plus 8” co-star Kate Gosselin:
“Nobu, Nobu, I want Nobu!”
Kate Gosselin wants to go to Nobu. She’s got a night away from her eight kids—also her co-stars on the hit reality series Jon & Kate Plus Eight—and a reporter is offering to take her out on the town. “I want sushi!” Kate says, leaning back in an armchair in her suite at the Essex House hotel overlooking Central Park, checking her BlackBerry, popping gum.
But Laurie Goldberg, senior vice president of communications at the Learning Channel, which airs Jon & Kate, doesn’t think Nobu’s such a great idea. Kate cried on the Today show this morning, answering questions about why she’s still wearing her wedding ring (“for them,” she said of her children, sniffling), and this afternoon she told People, “I am so emotionally spent” (from her husband’s behavior, which has included philandering with the daughter of the plastic surgeon who gave Kate her tummy tuck), and so it might not look good for her to be out enjoying herself at a hot spot.
“You’re like a prisoner,” Kate says of her newfound fame, annoyed.
Kate, who in the first season of Jon & Kate, two years ago, appeared on-screen as a dowdy, sweatpants-wearing mama hen, is now looking very much the celebrity—from her tanned, trained body to her curiously asymmetrical blond hairdo, now so iconic as to be the model for a popular Halloween wig.
Her phone rings. “Oh, it’s Kelly”—Ripa, of Live with Regis and Kelly—Kate says, holding up a French-manicured finger, signaling for us all to be silent. She’s going on the show tomorrow morning. She and Kelly gab. “Hiya!”
They both rely on description. They both open with a scene setter. However, while Sales puts the focus on the profile subject (Gosselin), Keiles seems to be writing a piece she wanted to call, “Adam and me.”
Keiles turns the focus on herself once again a few paragraphs after she and Sandler arrive at the club, explaining the story behind the story:
I started chasing Sandler in early 2017. His presence in my own childhood had been mythic — a Jewish cultural influence more imposing than anyone I’d ever learned about in Hebrew school. Thinking about the scope of his career, I was enchanted by the prospect of me, a person of modern and hardly coherent gender, grappling with America’s foremost man-child. I dispatched my editor to email his publicist. At night, from my apartment in Queens, I wondered if Sandman, from his mansion in the Pacific Palisades, was considering my offer.
We followed up. Time was marked by the arrival and deletion of my weekly “Adam Sandler” Google Alert, which detailed a still-persistent comedy career, achieved with infrequent engagement with the press. Soon he mocked me everywhere I went, his face staring down from the subway ads for his latest movie, “Sandy Wexler.” On Netflix, his new stand-up special debuted, and he did the late-night shows. I waited. Months turned to years. And just like that, the Google Alert started to spit out photos from a movie set: Sandler in a louche leather coat and diamond earrings, filming the indie thriller “Uncut Gems.”
Sandler had taken dramatic roles before, most notably in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2002 film, “Punch-Drunk Love.” Then, as now, a question emerged: If he was such a good actor — and he was — then why did he keep making dumb comedies? This was a question I had long since learned that he resented, and in my pursuit, I had been careful to avoid it. Now it seemed the precaution had paid off. By some act of God — or, more likely, behind-the-scenes arm-twisting — we found ourselves together at last, standing in his country club, staring down the gallery of early Hillcrest members.
By this point in the piece, we are learning a lot more about the author than we are about Sandler. We learn about her pursuit of Sandler, Sandler’s influence in her life, how she got an editor to email Sandler, how she wondered if Sandler was considering her offer…
At this point, between the fawning and the overuse of first-person writing, I felt like I was reading a cross between my 14-year-old daughter’s diary and an autobiography Donald Trump wrote while on a coke bender.
Abiding by the theory of “If you’re going through hell, keep going,” I kept reading in hopes of learning something about Sandler that wasn’t tied to the writer.
To Sandler, everyone is “bro” or “buddy,” except for me; I was “kid.” Crossing the busy street that cut through the park, he rested a fatherly hand on my shoulder, then yanked it away, as if weighing the optics of touching a young stranger versus letting that same stranger be run over by a car.
Away from the street, we came across a guy absolutely shredding on the erhu. Sandler, who busked in the subway during college, stopped to throw some money in his hat, and I noticed the ease with which $20 seemed to float right out of his hand. I reckoned in that moment that a 20 to Sandler was probably something like $1 to me. Later, using dubious-but-still-plausible figures from CelebrityNetWorth.com, I calculated that his $20 was closer to my one one-thousandth of a cent.
Here’s what I learned:
- Adam Sandler has a special nickname for the writer. (oooohhh…)
- Adam Sandler makes more money than the writer. (So cool!)
- Adam Sandler TOUCHED HER SHOULDER!!!!! (OMG, YOU GUYS!)
I gave up at that point, only cursorily giving a glance at the close of the piece, where Keiles frets about being at a wrap party and wondering if Sandler will remember her. In other words, it ends as it began: All about the writer.
We could continue to beat the dead horse that is this profile, but Keiles is an exemplar, not the cause of this phenomenon. When I groused about a similar approach to a Megan Rapinoe profile, student journalists, professors, former reporters and more all chimed in:
THANK YOU. It’s been so hard teaching our new writers profile writing because they read stuff like this.
I remember this being a MUST DO when I took journalism classes in 1979!
Don’t even get me started with “I caught up with…” and “I sat down with…”
I 100% agree. I hate the inclusion of first person in these things They drive me nuts and ruin the story.
That first person writing drives me crazy!!! I don’t care how you first heard about the person…or how you had to travel to talk to them. You are not the focus of the article!!! It is (EXPLETIVE) lazy.
Based on all of this, consider the following helpful suggestions/concepts:
THE FRAME OF THE MONA LISA THEORY: The Mona Lisa is one of the best-known works of art on Earth. In writing about it for The Independent, John Litchfield called it “the most visited, most written about, most sung about, most parodied work of art in the world.” It serves as a metaphor for everything thought to be the best of anything and it is probably the most recognizable image ever created. I saw it in person about 20 years ago during our honeymoon trip to France. It was smaller than I thought it would be, but it was still compelling in a way I can’t properly articulate.
Now, those of you who have seen it, tell me what the frame on the Mona Lisa looks like.
Chances are, like me, you have no damned idea what that frame looked like. Ask anyone you know who has seen it and they probably have no damned idea what it looked like. Nobody I know walked away from the Louvre saying, “Man, that chick was ugly but the FRAME! Now, THAT was something!” The reason? Nobody gives a damn what the frame looks like. It’s just there to display the artwork in a way that doesn’t detract from it or overshadow it.
Your job as a profile writer is to showcase the subject in a way that other people appreciate it. You display the individual in a fashion that helps the audience members connect to that person. You’re like the frame of the Mona Lisa: Hold up the painting for everyone to enjoy and get the hell out of the way.
SHOW, DON’T TELL: This is Journalism 101, but it bears repeating. If you want to let people know how great a game was, don’t tell them, “This was an awesome game!” Instead, show them what happened so that they independently come to the conclusion of, “Wow, this was an awesome game!” This is true in all kinds of journalistic writing, but it’s especially true in profile writing.
The descriptive nature of narrative storytelling should put your readers into a scene so they feel like they’re viscerally experiencing it for themselves. The distance provided by third-person writing often does this best, because it focuses the readers on the experience as opposed to the writer.
When you rely on first person, you basically are retelling an experience and that focuses the reader on you. Save that for Facebook posts, random blogging and roommates who ask, “So, how was your day?” For profiles, put me next to you at the scene and let me engage the situation as much as you did. That’s fun for both of us.
DON’T BE LAZY: Two of the comments above (one of them rather explicitly) mentioned the idea of how first person allows the writer to be lazy. Leads can be tough to write, so profile writers often resort to some version of, “I caught up with…”
Yeah, no kidding. Otherwise, how would you know whatever it is you are telling me? I’d give anything to hear instead, “I couldn’t catch up with (NAME OF CELEB) because I failed to do enough cardio. Thus, I’ll be making up this entire thing…”
First-person writing has its place: Columns, blogs, personal-participation pieces and several other spots in media. The question always should be, “Do I need to use it to make this piece work or not?” If you can get away without using it, you should aspire to do so for the reasons mentioned above. Consider this opening to a profile on former MLB pitcher John Rocker at the height of Rocker’s fame:
A minivan is rolling slowly down Atlanta’s Route 400, and John
Rocker, driving directly behind it in his blue Chevy Tahoe, is
pissed. “Stupid bitch! Learn to f—ing drive!” he yells. Rocker
honks his horn. Once. Twice. He swerves a lane to the left.
There is a toll booth with a tariff of 50 cents. Rocker tosses
in two quarters. The gate doesn’t rise. He tosses in another
quarter. The gate still doesn’t rise. From behind, a horn
blasts. “F— you!” Rocker yells, flashing his left middle
finger out the window. Finally, after Rocker has thrown in two
dimes and a nickel, the gate rises. Rocker brings up a thick wad
of phlegm. Puuuh! He spits at the machine. “Hate this damn toll.”
With one hand on the wheel, the other gripping a cell phone,
Rocker tears down the highway, weaving through traffic. In 10
minutes he is due to speak at Lockhart Academy, a school for
learning-disabled children. Does Rocker enjoy speaking to
children? “No,” he says, “not really.” But of all things big and
small he hates–New York Mets fans, sore arms, jock itch–the
thing he hates most is traffic. “I have no patience,” he says.
The speedometer reads 72. Rocker, in blue-tinted sunglasses and
a backward baseball cap, is seething. “So many dumb asses don’t
know how to drive in this town,” he says, Billy Joel’s New York
State of Mind humming softly from the radio. “They turn from the
wrong lane. They go 20 miles per hour. It makes me want–Look!
Look at this idiot! I guarantee you she’s a Japanese woman.” A
beige Toyota is jerking from lane to lane. The woman at the
wheel is white. “How bad are Asian women at driving?”
The writer of this piece could have easily started with, “I’m in a car with pitcher John Rocker and I feel like I’m going to die.” Instead, the writing focuses on the subject and the situation. Even when Rocker is directly addressing the writer, first person never enters the mix. Still, we get the picture: John Rocker is a horse’s ass.
No profile is perfect in this regard. Even Gay Talese dropped in a few first-person moments during the legendary profile, “Frank Sinatra has a cold.” However, they are few and far between and limited to points where the writer NEEDS to do this instead of where it’s convenient or the writer can’t think of anything better to do.
Think of using first-person writing in a profile like being forced to take a Friday class that starts at 8 a.m.: It should be an unpleasant experience you only engage in when absolutely necessary. Even then, you should want to move on from it as quickly as possible.