Chapter 7: Profiles and Feature Stories

Miriam Williamson

Profiles and feature stories have even more power than most articles to become a story that interests readers and makes them never want to put it down. Writers have a little more creative freedom, and interesting material is much easier to gather. But that does not mean writing a good, solid profile or feature story is easy. It takes a lot of effort and great reporting.

An interesting idea is obviously the first start. Profiles and feature stories depend on appealing subjects to be appealing stories.

The lede, as always, is immensely important in these articles. Because it is not news readers need to know, they may skim the lede, and decide not to read it. Thus, an enticing, interesting lede is very important. Sometimes, just an interesting character can be enough to get someone interested in a story.

Finding a creative way to present the material is a vital part of a good feature or profile. In Tommy Tomlinson’s article, “A Beautiful Find” in “America’s Best Newspaper Writing,” Tomlinson divides the story in sections that are numbered questions. This reflects the subject of the piece – John Swallow’s quest to solve a nearly impossible math equation.

Portraying a side of someone the public does not know is a way to make a story people are eager to read. In Lisa Pollak’s article “The Umpire’s Sons,” she shows a very human side to the readers. Most people only knew him from an incident that occurred while he was at a baseball game, but beneath it all, there was a much more tragic story.

Barry Siegel does the something similar in his article, “A Father’s Pain, a Judge’s Duty, and a Justice Beyond Their Reach.” Everyone expected an article about the father. Instead, they got the story of the emotional turmoil the judge faced. This is a story that most readers never consider. But Siegel made it something readers care about.

With a lot of subjects, it could be easy for writers to accidentally allow their own beliefs or opinions sneak into the writing. So it is important to allow the subjects to present the story themselves; with the writer as simply a narrator. In Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s article “Ken Kesey, Author of ‘Cuckoo’s Nest,’ Who Defined the Psychedelic Era, Dies at 66,” the topic of drug use and LSD is discussed in detail. But Lehmann Haupt does a great job of simply presenting the details, instead of voicing his own beliefs about drugs.

One thing that give a story more depth is finding the background story. Rather than just explaining how and why B.B. King is famous, Bernard Weinraub digs deeper in “Spinning Blues Into Gold, the Rough Way.” He finds out the details of King’s unhappy background.

This leads Weinraub into a wonderful conclusion, where King draws the tie between his life stories to his lyrics from his songs. Transition is very important in these stories. If a reader sees no reason to continue reading, or sees no connection between two ideas, they will likely stop reading.

Making readers feel close to the subject is a vital aspect in profiles. Otherwise, the readers feel like there is no point in learning more. In Angelo B. Henderson’s article “Crime Scene,” he describes an experience anyone would fear. It makes people feel closer to Erma Williams and Dennis Grehl. They wonder how they would respond in a similar situation.

A detail I found very interesting in the articles I read was that many writers included the response of other people to the subject. For instance, in Cynthia Gorney’s article, “Dr. Seuss: Wild Orchestrator of Plausible Nonsense for Kids,” she includes a detailed description of Geisel’s welcome to Australia.

Quotes that capture the true essence of a character is perhaps the best way to turn a good feature story into a great one. Whether it is by showing creative lingo the subject uses, such as in “Dr. Seuss: Wild Orchestrator of Plausible Nonsense,” or portraying emotions through words, like Weinraub does in his article about B.B. King.

It is also important to include physical detail, whether it is of appearance or actions. For instance, in “Crime Scene,” including William’s smoking habit creates a true portrait for the reader.

Unique details, like the fact that Geisel only wears bow ties, not regular neckties, may to seem small or insignificant, but those are the details that make a character become a person. It adds the little extra bit of flair to make it intriguing.

Lasting images that remain in a readers head even after finishing the article is proof of a well-written piece. The image of the young boy when they found him in Siegel’s article is haunting. Even after reading it, it is hard to shake or forget.

The most important part of feature stories and profiles is capturing the person in words. If a reader walks away from a story with a true sense of who the subject is as a person, the writer did his job. It is important for the writer to show the subject without getting in the way. The articles aren’t about displaying the writer’s talents; they are about displaying the characters and their lives.

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