Journalism 101: E-style profile writing? Anyone? Anyone?

#BooksMyJobGaveMe Podcast, Journalism, The New York Observer, Tufts Daily

I give credit where credit is due.

During my summer at The Observer, I was able to watch a true editor, team-builder, innovator, and manager work. Under Elizabeth Spiers, the editor-in-chief at The Observer, I began to understand the importance of creating a team of people, and learning from the best.

*aaand scene on the Elizabeth worship*

Every so often, she’d invite a guest to speak with the writing staff–a close (and wildly successful) friend in the industry, an insider, etc. One day, she brought Priscilla Painton, a reporter and editor at Time in the late 80’s, to speak with the staff about “getting the story, and more specifically, the art of the profile.

Behold: the E-curve profile.

Did anyone else know about this? Has anyone else learned about this? I’ve ‘profiled’ my friends before, in creative writing exercises, but it would always become an incoherent ranting on their childhood, or consist of sweeping generalizations about this or that. Long story short, the E-curve changed m life. Well, it changed my style of writing. So yes, my life.e bas

The basics:

  • You begin with the inner part of the e (always lowercase): the ‘–‘ section. That’s where you introduce your subject. A vignette, perhaps. A small snapshot into something larger. A distinctive trait, some notable quirk. Something to make the reader want to keep reading, and find out what built this person, what makes her or him tick, and why should anyone care? Some writers express this with an introduction into the beginning of the interview (BUT NOT NEARLY AS SUCKY AS THE FOLLOWING): “After selecting a corner table at the overpriced coffee shop, one sequestered away near the samovar, I waited patiently for interesting person x to arrive at our scheduled meeting place. I watched as she stepped out of a cab, one Louboutin-clad foot before the other, and scuttled in 6-inch heels toward the coffee shop, her shiny brown skin catching the light in the crook of her arm as she paid the driver with a twenty-dollar bill.”
^^I swear, I’ve read profiles that seem to go on and on and on at nauseum about the mode of the subject’s arrival, initial assumptions, etc, only to “get around to” the point after a page or two.And that’s okay. That’s a specific style of writing, to introduce the subject. But like all good things (and descriptive paragraphs) it must come to an end. It’s just incredibly frustrating when it seems like a writer is hiding behind flowery language and descriptors, instead of ‘getting to the point’.  And what’s the point, more often than not? Sometimes, it’s not to ‘dig deep’ into the life of some socialite or celebrity or another, but an excuse to make a casual but all too carefully crafted mention of their latest project and rehash her or his latest breakup, relationship, or life circumstance (let’s be honest, that’s why they’re on the cover of whatever magazine anyway). But not Painton’s work. She calls. She interviews. She types and transcribes and jots down little mentions and notes, and creates as holistic and purposeful (read PURPOSEFUL) a portrait of the individual.
  • The second part of the ‘e’ (and the profile) is unwinding the story. This is where journalism comes in handy. What story are you telling? To whom are you telling it? What’s the purpose, who is the audience, and why should they care are key questions at this juncture. The ‘flat part’ of the ‘e’ is to introduce them as real people, the detailed aspects that follow is the action. In the words of Ms.  Painton , “action is the center of all journalism.” This is where we get to the meat and potatoes, so to speak, and upturn some earth. Make it as shallow or deep as you want (or as your publication or word count calls), but make it your own, and have integrity.

So, here I am, a student journalist hungry for a profile. My latest foray, the Cookie Guy article, began something like that. In the heat of the editing room, it was reassembled to be more fitting of “Daily style”: I forgot, while writing it, all about “Daily style”. I’ll post the unedited (gasp!) version of the original article/ profile tomorrow, and go through to edit it myself. Online. In the public sphere. In front of everyone (or no one…?).

E is for elephant,

B

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