Posted by: rcieri | September 15, 2008

The profile and feature story

Feature and profile writing is often referred to as “human interest” writing, which has a double meaning. It is for the human interest in the sense that it covers topics in which people are interested in a manner that will keep them interested, and it puts the interest on the human, emphasizing the personal element of the story.  Features and profiles rely on both literary and journalistic techniques to tell the story, incorporating facts, anecdotes, quotes, narrative and physical detail that help the reader relate to the story on a personal level. A few writers have mastered these techniques and use them extraordinarily well.

Murdering the Impossible
The profile of one of the world’s most renowned and relentless mountaineers.

“Murdering the Impossible” by Caroline Alexander is a dynamic profile reflecting the personality of Reinhold Messner, its subject. It begins by enticing the reader with a well-detailed scene of a man enthralled in constructing a miniature mountain, and the story continues to unwind in careful detail, showing rather than telling. Much of it reads like an adventure novel, leaving the reader in suspense as tales of the mountain climber’s dangerous – and sometimes scarring – feats unravel. Still, the author is careful not to sensationalize by glorifying the man.

If she had simply raved about his many accomplishments, the story would have been flat and unmoving rather than dynamic and vibrant. Instead, she reveals Reinhold’s faults, showing that his desire to climb is purely selfish. Through Reinhold’s own words and the testimony of others, the reader finds out that he climbs to validate himself and for the pure emotional satisfaction of something new and exciting. He is essentially a thrill-seeker with extraordinary skills. To impress by sheer scale, Alexander could have bombarded her readers with numbers and data to describe the mountain, but she chose to use them sparsely and put them into perspective when she did use them. Because the subject of the story cannot articulate especially well, Alexander had a difficult task in choosing quotes, but even through broken English, she found those that best portray Reinhold’s personality. The ending is indicative of this, with a quote that perfectly summarizes his fear of ceasing to climb.

The Loved Ones
A feature that delves into the many facets of a nursing home’s dilemma and tragedy.

The story of St. Rita’s Nursing Home tugs on the heartstrings just by the mere suggestion of helpless elderly people trapped in a flooded building, but Tom Junod’s account of “The Loved Ones” evokes unexpected empathy for the people at fault. The idea for the story is where much of its strength lies. Sal and Mabel Mangano were villainized by the mainstream media as heartless people who left their residents for dead in order to save themselves, but Junod got the other side of the story. His portrayal of the Manganos convinces the reader that they were kind, caring people. His description of details like Mabel Mangano letting one resident drive the family car down the driveway was heartwarming. The elderly woman had never learned to drive, but Mabel kept alive her dream of driving to New York. The details of the parades and dinners that the Manganos held every year make the reader believe that the owners loved their residents much more effectively than just stating the fact.

At the same time, the story tells the other side, the point of view of a family who lost its father to the flood waters. The detail and background of Tufanio Gallodoro’s life makes the reader see him as a person rather than just another senior citizen, and the fact he drowned when his greatest fear was water is heartbreaking. One of the best details of the piece comes during Steve Gallodoro’s visit to the nursing home after the flood. He shouts down the hallway, asking if anyone needs help, and “it just echoed.” Most of all, the story resonates with the reader because anyone with elderly relatives can relate to it. The lead is a thought process that many have had or will have at some point in their lives. Even after the complex and heart-wrenching story, Junod brings the reader back to the same question of decision, leaving it for each person’s individual interpretation.

Pearls Before Breakfast
A feature that investigates public perception of art through an experiment in a Washington, D.C. metro station.

It is common for people to remark on the unsophistication of American society, and Gene Weingarten puts this claim to the test in the profile/feature combination “Pearls Before Breakfast.” The Washington Post had world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell pose as a street musician in a metro station in an attempt to find out if the general public could recognize real art. Weingarten handled the ambitious undertaking eloquently in his story, beginning by simply setting the scene. He emphasizes its normality in the lead and opening paragraphs before completely defying the reader’s expectations by revealing how extraordinary the situation was in reality.

Detail is present throughout the story, from the setting of the metro station to the writer’s description of Bell’s Zorro-like presence onstage. Carefully chosen quotes reveal the many and varied attitudes of diverse passerby, both business people and maintenance workers. Weingarten also gives readers a sense of what Bell, a concert soloist, felt like when he was being ignored. The piece moves on to pose the question, if no one notices the violinist, is he really any good? It ends by showing a stark contrast between the routinely normal metro station and Bell’s remarkable life.

Karl Lagerfeld, Boy Prince of Fashion
The profile of an eccentric fashion icon.

In her article, “Karl Lagerfeld, Boy Prince of Fashion,” Vanessa Grigoriadis captures the subject’s eccentric nature by painting her story with ridiculousness. The lead sets the tone for the entire story, depicting Lagerfeld’s hordes of fashion devotees raving about how wonderful he is in the most ostentatious ways imaginable. Grigoriadis both mentions basic background information and provides new details that even the most informed would not know. She describes Lagerfeld’s “Count Chocula” laugh and penchant for Pepsi Max among other quirky details. She manages to portray both the grandeur and utter silliness of Lagerfeld simultaneously by interviewing those who revere him as well as those who think he is a nuisance.

Grigoriadis also explores the different levels of Lagerfeld’s life – public events, behind-the-scenes, his background, and his personal opinions on life. Below the façade of an eccentric old man, the reader begins to see snippets of a believable personality. Lagerfeld’s rocky relationship with his mother, fascination with death and obsession with being skinny make him more real and relatable to readers. In the end, though, his mindset is a world away from most. The story’s ending demonstrates his unfailing and unreasonable confidence that he is irreplaceable to the fashion world.

The key to feature writing lies in the human element of the story. Often it is a feature or profile writer’s job to relate the ways in which an ordinary life is noteworthy or find the normal parts of a celebrity’s existence, and this cannot be done without finding the essence of the human being. Facts are essential, but nothing can replace the accessibility of a person’s story to which readers can relate.


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