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Profile writing tips from Mark Singer and Susan Orlean

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Double Down, Oct 11, 2007.

  1. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    Good friend of mine attended The New Yorker Festival last weekend, and went to the "master class" in profile writing with Mark Singer and Susan Orlean. He took notes and shared them with me. Thought they might be worth sharing with the crowd here.

    In chronological order, and without commentary, here's what they said
    that he deemed worthy enough to write down:

    -The most important thing is to be able to see the profile subject
    doing what it is they do. Just observe, don't ask questions.

    -Susan Orlean: "I don't ask questions generally. I don't have any good
    questions." She said she is more inclined to figure someone out
    obliquely and to be around them so much that they forget she's there.
    It sometimes gets to the point that she says so little the subject
    begins to think Orlean is in over her head. She says they think, "Oh,
    that poor girl. She has no idea what she's doing." That's a good

    -Construct your reporting for a profile exactly the way you would go
    about making a friend. Get to know them the way you would know a
    person in your real life.

    -Mark Singer: If you can't tell a story out of your head (because you
    have come to know the person so well), then you're not ready to write.

    -Find subcultures, and use individuals as ways to write about these
    small worlds.

    -Singer: "I take an insane amount of notes." He takes his laptop
    everywhere (including into uranium mines, etc.) and just acts as a
    stenographer for the conversation. It helps that he's a really good

    -Singer: Profiles must have a chronological spine from which things
    branch off. You better have a damn good reason to break that

    -Orlean: "The lede has to be absolutely seductive. It's a strip-tease
    and you have to start with your bra."

    -Orlean: She said it's surprising that she and Tina Brown are such
    good friends because they take exactly opposite approaches to
    profiles. Tina Brown's approach is to find someone interesting (like a
    celebrity) and tell their story. Susan Orlean prefers to find subjects
    that most people would think they would never find interesting, and
    then make them interesting.

    -Orlean said she keeps a copy of Mark Singer's book "Mr. Personality"
    on her desk, and whenever she's stuck she flips through it and reads
    passages. She uses it so much that she's on her third copy.

    -Singer: "The best way to approach one of those Rolling Stone-style
    interviews [in which you are given 45 minutes with a celebrity in a
    hotel room] is to shoot yourself in the head."

    -Singer said he has stopped writing celebrity profiles, because he
    hates them, but he told some funny stories about hanging out with
    Donald Trump for a profile. Before giving him something juicy, Trump
    would often say, "This is off the record, but you can use it."

    And when Singer asked Trump what he considers ideal company, Trump
    said, "A total piece of ass." Singer wrote in the piece that Trump is
    someone who is "unmolested by the rumblings of a soul." Critics
    thought that was harsh and wondered how Singer could know such a
    thing. Singer said, "I inferred."
  2. In Cold Blood

    In Cold Blood Member

    Thanks for posting, DD.

    there's some great stuff in there. I think the part about observing, rather than asking questions, is a really good point. I know I'm guilty of asking stock questions to get stock quotes sometimes, and I use them as a crutch. A little more observation would do wonders for my writing, I'm sure.
  3. Mayfly

    Mayfly Active Member

    A lot of good stuff here, but a lot seems like it should be common knowledge. You want to know the person you are profiling so well that you actually feel that you were a part of their life for a short portion.

    I especially liked this little bit:

    If it's a strip-tease, don't you start with the shirt first? Maybe I'm picking nits here. The lede must be gravitating and it needs to make the reader feel like they are getting something out of it.
  4. TyWebb

    TyWebb Well-Known Member

    The strip-tease comment was great, even though I hear what Mayfly is saying (the bra is usually second item off at best).

    In a feature, I've always thought of the lede that way but never put it into those words. Imagine you are walking down the street and you see a goregous woman/man taking off his/her shirt. You'll stick around.

    But just make sure that once everything is off, people want to see what you've got.
  5. Beautiful stuff, DD

    What intrigued me most was the differing approaches to story selection of Orleans and Brown. It could be the chicken or egg debate, but both make interesting points. Well, no, Orleans makes two interesting counterpoints.

    I tend to go from person to situation, rather than situation to person. But a good exercise might be flipping it...


    Thanks again
  6. FreddiePatek

    FreddiePatek Active Member

    Marc Singer?

    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 15, 2014
  7. goalmouth

    goalmouth Well-Known Member

    Not exactly breaking news. In the 1980s, Spy magazine called Trump a "short-fingered vulgarian," a description yet to be topped.
  8. The Big Ragu

    The Big Ragu Moderator Staff Member

    It's better than that. After a while, the magazine pretty much stopped referring to Trump by name and just called him the "short-fingered vulgarian." One of my favorite "From the Mallroom" items in Spy in the early 90s:

    “From the Spy Mailroom”: “ ‘A story in yesterday’s [Santa Clara, California, Stanford Daily] reported that Spy magazine publisher Tom Phillips said his magazine consistently refers to Donald Trump as the “short-fingered Bulgarian.” The term Phillips actually used was “short-fingered vulgarian.” The misquotation was not intended as a slur against Bulgarians. The Daily regrets the error.’ ”

    This will out me a little, but I was an intern at Spy when I was in college and it was a lot of fun. I can't remember the exact details, but for one prank we made up a corporation name, had checks printed, and sent Trump a check for 3 cents, to see if he would cash it. He did.

    And DD, that sounds like an interesting class. I am not as big a fan as Susan Orlean as some others, but I think Singer is one of the most underrated magazine writers working. He is so consistently good, and does it so effortlessly, that I think his work gets overlooked by a lot of people. He is really good at capturing pieces of Americana and making it into riveting reading.
  9. goalmouth

    goalmouth Well-Known Member

    Alas, what goes around, comes around, when Graydon Carter eventually ended up dining with Trump because he had to. Putz.
  10. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member

    While rooting around for the Mark Singer piece on the marathon fraud, I came across this short, six-year-old thread with some tremendous advice in it.

    I love this quote by Singer, in particular, and obviously it comes through in his choice of a subject for the marathoner piece:

    "The best way to approach one of those Rolling Stone-style interviews [in which you are given 45 minutes with a celebrity in a hotel room] is to shoot yourself in the head."
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