Editor’s note: Today’s post from the WordCount archives comes from Pat Olsen, a long-time New Jersey freelancer who writes about business and health. — Michelle R.
* * *
When I interviewed professional skateboarder Tony Hawk for The New York Times, he said he loved skateboarding so much he’d do it even if he wasn’t getting paid.
That’s almost the way I feel about writing first-person profiles.
First-person profiles are stories or columns I report as usual but write in first person rather than in third person, as if I’m the person I’m writing about. I write first-person columns for two magazines and am a lead contributor for two in the Times.
It’s challenging trying to capture someone else’s voice, to find a flow in what they’ve said, and perhaps uncover a theme.
Not Just Transcription
Doing first-person profiles isn’t a matter of simply recording what someone says and transcribing it. If that were the case, I might write, “Well, um, let’s see, when I was 10 − no, make that 12 — I delivered newspapers up and down the street. They were pretty heavy.”
You might want to write exactly the way someone speaks if you’re writing a novel, but not if you’re writing a profile. People often speak too casually for these types of pieces. For a profile, I take that stream of consciousness and make it coherent and interesting. It’s not easy, but this type of writing just feels right to me and usually once I’m happy with a piece, others are, too.
If you’re interested in writing first-person profiles, the first thing to do is unlock the stories inside the person you’re writing about. Everyone has stories. The key to finding them is getting the person to talk about the anecdotes, trips, jobs or other events that bring their life into focus.
When I wrote about Peter Wilson’s career change from public relations to teaching, the key to getting him to open up was asking what he missed about his former job. When I wrote about Ray Harris, vice chairman of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, I used his recollection about getting started in the securities industry to tell his story.
Tips for Writing First-Person Stories
Here are a few other tips I’ve picked up after years of practice:
1. It may take more than one interview to get someone to dig deeper. One of my first editors made me re-interview someone not once but twice to get enough details to be satisfied with what I’d written. Initially I considered it a failure not to “get it right the first time.” Since then, I’ve realized that it takes until the second or third interview for some people to open up. Most top executives are media-savvy: once they read a sample of the type of article they’re being interviewed for they know what to do. But many people who don’t give interviews all the time may not be reflective enough the first time. Drawing their thoughts out of them could take several conversations.
2. Ask the same question different ways. This technique is old hat to journalists, but still works. If you try it and still aren’t getting what you need, give the person an example of what you’re looking for. If someone’s having trouble coming up with good details of a trip they took, I might say, “In another profile I wrote, the person talked about almost missing his plane because a herd of cows crossing in front of his taxi took forever to reach the other side of the road.” That kind of prompting usually helps.
3. Sleep on it. I always let profiles sit, even if it’s just overnight. I need to read them with a fresh eye to be able to improve them.
First-person profiles are my favorite things to write so on one hand, they’re easy. But that doesn’t mean they’re not hard work.
Pat Olsen is a long-time New Jersey freelance writer who specializes in business and health.