Thursday, May 28, 2009

How to write about people

Dan Baum has some reporting advice:
I look for stories with interesting people in them, and one of the tricks that I’m always trying to impress upon young writers is that when you’re interviewing somebody, like if I was interviewing the chief solar engineer at Masdar, a big mistake people make is talking to that guy only about solar engineering. You have to throw in questions that have nothing to do with the subject. How many siblings do you have and what number are you? What do you read? What are your hobbies? Are you married? How many kids do you have? Have you ever been divorced? You’ve got to get them talking about themselves. I’m asking these questions that are just none of my business, really personal questions, and I’ll just keep getting in closer and closer and closer.

I’ll ask, What do you earn? And you’ll see this kind of shock of recognition on the person’s face. Sometimes people say “Well, that’s none of your business,” but rarely. I can barely think of a time that’s happened to me. Usually you see the shock of recognition when the person goes, “Oh, that’s the level we’re talking on.”

People like it, when you get them talking about themselves and unrelated stuff. You need time for this, and it’s a hard thing to do on the phone. But when you’re getting all of that then you know this person as a whole person, and then you can fit them into the story in a way that you’re still writing about Masdar and solar engineering, but you can just throw in a few licks to just make that person real.

It’s kind of a New Yorker trick. When you read about people in The New Yorker, they are somehow more three-dimensional than sources in other magazines. They’re not just a font of quotes, or a representative of a point of view — they’re people.

The rest of it is useful too.

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