How to write about people – updated

When I was a teenager, my parents were friends with Malcolm Hobbs, publisher of what was then a weekly newspaper in Orleans, Massachusetts.

The Cape Codder was a respectable example of what might be called the golden age of community weeklies. From time to time, it ran detailed articles — “profiles” — of local worthies, a habit that one day generated a warning letter from a lawyer for The New Yorker magazine. The term, “Profile,” he asserted, was a trademark of the great journal, who legendary founding editor, Harold Ross, first applied it to detailed articles about individuals sometime in the 1920s. The Cape Codder must cease and desist from its use, he cautioned.

There was much clucking of tongues in Hobbs’s social circle about what seemed an arrogant and absurd claim. If memory serves, Hobbs mined the episode for a witty column about the perils of journalistic hubris.

I can’t find any evidence on line that the magazine is still pressing its proprietary claim over those seven letters. In the interview below, however, The New Yorker’s current editor, David Remnick, who once edited a collection of great New Yorker profiles, makes a strong case for why the magazine just might have first claim on the form, if not the label.

It’s full of pithy advice for writers:

Very, very often, any young journalist being honest with himself, who listens to a tape of his interview with somebody, will always come to the same conclusion: I talked too much. Big mistake….

Constant disappointment is a very good spur to sometimes doing something halfway decent. if you’re really self-satisfied all the time, you probably are a lousy writer.

H/T: Joseph MacKay

Update:  Bethany Horne writes:

For David Remnick:

The word “very” does not make your point stronger (not even when used twice in succession)—and I’m so bored of people using the masculine form of pronouns as the neutral choice. Can’t we move away from “himself” and the like? Most writers are, after all, women.

 


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