January 23, 2003

In most newspaper stories, and even some magazine pieces, people are little more than a name, a title, age and address. “Janice Richardson, 35, advertising account manager at Hathaway Communications” or “William Masterson, 22, of 568B Crowne Court Apartments.”

It takes a little more effort to zero in on the physical attributes that distinguish one person from another, but that’s one of the writer’s gifts that makes storytelling such a special experience.

Madelaine Blais, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, captured the essence of this challenge in The Complete Book of Feature Writing. In her essay, “Don’t forget the “Ordinary” People,” she wrote,  “If novelists are faced with the artistic challenge of getting people who are not alive to seem alive, the journalist faces essentially the same problem: how do you make people who are alive in reality come alive on paper.”

In her ASNE award-winning St. Petersburg Times series, “Metal to Bone”, Anne Hull shows how it can be done in this brief but evocative description of a father and son:

Carl’s skin was black-gold, and his eyelashes curled over his eyes, just like Eugene’s. His beard needed trimming, and the T-shirt he wore was faded and too small, but there was something proud and impenetrable about him.

A person can be sketched quickly and with powerful effect with a few brushstrokes, as Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press did with his portrait of a football player and convicted rapist from Best Newspaper Writing 1996:

He is kind of thin for a football player, with a gangly walk, dark hair that falls onto his forehead, a thick neck, crooked teeth, a few pimples.

If these prizewinning examples seem beyond your reach, let me demonstrate how beginning journalists (students in Poynter summer fellowship program–can inject humanity into their stories in small ways:

WITH JUST A WORD. Rebecca Catalanello could have simply written, “Jason Myron, 8.” Instead, she wrote, “Jason Myron, a freckle-faced 8-year-old,” and evoked an idelible image of a child’s face.

IN A SENTENCE. Rhea Borja described a female minister this way: “She’s a woman with a friendly and open air, more comfortable in Birkenstocks and summer dresses than the vestments of her trade.”

A Prescription for Putting People on the Page

Look for models. Writers learn from other writers. I collect examples of physical descriptions that I admire and study them for content, tone, pacing, even sentence length. I find that even copying them out (being sure to note the source) helps me see the way the writer revealed the person and how I might do it with another subject.

the obituary writer, a short and rather shy man wearing horn-rimmed glasses and smoking a pipe
from “Mr. Bad News” by Gay Talese in Fame and Obscurity.

Like Talese, Lillian Ross of the New Yorker is another writer who’s adept at bringing her subjects to life with vividly detailed and carefully crafted descriptions. I culled the following from profiles that Ross included in her most recent collection, Reporting Back:

He wears silver framed aviator style bifocals, sports on his little finger a gold college ring with an almost dime sized ruby in the middle. (Univ of Md. Class of 40), keeps a long cigar in his mouth (“I’m a chewer, not a smoker”), dresses conservatively (navy blue blazer, matching pants, too tight shirts, bright knit ties), and tears around the metropolian area in a telephone equipped car from one to another of his three offices (Forest Hills, West 5th St., Battery Park City) and to his buildings.

A genial forty three year old six footer with a graying beard

His own face cool and dry and cheerful, under a snowy thick man of hair. His gray suit was uncreased, a yellow print Hermes  necktie neatly done under his chin.

His face was freshly sunburned, and he had on a navy blue worsted suit, a white shirt with a button down collar, and a blue and silver striped necktie held by a brass pin, in the shape of a pt boat that was inscribed “Kennedy 60.

Testino is 44, a good natured, fleshy, large faced loosely put together, six plus two inch footer who was handsomely attired in a Bergere dark green coat, a Charvet painterly green shirt open at the collar and black English broughans. He carried a couple of small contax cameras and took photographs of his own photographs and of people looking at them

Miss King is a statuesque, super confident, cheery former news anchor with a perfect face and perfect teeth, auburn hair worn straight to the collar and the immediately chummy, quick-talking eager breathy rhythms of the Rosie Barbara Katie sisterhood.

A gracious, jolly, pink-cheeked man wearing toroise-shell glasses and a tuxedo

Mr. Gould, unslept and unbarbered, was in town for a couple of days from his home in Toronto. He had on his usual baggy deark blue suit with outmoded overpadded shoulders, a raggedy brown ssweater and a worn out bluish necktie. A yellow pencil protruded eraser end up from his coat pocket. 

 At times Ross may be guilty of descriptive overkill and I’m sure some editors feel their finger itching over the delete key on some phrases. But reading Ross I begin to see how carefully she studies people and the judgments she makes about appearance and personality. (Many writers are afraid to make such judgments, fearful of seeming biased or even cruel. A suggestion: Write the description and then run it past a colleauge and your editor to get a reader’s view.)

You can practice this particular craft challenge on friends and family. Describing people you know intimately will guide you to the type of details that swiftly capture a person and help readers visualize them.

That’s what I did In “The Only Honest Man,” an essay I published in River Teeth, a journal of creative nonfiction. My grandfather has been dead for more than 30 years but my memories of him are so strong (bolstered by consulting family photos) that it was easy to describe him:

My silver-haired and mustachioed grandfather, at 85 still the picture of a diplomat in his dark blue double-breasted suit, Fedora cocked at a jaunty angle, waving his polished hickory cane in the air, announcing to anyone in earshot, “There’ll never be another Billy Scanlan.

Write a paragraph describing one of your siblings or a favorite relative.

Try it on news sources. The next time you’re falling asleep during a boring meeting, assign yourself the task of writing one-line or one paragraph descriptions of every council member.

Report for story. If you’re not routinely taking notes on the way people look–specific details about clothes, mannerisms, physical characteristics–you’re cheating yourself of the raw material you’ll need to bring someone to life when you sit down to write.

Make it a habit whenever you interview someone that you take time to get down the details that will help you bring that person alive.

Here’s a list from notes I took during a recent interview:
He wears his hair like Ross Geller on Friends
He’s trim tall, dressed in all black
Black suit
He’s in a shirt, collarless
He covers his mouth with a tent of his fingers and begins to type again
He rocks as he types when it begins going well. In deep concentration he stares at the screen, a touch typist, his mouth pursed and slightly open
His voice on the air is soothing
Dark black hair
Nike swoosh sunglasses
he’s got a husky lusty chuckle
He’s young  handsome
Gleaming white teeth
Black hair glossy with gel
Black slipons and black socks
Hair parted on the left
Pale complexion
Clean shaven
His hands are epxressive
He tents them
Waves them to emphasize, invite, complete
The clean cut looks of an altar boy

Accept that you will probably take in ten times as much as you will ever use and if you’re like me, accept that you’ll rarely satisfied with the result. But keep at it. As Aristotle observed, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Getting in the habit of trying to put people onto the page will put you in good company.

“I definitely am trying to teach myself. to actually describe how someone looked, of actually writing down descriptive text.  I’m trying to learn how to do that all the time and I’m not great at it.  Some people have just such an incredible talent for that and I don’t really, but I am working on it.” That’s Ellen Barry, whose The Lost Boys of Sudan series won last year’s American Society of Newspaper Editors award for non-deadline writing, talking.

Have a favorite example of a writer putting a person on the page? Share it here.


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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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