We often forget to use examples that illuminate the nature of the people who populate our writing. Using such illustrations is a simple, powerful, and immediate way to cement the connection between you and your reader.
I once worked for a publication edited by Dr. Rushworth M. Kidder, the former features editor of the Christian Science Monitor who went on to found the influential Institute for Global Ethics. Kidder had a rule that every profile piece he edited include a brief physical description of the room or environment in which the interview was conducted, a description of the person being interviewed, and some action on the part of the subject of the piece. (Not all at once, of course, but sprinkled throughout the profile.)
That’s a good rule, and I’ve occasionally imposed it on students and journalists whose work I edit.
The physical description of the locale makes the piece seem more real in the theater of the mind, and sometimes it adds some insight into the person or situation who is the subject. For example, it’s interesting to note the former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg worked in an open office at City Hall, a desk in the middle of a sea of other desks, a setup that resembled a stock trading floor more than a mayor’s office. You can’t read too much into it, but the environment he created does speak to his background and management style, and perhaps to the image he wants to project to constituents.
Describing the subject of the piece is a no-brainer, but I’ve seen some pretty brainless writing where there is not a word of description and the reader is left in a vacuum. One piece I edited actually featured a subject with an androgynous name – I think it was Jamie – with no hint as to whether the subject was male or female. Such detachment makes the piece seem distant and second-hand. A brief phrase – “a trim man in his fifties with short, grey hair, cut military-style” – provides the reader with a picture of who is talking and cuts away some of the fog and distance.
As to actions: Does the person you are writing about habitually stand when someone comes into a room? Speak with low intensity? Interrupt others constantly? Make sweeping gestures? Focus intently on one person while screening out hubbub in the immediate environment? Drum fingers? All are gelling actions and gestures.
Here’s an example of how actions can provide insight. It’s from a young writer named Kalyce Rogers, who publishes on the blogging platform Medium, which has evolved into a venue for some truly outstanding writing by emerging authors:
I know he’s got at least some money, because he’s buying Grey Goose. People with money don’t buy cheap vodka, or cheap rum, or cheap whiskey. They invest in the good stuff, like Grey Goose. Three bottles of it.
His suit radiates “expensive”, the kind of expensive that involves several tailors and a high-end store in Manhattan. We aren’t in Manhattan, though. We’re in a fluorescent-lit Ralph’s in a suburban city that sleeps from 10 PM to 6 AM. Men who belong in Manhattan look out of place here.
“How are you doing tonight, sir?” The woman working the register asks pleasantly enough. My eyes are fixated on her hands, veins prominent through tired skin, as they scan bottle after bottle. His own fingers drum on the register wall impatiently. A gold band catches lights and gleams from his ring finger.
“Fine. Now, if you wouldn’t mind speeding up this damn process, I’ve got places to be.” He snaps, taking a black leather wallet out of his jacket pocket, a shiny credit card protruding from the top. It looks like it’s made of silver. He holds it gingerly between his index finger and middle finger, and now that his hands are busy, he begins tapping his foot on the linoleum. There is a faint, distinct rhythm, but I can’t place where I’ve heard it before.
Example, example, example! The behavior, more than the description, gives the piece reality and vibrancy.