Archive for February, 2009

The Greenhouse Hamburger: Mmm Mmm Good

Posted in Features on February 23, 2009 by jessicapruitt

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Scientific American’s feature, “Greenhouse Hamburger” is less an example of outstanding writing and more an example of a scientist who can write. The article kept my attention largely because interesting scientific facts and figures were made accessible, but were I uninterested in the topic, it would have been fairly ineffective. The author starts off awkwardly with somewhat of a direct address lead. Using phrases like “our cars” and “our coal-generated electric power” is, despite bulky construction, actually fairly effective given the subject matter: it directly implicates the reader in the issue, thus demanding personal attention and action. The ending works in a similar way, concluding by saying “The take-home lesson is clear: we ought to give careful thought to diet and its consequences for the planet if we are serious about limiting the emissions of greenhouse gases.” I appreciate the message, but unfortunately, such a closing is anticlimactic and uninspiring, no matter how much responsibility it tries to place on the collective “we.”

The writer uses a kabob structure, interspersing hunks of beef (literally) with veggies (literally). (Pun intended.) It works, of course, because it leaves the author the freedom to slide in interesting hunks of scientifically valuable information. A spine structure, however, that would follow the process of meat–from the grass it grazes on to your dinner plate–would have been a much more creative way of actually making the reader see, feel, and truly understand the long and environmentally-expensive road that a steak travels. Given, however, the audience of Scientific American and the subject matter, it’s difficult to legitimately criticize such failures: I doubt many scientifically inclined readers would complain that they got plenty of good information in an easy-to-read format.

The Dark Genius of Kyle Cooper: Worth Sitting Through

Posted in Uncategorized on February 23, 2009 by jessicapruitt

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The Dark Genius of Kyle Cooper” early on uses a quote that sums up Cooper’s work: “The opening and closing credits are so good, they’re almost worth sitting through the film for.” A similar sentiment might be applied to the article, except change out “opening and closing credits” for writing and “film” for Kyle Cooper. Neither black widows (used by Cooper for inspiration) nor technology are particularly my area of interest, but I somehow stayed engaged in this story, which I credit to good organization, well-spaced quotes of the juiciest variety, and the use of an unusual subject matter. Cooper may be famous in Hollywood, but as for me? I had never given a second thought to the opening and closing sequences in Spiderman 2.

The piece begins with–you might want to sit down for this–a quote. But when an interviewee asks, “Do you want to see my black widows?” I guess you have to use it. Though I don’t generally approve of such quote-abuse, the author creates a successful anecdote based off of this which, furthermore, is appropriate (the aformentioned black widows starred in his opening credits for Spiderman 2). The story goes on to follow a kabob structure before ending with a juicy concluding statement about Cooper copy-cats. Furthermore, it brings the article full-circle by mentioning the octopus of paragraph one.

Because the article talks to a larger trend of Cooper-like titles, the Kabob works fairly well, but the author could certainly have benefited from a little more creativity. I would have liked to see a frame narrative or something similar that played off the opening and closing sequences that Cooper makes. As is, the article has a fairly narrow audience, but not in a bad way. While I might not enjoy reading about Cinema 4D and the graphics for Metal Gear Solid, others definitely would.

Marc Jacobs Exposes the Latest It Bag (and himself!)

Posted in Uncategorized on February 23, 2009 by jessicapruitt

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Given that this Harper’s Bazaar article kicks off with Marc Jacobs “stripped down to a tiny pair of American Apparel underpants,” it wouldn’t need to be well-written. (It is, though.) The article starts strong with an intriguing scene-setting lead that depicts Marc Jacobs: in his underpants, covered in fuchsia paint, and wondering if he should have a cigarette despite the nicotine patch on his arm. The article ends with a broader statement by Jacobs regarding the economy, but keeps the same “I do what I want” vibe that permeates the first paragraph and, indeed, the entire article. The article is short, yes, but it was the detailed, edgy description and well-placed quotes that kept me reading.

The structure could be described as a martini with a twist. Instead of a mere summary of the most important info, the story starts off with a great description, managing to fit the critical information into the following two paragraphs. It then launches into a chronological account of the Marc Jacobs-Louis Vuitton-Stephen Sprouse partnership and ends with a strong quote by Jacobs. The article might have worked better if it were longer and went more in-depth (I certainly wanted to see more), but given the information used, the martini structure seems to have been a good option. A chronological account is really the best way to go for the tale of the Jacobs-Vuitton-Sprouse collaboration, since it’s unusual that they came to work together and takes some explaining. And other chronological structures wouldn’t allow for the spicy description of Jacobs’ tattooed bod that starts the story. Perhaps it’s just the subject matter, but I’m smitten.

Minor Miracles: Not So Miraculous

Posted in Features on February 23, 2009 by jessicapruitt

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Vogue‘s feature on mom-and-pop restaurants, “Minor Miracles,” is a somewhat less than outstanding piece of feature work. The story starts off with a lackadaisical and noncommittal first line, reading “I’ll bet there are more mom-and-pop restaurants in New York City than anywhere else in the country.” Great. 99% of readers agree that they could care less. This forgettable opener is followed by a lengthy definition of “mom and pop,” all the while getting side tracked by the political correctness of defining family so traditionally. I would thank the author for his kind consideration of all those non-heterosexual, non-married restaurant owners out there, except that the digression is entirely irrelevant to the story. In short, I lost interest long before the main point, which seems to be the financial struggles small restaurants face and the role that high rent plays.

The story meanders its way through vague musings on the “mom and pop” restaurant, only briefly mentioning the aforementioned point in the last couple of paragraphs. In order to be effective, the article should have focused in on the financial struggles of these restaurants, perhaps telling the story through one particular family or restaurant. There’s something to be said for inserting your own musings into a story, but the entirely non-focused and nonchalant nature of the article causes it to fall flat. My major piece of advice for the author? Leave stream-of-conscious narratives to Faulkner. There’s little place for them in journalism.

Sean Smith: Superhero

Posted in Features on February 15, 2009 by jessicapruitt

This past week’s phone conference with Sean Smith was more educational and inspiring than I could have imagined. With the driest of wit, he delivered his take on the field of celebrity profile writing, strongly emphasizing the importance of the interview. 70% of a great profile, as he said, relies on a good interview. His mantra, thus, is as follows:

  • Research, Research, Research: Prep work engenders a smooth interview and prevents awkward mistakes. This includes sycophantic/obsessive reading/watching of anything the interviewee has appeared in as well as writing and memorizing your questions. Not doing this sucks. I’ve learned it the hard way.
  • “Seem like a sweet little fluffy bunny that can’t possibly do any harm at all”: Dress in soft colors and put them at ease by making them think you’re friends. Also, you have to show that you are confident and that you’ve done your research. This way, they’ll feel safe to send you out into the world as their representative.
  • “Celebrity profiles are like trying to get a kid to come out from under a bed”: Candy incentives are encouraged. Just kidding.
  • Try to find “a truth” about someone, not “the truth”: This way, the article is more focused and interesting. It allows you to spend your time getting the most important information, rather than all possible information.

I’ve been told most of these things over and over again throughout my career as a student journalist. Furthermore, most of them are common sense. Hearing such advice from one who is active and incredibly successful in the field, however, is encouraging. I stand humbled by the greatness that is Sean Smith.

Angelina Wants to Save the World

Posted in Features on February 9, 2009 by jessicapruitt

This article certainly differs in structure and content than the last Sean Smith article, but one thing is for certain: his penchant for dry wit, skillful writing, and enrapturing his audience is all over it. Rather than structuring this profile traditionally, describing the interview setting and making that the main focus, Smith concentrates on Jolie’s humanitarian efforts and recent film “Pearl,” both of which reveal Jolie as a far more complex person than the tabloids would have us believe.

To accomplish this, he starts out with an anecdotal lead with a blind/shocking opening sentence that leaves the reader wanting more. Rather than go on to dedicate a paragraph to background information, Smith sprinkles little details throughout. And when he does give background, it is only in relation to the topic at hand, making for a much more focused article. But perhaps most importantly of all, Smith does extensive research for this story: he knows the history of the film and of Jolie’s work and interviews a range of people from all aspects of Jolie’s life. To give her even more “respect in a hard-news world,” Colin Powell’s praise is included. But, if you want to see the more human side of Jolie, then you need only look to quotes from those who know her best: her husband and close friends.

Smith provides an excellent window into the life of Jolie in this article and does so in such a subtle way, that it’s almost impossible to tell that it is an interview. Honestly, however, he had me at the phrase “as if Lindsay Lohan were a morning-after pill for Iraq.”

Reese Witherspoon Lets Down Her Hair

Posted in Features on February 8, 2009 by jessicapruitt

Much like the nude yet demur photo that prefaces “Reese Witherspoon Lets Down Her Hair,” Smith finds a perfect balance. He reveals the right amount of information in just the right places. His tale begins sardonically with an explanation of the “game” played between interviewer and celebrity, outlining each player’s move and thus introducing Witherspoon. He structures his story interestingly, around aspects of Witherspoon’s personality rather than chronologically. And, to be certain, he does not allow the article to wander. It is a rather ingenious construction, truth be told, and the use of the game metaphor matches perfectly to Witherspoon’s feisty personality. By the time he introduces Witherspoon with a scene-setting lead followed by an anecdote, the reader has been given the same first impression that Smith himself likely had.

Rather than providing extensive background, Smith gives a good breadth but mostly sticks to the relevant information. To give the profile a little more flavor, he brings in those who know her career best: actors and directors that she has worked with. Since this is the area most interesting to the public, it is a good move. He concludes in an equally effective manner, framing the story with a tongue-in-cheek assertion that Witherspoon lied her way through the interview. Skillful in all areas? To be sure. But for me, Smith’s witty banter would have been enough.