Advice From the Pros

Journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner on How to be a Successful Features and Profile Writer

How personal essays led to writing for The New York Times

In the short span of seven years, she went from prolific personal essay writer to prolific feature writer for The New York Times Magazine and GQ Magazine. At The Times, she won the New York Press Club award for her profiles of Gaby Hoffmann and Damon Lindelof, and at GQ, she won the same award for her profile of Don Lemon, which also garnered a Newhouse Mirror award.

She can make anyone or anything interesting, which is probably why editors all over the country want to hire her. In addition to The New York Times Magazine and GQ, she has written for publications including Bloomberg Businessweek, Afar, Playboy, Cosmopolitan, ESPN The Magazine, Texas Monthly, Outside Magazine and Matter.

In June, it was announced that Brodesser-Akner, who worked at Mediabistro from 2001-2007, would join The Times as a features writer for Culture and a staff writer for The Times Magazine.

Why did you decide to start writing personal essays?

I started writing personal essays after the birth of my first son, which was traumatic. Something horrible had happened to me and thank god my son, and I were ok, but I was really traumatized. It opened up something in me where I no longer felt compelled to have any privacy. I just needed to be heard and listened to. So I wrote personal essays, and I couldn’t believe how much people responded to them. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have to be screaming to be heard, and I was heard way more effectively.

You wrote A LOT of personal essays in a short amount of time for many different magazines. Did you learn anything while writing essays that carried over to your feature and profile writing?

I learned that people will leave at the drop of a hat if you are not precise, interesting, entertaining and informative. If you are not those things in a very brief period of time, then readers will leave.

Anything else?

Yes. Always send in clean copy, spell checked copy and all in one font. People to this day remark on how clean my copy is and I think, what are other people turning in? Also, with edits, be amenable, never defensive and never late with the edits.

Did your essays help launch your feature writing career?

Being willing to talk about anything and really bare my soul got me in doors. My first story for The New York Times was a personal essay about why people are so mean on the internet. (“E-Playgrounds Can Get Vicious” April, 2010)

Did you know someone at the Times or did you cold pitch?

I cold-pitched someone whose name I got from somebody else, and I said, ‘I have this idea for a story and I would like to track down some internet trolls and figure out why they are the way they are.’ And he said, I don’t think you will be able to do that but you could try. So I did and I came back with what I found, which was that no one was willing to talk to me. But I still had feelings about the subject, so I did what I still do to this day which is when the story that is supposed to happen doesn’t happen, I fill the space with something that is equally or more interesting.

And they published it as is?

There were edits, which I was so nervous about. I received each of them as a scathing criticism. But in reality they were really just innocuous, gentle edits for a line there or here. I remember saying to my husband, ‘I’m so glad I will never have to do this again. I never want to write for The New York Times again. I’m so glad that I will be able to say that I wrote for them once and that was that.’ I didn’t want to do it again because I was so nervous the whole time. The stakes seemed so high and I don’t think it was one of my best stories. I liked it but I noticed when the stakes were lower I was freer.

You are a confident writer who isn’t scared to say what she thinks in essays, profiles or features. That can be hard for writers. Did you learn it or have you always been a confident writer?

I didn’t always have it. I learned very quickly from writing personal essays that people responded to them because they related to them. We are not that different than each other. The more specifically and the harder I go on the things that I’m feeling, the more I am guaranteed that people will relate to it.

Sometimes you incorporate yourself into your profiles. That can be tricky. How do you decide when it’s appropriate?

I think my profiles are personal essays applied to other people. Any time I’m in a story I have to be very, very careful not be self-indulgent. I’m there as the reader in a very general, readerly way. I only bring myself in when I think that I can elaborate better on the thing that (my subject and I) are talking about.

You have profiled many celebrities including Tom Hiddleston, Nicki Minaj and Rob Pattinson. What do you do as a writer when you aren’t interested in the person you profiling?

Here’s your job when you are assigned somebody: You stay there until you understand why a magazine that you love is interested in him or her. You have to figure out why people love this person. You are not there to say whether or not you like them. You are there to say what it was like to be with them. You are in a room with this person who has a lot of fans because more people like them than hate them.

You are known for being a prolific writer. How many stories are you working on at any one time?

A lot. There have been times when I’ve been assigned 12 or 13 stories at one time, but they aren’t due at the same time. Every story gets what it needs. Some stories are really easy and some stories are really hard and some stories I have to report and wait a few weeks while it percolates in my head and then I sit down to write it. I’m lucky I don’t find writing sentences excruciating.

What have you learned in the last six and half years freelancing for so many different publications?

I’m far more efficient now. I like to write for an editor. I know what each editor will like and what is going to push their limits. I know how it’s going to go.  So the thing that has changed is now I’m very focused on how do I tell this story to this editor in the most compelling way possible.

Any advice when it comes to working with editors?

Be decent. If you are decent in every single way nothing can really hurt you. People will always remember your decency. This is a relationships business. If you don’t act decent this world can turn on you very quickly, but at the same time whatever your flaws are, and we all have flaws as writers—I overwrite—they are made up for in being a decent person and being somebody that people would like to interact with over and over again.

How do editors handle your “overwriting”?

I find that if you apologize, and say that you have really tried to keep it to the word count, that helps and you don’t get yelled at. You have to make a compelling case that you could not figure out a way to tell this story differently. And if you show your passion and show that it was never a function of laziness, then people will work with you.

After all of your success is there anything you are still trying to improve upon?

You are always at war with the last thing you did. How can I make it better? That’s what I try and concentrate on—getting better than I was last time. I’d always like to get better at telling the most complete version of a story.

Why leave the freelance world for a staff position?

One of the reasons I wanted to take a job was to not write quite as much as I was. I always wondered what it would be like to be able to immerse myself for longer and more exclusively into one subject. What would that do for my writing? I’d like to see.

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