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Story pick: How to profile Glenn Beck

By Annys Shin

Not long after I arrived at the Washington Post in 2004, Mark Leibovich, then a Post reporter, agreed to speak at a brown bag gathering about writing profiles.

I wish I could say that he revealed his secrets for writing amazing, unforgettable profiles, but I'm afraid he did not.

I should explain that at the time, he was not writing the epic profiles he has done lately of Politico's Mike Allen and his latest on conservative television personality Glenn Beck. Instead, he was, at least in retrospect, warming up for his current gig by cranking out shorter profiles of various Washington characters for the Post's Style section.

My impression from the lunch talk was that being forced to turn pieces around quickly had helped Leibovich become super-efficient at writing with authority about the inner workings of other human beings. As an audience of reporters listened intently, he told the back story of a piece he had done on Sen. John McCain (R) that centered on his crazy driving. If I recall correctly, Leibovich said that when he initially showed up for his allotted time with the senator, he hadn't settled on what he was going to write. He was trying to come up with a fresh angle on a guy who had been written about a million times before. But once McCain put his foot on the accelerator, Leibovich knew he had what he needed.

I realized even then that knowing the right details to build a story around, let alone a profile of a complicated person that your readers probably have hard and fast ideas about before they read a single word, is not as easy as Leibovich made it seem. (Which is why my main conclusion walking out the brown bag was that I was no Mark Leibovich.)

In the years that followed, I came to appreciate other elements of his stories, such as the way he offers readers glimpses of how the story was made. It can be as simple as a reference to a red-faced publicist sitting next to his subject, or to negotiations over what he can see or write about. He also doesn't follow the normal journalistic convention of pretending he isn't there. And I'm glad he doesn't because then we wouldn't get to read lines such as these, about the famously blustery Beck:

He is fragile, on the edge. There is no template for him or for where he is headed. “I have not prepared my whole life to be here,” Beck told me from his plush couch, his face turning bright pink. “I prepared my whole life to be in a back alley.” I expected him to cry, but he did not.

By Annys Shin  | October 1, 2010; 10:39 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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