I’m teaching journalistic feature writing at RUG (University of Groningen) and this week and we have been talking about one of the most underrated aspects of reporting: observation. As journalists, we often arrive on the scene and immediately start asking questions. But sometimes it’s better to stand back and take things in before interrupting.
Why? Because taking the time to absorb details leads to richness in writing. This is why the best reporting happens on the scene. Nowadays, we’re used to rushing from one interview to the next, or conducting the bulk of them online. But those articles just don’t read the same as when a journalist sits face-to-face with the interviewee.
I tell students that seeing things doesn’t mean you’ve observed them. Observation is active, an action that requires a curious, alert mind. Your eyes have to be open, but your mind also needs to be fully awake, paying attention. It means taking in what’s in front of you (whether it’s a person or a place) with your five senses, seeing everything as potential material. I once told a student that you can’t rush a good interview just as you can’t rush a good conversation (or a meal for that matter). And why would you want to?
Feature writers observe by soaking in both physical and intangible details. Like how the light streams through a dirty window, the smell of sickly-sweet perfume hanging in the air, or the sadness felt in a heavy silence. Skilled writers let their readers witness, experience, and feel what it’s like to be there. That’s why we often enjoy reading the book more than watching the film (though there are exceptions…) Descriptive writing involves us and invites us to interact, experiencing what the journalist did and his subject did.
I also tell students about one of my favorite journalists, Gay Talese, now 90, who practiced what he called the art of hanging out. Renowned for writing “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” considered one of the defining features of the 20th century, Talese was a keen observer who would spend hours at a time hanging out with his subjects and delving into their lives. He spent 3 months alone observing Sinatra and his 75-crew entourage.
Here's how he describes the great singer: “The most distinguishing thing about Sinatra's face are his eyes, clear blue and alert, eyes that within seconds can go cold with anger, or glow with affection, or, as now, reflect a vague detachment that keeps his friends silent and distant.”
Talese never phoned those he wanted to interview but would literally show up at their front door and wait, which seems ridiculous to journalists today. Technology prods us to always be on the go, multitasking in short bursts, and it also gives us constant deadlines. True, Talese had more time to hang out and he pushed for it, spending his career lingering and being intentionally slow in order to soak things up.
This is why his writing has been so celebrated--and for so long. He managed to unearth details that got readers thinking for days if not decades, nudging them to change how they view life.
As a journalist, that's something worth striving for.