Two people feature

How to write (and make money from) your “two people” feature

Tear-out the “Two of Us” page from the Good Weekend magazine on Saturdays in either The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age.  Or the “Double Take” page from The Weekend Australian Magazine.  Collect at least three different ones.  Read them always, every Saturday.

Read, re-read, re-read and study them.  Get a real FEEL for the style.

Think of two people you know who have a long-term and interesting relationship.  It might be your neighbour and his business partner, your own aunt and uncle (preferably with a different surname), your old teacher and his son, your boss and his lover, the two old ladies who run your corner shop . . . it can be any two people you like (but NOT including yourself).

Approach these two people IN PERSON and explain.  Say: “You will greatly help me in doing an exercise for the journalism course I am studying in order to become a fulltime journalist.  I will be submitting the final article for publication.”

Show the two people your tear-sheets of the feature, and allow them time to read them, so they understand the nature of this feature.  Maybe you’re able to pick an article in which the two people are in relationship similar to the one enjoyed by prospective interviewees.

Most people will at first say “no”.  They are not used to being interviewed.  They are shy about being in a publication.  They are genuinely puzzled as to why you’d ask THEM.  Expect them to say no.  Now it’s up to you to do what journalists must do all their lives: they sweet-talk uncooperative people into eventually saying “well, okay”.  Use whatever pressure tactics you think appropriate, but DO NOT give up at the first “No, ask someone else”.  Please don’t fail this first hurdle.  You will be faced with reluctant interviewees all your journalistic life.

When you get a “well, okay” from both people, set up appointments for interviews with them, but for different times and places.

Under  no  circumstances  interview  them  together.

The long-running success of “Two of Us” and “Double Take” depends on the two subjects being interviewed separately.  The other person should be nowhere nearby and able to wander-in to your interviewing of the other person.  Why?  Because people talk differently about a person according to whether that other person is in the same room listening, or is absent.  You want their words WITHOUT the other being present.  Set up the appointments.

UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES INTERVIEW THEM TOGETHER!!

Prepare as many questions as possible in list form on paper.  Do research by reading everything ever published about these people, and make lots of notes.  If interest in these people centres around a topic (tennis, dieting, candle-making) then read up on that topic.

You MUST audio-record the interviews.  Without audio (tape or digital) recordings, these kind of interviews can’t be done.  Record your first interview.  Then record your second.

For more advice refer to Interviews recording successfully.

Interviews might take a half-hour to three hours.  Be sure to have plenty of tape or disk space, and spare batteries.

You must obtain interviews in which each person is completely candid about the RELATIONSHIP and about THE OTHER PERSON.  You are NOT trying to get your interviewee to say of the other person: “She’s a rotten, lying bitch . . . I don’t trust her . . . she’s tried to kill me four times . . . ”  Of course no one’s going to say anything like this.  But people who love each other or greatly respect each other, will still be candid and make remarks like: “I didn’t warm to him at first, he seemed a bit standoff-ish.”  Or: “The only thing about her I don’t like is her impatience.”  Or: “I think he’s far too sensitive to criticism and worries too much about what everyone says about him.”  THESE are the kind of candid observations and opinions you are after.

DO NOT bother transcribing your recording.  That is, do not type-out each interview as transcripts of every word said.  You’ll know what I mean from the Famous Person Transcript.  A transcript takes too long to type, and is not needed.

Concentrate on pulling from your interviewees:

  • Anecdotes
  • Opinions
  • Observations
  • Emotions
  • Humour

Get them to talk about a shared experience.    FACTS are not as important as the five elements above.  Facts can be dull.  Be wary of facts.  Facts can ruin a “Two of Us”/“Double Take” and make it read like a resume.

Listen to your two recorded interviews quietly and by yourself, noting all the best bits and noting at what point they occur (that is, your recorder’s timer).

Type-out the comments, stringing together all the comments you like, and that are one person describing the RELATIONSHIP and THE OTHER PERSON.  You’re not after anything else.  It’s immaterial if an interviewee wanders off and talks about his/her job, old loves, hobby, interests.  The point of these two features is the RELATIONSHIP between your two subjects and what each SAYS about the other.  Ask for anecdotes involving ONLY THEM.

Two people remember the same event, or time in their lives, differently, and this is always fascinating.  If you were interviewing them together, they would tend to compromise with each other to remember it in the same way which is not nearly as interesting.

You can condense the quotes, but not in a way they were never said.  That is, you can edit-down, but not add.  Naturally, you don’t put in any of your questions, and no quotation marks and no “he said” or “she said”.  ?Tick when done

Then you start editing.  This will surprise you!!  The article can be no longer than a mere 1,200 words including the introductory paragraph.  Not 1,000, not 1,250, but 1,200.  Eventually, the editors pare it down to 800 words.  That’s not many words when you have possibly recorded 35,000 spoken words.  But you must edit down to 1,200.  The comments of each person should be roughly equal but doesn’t matter if one person’s comments are slightly longer than the other person’s comments in your final article.

Then you must write an introductory paragraph, referring to the most important facts or history of the relationship.  Study the introductory paragraphs of your three tear-sheets to see how it is done.

Now you must do something that I normally recommend against.  You must SHOW the finished article to your two subjects.  DO NOT SEND IT TO THEM.  TAKE  two copies to them and let them read them in front of you.  Any misunderstandings can be cleared up then and there.  Do not allow them to change what they actually said.

DO NOT LEAVE A COPY WITH THEM.

DO NOT LET THEM READ IT OR DISCUSS IT WITHOUT YOU PRESENT

If your editor does some editing, they will notice, never understand why, and blame you.  Take both copies away with you.

You must borrow from them, some old family photos.  Photos of the two people and appropriate to the topic.  But they must have at least one old photo of the two people in your article. Supplying an old photo does not guarantee publication, but not supplying one provides the editor with a reason to say “No”.

Please . . . do not vary any of these instructions.  Follow them PRECISELY.  Tick off each instruction as you accomplish it.

 

How I got my two person feature published

By ULLA HILTULA

A former student of Cengage and Simon Townsend

 

If you think your subjects are interesting, chances are other people will too.  So persevere.  My first rejection was by one editor.  Times change.  Editors change.  I tried again, I succeed.

I genuinely liked my two interviewees.  I also liked the way my story read.  I was convinced that the editor would like it too.  I sent it by email (without a photo).  It was rejected on the grounds that they get so many submissions that they could not use it.  I felt disappointed.  More so for my two interviewees who were excited about the possibility of having the story published, even though I had made no promises.   I somehow felt that I had let them down.  But I kept a positive attitude and said I’d review it and send it in again later.

At that point I sent it to Simon Townsend for criticism, and received some good advice.  I then hung on to it for about a year, at which time Bernard Smith had his book published.  We all (Bernard, Kate and I) decided it would be a good time to try again (maybe some indirect publicity for the book).  I phoned and found that there had been a change of editor.   I made some changes to the story, based on Simon’s advice, and resent the story.  They responded saying that they had enough stories to keep them going until the end of the year and suggested I resend early the following year.  This was a positive sign.  At least it hadn’t been rejected again.

I had to wait until the deputy editor came back from family leave and sent it to her in mid January.  She emailed me to say she enjoyed reading it and attached some questions and comments.

I then approached both of my subjects to say publication looked promising.  I asked them individually to think about a few more anecdotes that I could add in response to the deputy editor’s questions.  I then added these and re-read it again, and again.  I checked my emails daily and responded within 24 hours to any questions from the deputy editor.  By this time she had passed it on to her sub editors.  The communications were friendly, professional, and with mutual respect.  I was then told the publication date.

It wasn’t until this point that the photo became important.  I sent them the one I had taken of them by a professional photographer, but they rejected it (quality was good but one of them wasn’t looking directly at the camera) and they arranged for their own photographer to take the shot.

Start with a good comment that will hook the reader.  My story had to start well.  I realised that I had more or less written it in the chronological order of how my interview ran.  The deputy editor moved topics around to have it start with a “bit more pep” and it read much better.

She also wanted to know about how each of them felt and reacted to certain events.  Anything that sounded dull (stating facts) was cut.  Also there was a bit “too much heaping of praise” by Bernard so some of that was minimised.

I answered all the deputy editor’s questions and provided as best I could some extra points to fill in sections of both interviews.  I always checked with both subjects that they were happy with the final result.  I was lucky that they were quite easy to deal with and easy to contact – usually phone for Bernard and email or text for Kate.

It took a lot longer than I thought, but with one under my belt, the next one must get a little easier.  It was worthwhile, and a triple celebration when it was published.

You really do have to think like the editors.  They want a story about two interesting people, with light and shade and some humour.

A key is to get the interviewees to trust you and then honour that trust.  They may tell you things that they don’t want in print.  Be sensitive to certain personal issues and omit things that may affect relationships with other family members or friends who read the story.

I now have two more sets of interesting people I would like to interview.  One pair I know will be happy to participate.  One of the other pair is willing but the other is a little reticent.  So there is my challenge.  I’m aware that every situation will be different and I’m looking forward to new challenges each time.

Advice from Ulla:

Don’t make any promises about publication to your interviewees.  It’s hard enough dealing with your own disappointment, let alone theirs too.  Don’t let the first rejection stymie you.  Think of it as a challenge to make it read better.

Make sure to get the correct person and contact details to send your submission.  It will probably be the Deputy Editor or his/her assistant who will read it first.  Keep your email messages short and professional.

Try and think like the journalists who deal with these articles.  They want some light and shade, and humour, and not too much heaping of praise about the other person.  Start (and end) with a good comment from both people.

If you genuinely think your subjects are interesting and it reads as well (or better) than other Two of Us stories, it’s worth persevering.

If and when the deadline approaches, be contactable for any changes or facts that need to be checked at short notice (for example, the correct ages of the two people on the day of publication).

Be prepared for it to take at lot longer than you expect!  Whatever the outcome, you will have had the privilege to get to know two interesting people and that is its own reward.  Also they get the opportunity to talk about each other.   Overall it’s a great experience!

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