By Lauren Saxe
It’s the first thing you see at the supermarket checkout and probably the reason
you decide to pick up a magazine in the first place: the cover story. To write a
truly fresh, authentic profile is a huge challenge and accomplishment, especially
after the biggest cover stars have already been interviewed countless times.
A simple Q & A session or spending an afternoon with a celebrity might sound
easy enough, but the truth is the love and labor put behind those shiny cover
stories are far greater than you could imagine. Hours (often days!) of research,
planning, and scheduling go into it, from watching old TV episodes to scanning
previous interviews to deep diving into the darkest depths of the Internet to find
any new information one can.
Here’s the best advice, from writers who have been there.
HOW TO RESEARCH AND PREPARE
You get what you put in, and for cover stories, that has to be A LOT. “When I started as a journalist, you had to get clip files from agencies,” says writer Mary Kay Schilling. “Now I can go down the deepest web rabbit holes—read old interviews, reviews of their work, etc. I feel like preparation is everything. The more you know, the more you can find unusual ways into a story—obscure details that might spark an unexpected and revealing conversation.”
Aside from doing your research about the actual subject of the profile, there are a handful of additional people to get acquainted with. “For a Fast Company cover story on Reese Witherspoon, I spent over a week preparing. The story focused on her production company, rather than her work as an actor, but I still watched or rewatched her films and TV shows. I interviewed Witherspoon and about 15 other people who have worked with her or under her. For each of those people I needed to prep. You always get a stronger interview when a subject feels you’ve done your homework. “As for questions? Don’t even think about going with the obvious. “If it’s someone well-known, be sure you know the stories that they like to tell over and over. Write questions that show you already know those stories, and push them to go deeper,” says writer Ann Friedman.
“So if someone always tells a story about how her first book was a flop and she cried the day it came out, make your question something like, ‘I know you cried on the day your first book came out. But what did you do the day after that? How did you get back to writing?’”
WHERE TO DO THE INTERVIEW
The place where you interview your subject affects the story in so many ways, from their comfort level to the surrounding details you can use to narrate to the opportunity to step outside the box. Some cover stories are even more like an adventure than an interview, creating a strong opening scene visually.
“It’s always nice to go to their home, because a person’s home can tell you so much about them. If not their home, their office is nice. Basically, the ideal is to meet them somewhere they spend a lot of time every week,” says Friedman. “The worst is in their hotel lobby. If you interview someone there, you have to work to get them to tell you a story that can be a strong narrative or visual lede, because goddess knows an ‘I'm sitting in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont with…’ is usually the world's most boring scene. Can you think of anything
more expected? It’s the worst.”
THE WRITING PROCESS
While everyone’s writing style is different, many reporters seem to get the most
out of an interview when they start writing directly after or within the same day,
while it’s still fresh. Once you get it down on paper, you can edit later. For others,
it’s all about writing it in one fell swoop, no matter when that is. “It’s different for every story, but I try to write a story in a day so that it’s formed from one coherent thought. That takes a lot of days of thinking and reading and making notes out of the transcript. But the story is done in a day,” says Taffy Brodesser-Akner And sometimes, the best advice is the simplest. “Just listen,” says Brodesser-Akner. “If you listen, people know you’re listening. They appreciate it and they share.”