Conventional wisdom holds that women's magazines aren't as good as men's magazines. That would be correct. So we hired a manly-man type men's magazine contributor to "coach" our favorite ladymag writers. You are so welcome in advance!
To: Rebecca Johnson
From: Tim Wolfian
Re: "Live from Baghdad: Fearless Dispatches Have Made Lara Logan a Commanding Voice on the War," p. 204, July 2007 Vogue
Rebecca, babe, holy crap, wow wow wow. I just read your profile of CBS war correspondent Lara Logan, and, well, ordinarily I would never say "wow" or "holy crap" in the public prints, but your story's terribleness has jolted me out of the manly and muscular prose style for which I am perpetually showered with Ellies. Let's hope it's only temporary. Honestly, Rebecca, I sympathize with your plight. We all phone it in occasionally. I mean, many's the time that Graydon or Nelson has given me all of two days to churn out one of my signature 9,000-word epics on some topic about which I know fuck-all, and with a godlike POV to boot, regardless of whether there's time to earn that godlike POV through proper reporting. Magazine writing is hard. Believe me, Rebecca, I'm not here to judge. I'm here to help.
So let's talk Lara Logan. You lead with a scene of Logan in the TV studio, getting her makeup done. When a tech tries to fit her with an earpiece, she freaks:
"I see earwax," she said, smiling at him, holding the earpiece aloft.Bitch could use a little one-on-one, yeah? Except, apparently not.
"It's new," the man protested.
"Look." She held it up to the light.
After spending a few days with her, I've come to see the moment as classic Logan. She's cheerful but dogged. Friendly but persistent. And basically impossible to resist. The man returned with a bag of new earpieces.
Now, Rebecca, it may be that I'm not an experienced enough reader of gynomags to figure out if this lede is a sly, hatchet-job setup, or if you really believe that the earpiece anecdote shows Logan to be "cheerful" and "impossible to resist" — surely people are a little more cordial to one another in the fashion biz, right? -= but as I work my way through the rest of your story I get the sense that even a steady diet of crazy-sex-position articles and Johansson-worship wouldn't have steeled me for this fucking thing. It's more skittish than all seven of my kitty cats. (The only creatures that melt the hardened ASME-pants heart.) You call Logan "passionate and serious," and include these long unexplicated quotes of Logan making cogent-sounding arguments about American foreign policy, yet the story's rising action is all about Logan's "God-given good looks" and whether these looks are "an asset in a visual medium," a topic about which other TV reporters—Katie Couric especially—are "weirdly defensive." Then you hound Logan's 60 Minutes colleagues, who all must be bored out of their fucking minds with this question, having had to answer it several times already, until you find one colleague who's willing to give you "an honest assessment" of Logan's screen appeal vis-à-vis her hotness, which is that Logan is "a novelty" (though, to be fair to the producer, he says she's a novelty who knows what she's doing). There's also a whole paragraph about how hard it is for Logan to keep her AMERICAN APPAREL!!! T-shirts free of that pervasive diesel smell in Iraq.
The story ends with four grafs so depressing, so saturated with death and the Void, that you almost forget that they have nothing to do with the death and the Void of, you know, being in the middle of a war.
At 36, Logan herself is finally beginning to understand how, like it or not, life eventually pushes you one way or the other. "When you're eighteen," she says, "you reject the notion that you can't have a career and a family... [work] takes a heavier toll than you realize. And when you do, it's too late."
Rebecca, I think I realize the problem. See, if you're not interested in writing about the big things... the texture of Logan's actual job... what it's it's like to be there in Iraq, to make high-stakes decisions in a war zone, to argue with network bosses about coverage, to get hate mail from the American Right—as opposed to, say, Logan's tips for doing laundry in Afghanistan (take that AMERICAN APPAREL!!! tee and bang it against a rock!)—well then, you've got to lavish attention on the little things. When you phone it in, you've got to take to the tiny details and extrude them into big insights. Find a pebble and use it to tell the history of the universe to date, or at least a good yarn about the human condition. COMMIT.
And commitment starts with the lede. I'd suggest beginning the story with what I like to call a "Junod Graf," in honor of the Esquire master himself, Tom Junod. To write a gripping Junod Graf, follow these two simple rules. One: The Junod Graf must be written in a wizened, storytelly voice not unlike that of the sea captain in Jaws (feel free to visualize Robert Shaw if this helps). Two: The Junod Graf must conflate your own emotional hangups with whatever you imagine to be the emotional hangups of your subject. Because, Rebecca, is this story really, at its core, about Lara Logan? Isn't it really about you, Rebecca Johnson? To get a feel for what I'm talking about, check out this classic example from the Junod canon. In your own story, Rebecca, with your own set of facts and hangups—prettiness as a cross to be borne, etc.—a Junod Graf might look like this:
You didn't ask for the ginsu cheekbones. You didn't ask for that startled circumflex of a mouth, those limpid pools of azure in your eyes. You didn't ask for the taut flanks and the breasts like artisan challah. You didn't ask for the ass. Aye, the ass. You didn't ask for any of it, and that's exactly the thing that nobody around you ever understood. That you were a reluctant martyr. That you were the pretty, pretty baby in the barn. Your beauty was your hindrance, and your hindrance was your beauty; your freelance writing income was your gaping need, and your gaping need was your freelance writing income. Would you be a bad person if you used these things, these soft warm parts of you, to get ahead in the world? Would you be a bad person if you didn't? In the end, of course, you made made The Decision. You took The Job. We all do. We all wish we could.
See how authoritative you sound? You're no longer writing a specific story about a specific pretty lady who does a specific difficult job; you are writing the one definitive story about All Pretty Ladies who do all jobs — and, by extension, all Ugly Ladies Who Wish They Were Pretty. (Do the ugly read Vogue ? That's not a hypothetical question. I'm actually curious.) Another benefit of the Junod Graf is that it makes your own private feelings and insecurities about your subject explicit, so that they won't come whooshing out unexpectedly in little gushers of catty bile (i.e. your Logan lede).
Also, you might consider reading the clips. A quick Google search reveals this juicy exchange between Ms. Logan and CNN's Howie Kurtz, in which Howie asks our intrepid gal one of those unspeakably irresponsible, unkillable, spawn-of-Limbaugh questions that CNN anchors are always pretending they don't know better than to ask—namely, Why aren't Iraq correspondents reporting all the GOOD NEWS IN IRAQ?—and Logan responds with some justifiably righteous anger. Becks, here is your subject engaging one of the most important press questions of our time, and from a place of real knowledge. I don't know if it's a "quintessential Logan moment," but it's certainly promising material. On the other hand, I can see why you didn't include it, because it suggests that Logan may be a person of substance and courage after all, which is incompatible with your chosen Take.
Finally, Becks? One last thing? You know how you say that Logan interviewing Bonnie Fuller is like "a racehorse pulling a plow"? Not that I'm some fan of Bonnie Fuller, but... babe, that is just mean.