- Why write a political profile? “Our job isn’t necessarily to make the case for or against these profile subjects,” The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins says. “It's to help readers just understand them.”
- In today’s edition of The Masthead, McKay and Elaina Plott, both prolific profile writers, interview each other about their craft.
- One secret to a great profile: An interesting character isn’t enough. A great profile needs to explore a big idea, too. Read on for more.
“A Complicated, Fully Drawn Portrait”
In their quest to illuminate the characters of Washington, McKay Coppins and Elaina Plott have visited the zoo with Newt Gingrich, dined with Heidi Cruz in her Houston house, raced Louise Linton at SoulCycle, and spent an afternoon in Stephen Miller’s West Wing office. Along the way, the two have spent a lot of time talking to each other about the practice of profiling.
They’ve agreed to share their thoughts—and banter—with Masthead members. Here, in an edited and condensed conversation, is a glimpse into their process of profile writing.
McKay Coppins: There’s a certain line of criticism of political profiles that goes like this: “I don't need to know about the interiority of political leaders. What I want to know about is their policies. I don't need to know about how they feel about their father, or the intimate moments they've had with their children, or what anxieties or insecurities they personally have.” How do you respond to that?
Elaina Plott: I just think, as a writer and a consumer of media, when the leader of the free world or these different politicians do things that make zero sense to me, I like to try to have an understanding of where they're coming from personally. One, I think it's a healthy way to debate people—with an understanding of their humanity. But, as a writer, I think context is crucial. And at the very least, it makes politics a lot more interesting to me as a reporter—whether there is an actual human person behind a decision or action that might seem inhuman.
McKay: Yeah, I also think that it's kind of naive for people to think that policy decisions can be entirely disentangled from the interior lives of our public leaders. Politicians have worldviews and experiences and baggage that they carry into the political arena, and they make decisions based on all of that. You can’t just leave that completely untouched. Sometimes it means a deep probe of their childhood or college experience. Sometimes it means little telling details about the books they’ve read.
There's also this idea that adding these personal dimensions to a public figure only helps them. But I don’t think that’s always true. I’ve written a lot about Donald Trump’s status anxiety—about the insecurities that he developed as a young man trying to make it in Manhattan, when he was dismissed as this new-money, outer-borough rube. That’s not necessarily a flattering portrait of Trump, but it does help you understand him. Our job isn’t necessarily to make the case for or against these profile subjects. It's to help readers just understand them.
When choosing someone to write about, I'm usually aiming to do the definitive piece on a prominent subject who hasn't quite had the big, definitive piece written about them yet. What about you? I feel like you have a different approach.
Elaina: I would almost rather profile the person nobody thought they wanted to know more about. Someone who actually—even if they don't seem like the newsiest person—offers a story that ties into a lot of the big themes in the news, or helps explain the current state of politics and the country. I think Heidi Cruz is a good example of that. I got a lot of feedback on that piece along the lines of, “I didn't know I needed a profile of Heidi Cruz.” That to me is a pretty big compliment—this idea that I've unearthed someone and made a good case that people should care, even if they hadn't ever thought or read about that person.
McKay: I think one thing both of us share is that we don't just want to profile someone because we think they're personally interesting. You want to offer a complicated, fully drawn portrait of the human, of course, but you also want the piece to get at something bigger. For my profile of Mike Pence, for example, I was really interested in Pence, and what drove him, and the various compromises he had to make, but I also wanted to understand the broader religious-right movement and its relationship to this president. Mike Pence was a way to write about that. I feel like that's been the case for you, too.
Elaina: You have this idea or this question in your head, like, What's going on in this moment of American politics? And then you try to figure out, Who is the vehicle that I could use to answer this question?
So once you get in the room with someone like Stephen Miller, what is your strategy? What, to you, is an ideal interview?
McKay: I definitely have a list of questions that I want to ask. For a political figure, it's a mix of personal questions, questions about how they see the world, and then policy questions. Also, these people have often been at the center of major news stories over the last year or so. I want to get them on the record about why they made these decisions, and how they respond to various criticisms.
You have to handle it carefully. If you come in at the very beginning of a two-hour sit-down with the most hostile questions, they're going to shut down for the rest of it. I don't know if this is your experience, but often I try to kind of ease them into candor, try to get them to a place where they feel comfortable. The longer you talk, the more their protective shield falls down, you know? Then the interview often starts to get a little tougher toward the end. That's just my approach; I think there are a lot of different ways to do this.
I also think that if you can go do something with them that both gives you color for the piece you're writing, but also makes it more of a natural interview or conversation, that’s helpful. With Newt Gingrich, I went to the zoo with him. He loves animals; he loves zoos. It kind of gave us something to do while we talked, so it didn't feel like a prosecution or something right at the outset. Then I had another sit-down interview with him later. What's your approach when you're in the room with somebody?
Elaina: It can be hard to get this kind of access, but if I can, I try and do something with my subject, whatever activities they may find particularly interesting. Because I think if you can get someone in an environment in which they're comfortable, they're more likely to be candid with you and open up. With Louise Linton, for instance, we went to SoulCycle together, which to me was important in terms of understanding her social network, the things she values day to day, et cetera. I also think what's great about getting people doing things, having movement in a story, is that you're also likely to observe them interacting with other people, which I often find to be really telling in understanding who a person is.
With a profile subject, ideally by the end, I like to feel that I just had a really wide-ranging, textured conversation with them, which is why I've never really gone into an interview with a list of questions. I'll kind of sketch out topics I want to be sure to cover, but ideally the conversation flows organically such that it's not just a question-and-answer session.
Anyway. I'd also love to know whether you take notes in interviews. I have gotten to a point where I have a notebook with me, but I usually never take notes during an interview—I pretty much only record. I don't like to give any sort of hint of what I do or don't find interesting about what they're saying.
McKay: I record as well. I take notebooks in primarily as a prop because they expect you to have one. Sometimes I will doodle or pretend to write something in my notebook if, for some reason, I want them to think that I think what they're saying is interesting. The only other thing I use the notebook for is to jot down a few details about what they're wearing or what the room is like, or what music is playing or whatever.
I hear a lot of writers say that starting to write is the hardest part. That's not really the case for me. Is it for you?
Elaina: I actually think I'm pretty good at having a sense, before I start writing, of what I want the opening scene to be. To me, one of the most important parts, if not the most important part, is that opening section, where I feel like I really get to experiment as a writer, and write scenes in a way that would set me apart from other people trying to profile this person. To me, the hardest part, and what often keeps me working on the intro section for even, like, two weeks, is actually figuring out what your story is about. This gets back to what we were saying earlier, about how a great profile is about much more than just the person.
One thing I do that helps a lot is make myself write sentences that begin with, “The story is that ...” I try to hammer out that sentence over and over until I actually get to the thesis that I think is correct. So for the Heidi piece, for example, it took me a really long time to feel like I actually knew what the story was. But once I know that, the rest flows.
McKay: I agree with you, by the way, on the importance of the first scene. I think the first 700 words of a 7,000-word profile take me like 40 percent of the total writing time.
Elaina: It's agonizing.
McKay: You want to nail it! For me, I’m trying to get to the point where I feel really good about the top of the story. Then, every time I get stuck writing, I can go back and read those first 500 or 700 words, and it provides the energy to propel me through the rest of the piece.
Once the piece is nearing its completion, how much do you tell your subject about what’s going to be in the piece?
Elaina: I think it's one of the hardest parts of writing a profile. Obviously, it would be easier just to not say anything, drop the bomb or whatever, and try to cower from the fallout. But I think ultimately your subject is going to have much more respect for you after the piece is published if they feel like there were no surprises. For all the pieces I've done in the last year, I would say, I have been very thorough with either subjects or their spokespeople about exactly what’s in the story—one, so they have a chance to respond to anything that they could possibly feel is unfair, but also so that they don't wake up and say, “Oh my gosh, I had no idea that this is the direction she wanted to take this.”
McKay: Right. There was an editor who used to say something like, “You want a subject to choke on their steak when they find out what’s going to be in the paper the next morning, rather than choke on their eggs when they read it in print.” I think there's something to that. One thing that I think is great about The Atlantic is that we have a pretty robust fact-checking department. They get in touch with the subject and go through every fact in the piece that they might take issue with. Really, by the time the story comes out, they know what's going to be in there.
Elaina: Okay, so I feel like I probably know the answer to this, but final question: What's the best angry response you've gotten to a profile you've written?
McKay: My most famous one was after I first profiled Donald Trump, in 2014. He spent like two weeks ranting about me on Twitter—called me “a dishonest slob of a reporter”—and may or may not have run for president partly to spite me. So yeah, that was great.