Writing Without Access: The Craft of the Write-Around

Mary H.K. Choi notes in her profile of Rihanna for Fader that Pulitzer-prize winner Margo Jefferson wrote a “killer write-around” of Beyoncé without the participation of Beyoncé’s camp. As we read along, we come to the realization that Choi’s Rihanna profile is also a write-around, and it’s expertly done.

How do you write about someone without her involvement? Choi lays out Rihanna’s career with indisputable facts (“For almost a decade Rihanna released an album per year, but it’s been over 1,000 days since her last one”), and then gives the story richness by drawing on memories of her interactions with the singer in the past. Take, for example, this recollection Choi provides us from a conversation she had with Rihanna years ago for the singer’s first cover story:

We talked about how this was the album where you’d finally be able to hear her accent. How much she wanted to act. And that of all the actors in the world, the person she most wanted to work with was Paul Walker. When he died two years ago, I wondered if she’d remember wanting that.

Write-arounds often evoke a negative connotation—signifying, perhaps, that a writer hasn’t done enough to gain access and get the full story. But access to famous and powerful people frequently come with strings, and the write-around method is a cure to all those effusive celebrity profiles that don’t reveal much of anything.

Someone who would agree with this is Ron Rosenbaum, who wrote in Slate nearly a decade ago about the advantages of the write-around:

There is a general—and erroneous—sense that with such a subject, a write-around is a cop-out; a kind of head-fake by a reporter who doesn’t have sufficient talent or clout to land the crucial interview. But I’d argue that a write-around can be more revealing and truthful than a piece written with the cooperation of the subject.

Rosenbaum points out that one of the most successful and famous examples of this is Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which “captur[ed] the ripples and crosscurrents of influence and ego among the nine circles of sycophants who surrounded [Sinatra].”

In a conversation with Talese about his story, Elon Green noted that the story’s success was due in part through Talese’s use of “Sinatra’s fans as a prism through which to view him.” Talese responded:

I do it in all my work. I write about fight fans when I deal with Floyd Patterson. I write about what the fans are like, all around him, when he gets knocked out. You feel lovable, he said. So I’m always aware of the recognition of fans, whether it’s at a boxing match or a concert. They’re part of the story. It’s the roving eye, the camera, as if I were a director. It’s the movie director’s sensibility of having people play their part.

Writers approach the write-around using different techniques; Choi drew from the past and Talese drew from Sinatra’s “squad” to tell a story. When the method is used effectively, the results can be quite illuminating.

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Stories discussed:

“Becoming Rihanna” (Mary H.K. Choi, Fader, Sept. 28, 2015)
“The Reign of Beyoncé” (Margo Jefferson, Vogue, Aug. 13, 2015)
“Magazines, Bring Back the Write-Around!” (Ron Rosenbaum, Slate, Oct. 4, 2007)
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (Gay Talese, Esquire, April 1966)
“Annotation Tuesday! Gay Talese and ‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold'” (Elon Green and Gay Talese, Nieman Storyboard, Oct. 8, 2013)