Hanging around a bookstore, I discovered Vivian Tam’s The Writaholic: Hong Kong Features. The book cover depicts a typical media practitioner burying oneself in work. After I glanced over the sentence ‘To help readers see the world in a grain of sand with factually grounded reporting’ (my translation), I immediately bought the book.
News features spotlight individuals. Some believe feature writers mainly chat with their interviewees and write emotionally captivating stories. But Tam strives to communicate with her interviewees to explore their inner worlds and underlying social contexts. In her own words, ‘Decontextualized news reports may victimize the disadvantaged group.’
Normally, news reports on homeless people go to two extremes: to describe them as marginalized or simply as zombies. One homeless person Tam depicted, however, likes to dress himself in a leather jacket or a suit. Another even owns an LCD television. Not many people observe the homeless people’s belongings like she did. The interviewees in the pictures even look at the camera upright, implying that Tam has built trust with them.
Tam has been teaching ‘News Features’ at CUHK’s School of Journalism and Communication since 2012. For the course, she studied the American Pulitzer Prize-winning features and distilled the golden rules of feature writing and illustrated them with references from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, which can be found in the first three chapters of the book. To give the stories a real human touch, the writers’ effort cannot be overlooked. ‘Feature stories start with humans. Besides soliciting background information, we should observe the interviewees’ body language and even their belongings.’
While the mainstream media prioritize speed and click rate, Tam chooses the road less taken. She meticulously prepares for each in-depth interview. The process from interviewing, writing to polishing takes at least three working days. She places herself into the shoes of the interviewees, unravels the intriguing factors and carefully examines her word choice. Tam’s clarity helps me separate the trees from the forest, as her features encompass both the minutiae and overarching narrative of things, making for highly readable writing.
This article was originally published in No. 543, Newsletter in Sep 2019.