There is not really a wrong way to write a magisterial, carefully reported feature story. These stories can and indeed often do fail, but if they’re too lushly upholstered or not sufficiently comprehensive in their reporting they wouldn’t be Magisterial, Carefully Reported Features, would they? I am talking about the good stuff, the kind of unhurried and unconstrained feature writing that effectively escorts the reader into a comfortable seat and then sends you off down a wide, slow river with panoramic views of unfamiliar territory in every direction, stepping in periodically to explain just what you’re looking at. It’s nice. It is, in my opinion, just a nice experience.
More or less the only positive memory I have of freelancing full-time was the brief flush of mostly cosmetic expertise that you get while getting up to speed on something you have somehow convinced an editor to pay you $350, payable at some point TBD, to write about. Reading up, talking to people who know more than you, organizing those thoughts and getting them down—that’s the work, but in the time between when you start the research-reporting part of the thing and finish the edits you can feel like you actually know something about the topic. It’s a cool feeling, even despite and maybe especially because of the fact that, at least for me, all that knowledge generally disappears the moment the story is published. I have gone to sleep as a proud not-quite-expert on some topic or other and awakened, many times, with only one thought in my head—Andres Galarraga didn’t actually get into any games with the Mets, right, he was just with them in Spring Training?
It’s for this reason that I appreciate it when writers working on those Magisterial, Carefully Reported Features show off a little bit about how much they’ve learned in the process of pulling it all together. That Charly morning comes for all or anyway most of us; by all means go ahead and let it eat while there’s still something in there to show off about. For writers who are especially feeling themselves on one of those Magisterial Carefully Reported Features, there is one move that I especially love to see.
I have a name for this thing, as it happens. I call it the New Yorker Eurostep. The first part is because The New Yorker, as something like the reigning venue for the Magisterial, Carefully Reported Feature, is the unofficial home for this gambit; when I mentioned to a friend that a story he’d written had a New Yorker Eurostep in it he was initially confused not because he didn’t know what I was talking about but because, he said, he’d always just thought of it as “the thing that Nick Paumgarten does.” And while Paumgarten is hardly the only New Yorker writer to deploy the move—here’s Elizabeth Kolbert sticking a lovely hop back to 1869 in her August feature about Utah’s Glen Canyon—it is one that he has indisputably mastered. If the New Yorker Eurostep has a Manu Ginobili, it’s him.
But in the same way that I will sometimes oafishly Eurostep through my living room during moments of boredom, the New Yorker Eurostep is available to any writer who feels like trying it out. If you believe that you have set up a story well enough that the hook is sufficiently set, and as long as you are committed to making your apparent digression just a stylish aesthetic detour to your broader progress, you might as well bust it out. Go ahead and let the reader enjoy The Ryan Kelly Experience a little bit.
Because I haven’t spent a lot of time writing this kind of story—my two established areas of expertise are “things in the news that make me upset” and “pitchers I think are cool,” neither of which very comfortably accommodates this maneuver—I haven’t spent a lot of time trying it. I did treat myself to a miniature version of one in this story I wrote while at Vice Sports years ago. (The story is about how Topps came to make a Prospects card with Jung Bong and Brandon Puffer on it.) But you can see it from time to time in stories on this website. Here, for instance, is Patrick Redford, in his delightful post about making nocino, effortlessly bouncing, with the help of a little section break, from buying walnuts at a farmer’s market to a sentence that begins “The earliest records referring to the the Pict people—a confederation of Celtic peoples who lived in what is now Scotland north of Hadrian’s Wall.” Robert O’Connell also has a lovely one in his story about the routine exploitation of minor league baseball players, bounding from baseball’s current MBA-scented rhetoric of optimization back to Branch Rickey and the Calvin Coolidge administration.
These, like the best New Yorker Eurosteps, are all the more exciting for me as a reader because they are earned. That said, the leap is the thing, and there’s absolutely room for some Andre Drummond–style ambition when it comes to a New Yorker Eurostep attempt. I have thought often about this New York Times story about the baffling lockdown meme of trompe l’oeil cakes that hops boldly out of its forceful drive to the hoop to note that “the earliest cakes were distinguished by a lack of dimension.” It’s a good story, comprehensive and absolutely as scrupulous researched as any editor could ask, that happens to be about one of the most ephemeral and ridiculous topics imaginable. I can’t think of a better time to add some extra business—and, as these things go, starting a section off with the words “the earliest cakes” is about the equal of anything ever attempted on the And1 Tour—to the thing. Work is work, but life is for the living. If you have done the necessary work, and built sufficient momentum, and feel the confidence to try it out—in my opinion, you might as well hop.