How to Write a Compelling Profile of a Person
A profile is a type of feature story and usually focuses on a person and what's important or interesting about that person at the moment. For example, the journalist Gay Talese did a famous profile of Frank Sinatra, called "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" and spoke to the singer's entourage since Sinatra would not grant an interview.
Although profiles usually focus on people, like celebrities, journalists also can profile entities like sports teams or companies. It's also not necessary for subjects of profiles to be public figures. They can be anyone who might make for an interesting story readers can relate to. Profiles are popular in magazines, but you also will see profiles in newspapers and other publications. The focus of profiles should be:
- News angles or aspects of the subject's personal or professional life
- Explanations for why the subject is newsworthy, relevant, and interesting
- Based on interviews with the subject
- Include major elements of hard news stories, but also provide readers with details that capture the essence of the subject being profiled
Tips for Writing Compelling Profiles
Writing a compelling profile involves a few different components. Research and preparation is always the most important part of writing, and for feature profiles, the interview often is the most important step in putting together a strong story. When sitting down to write the profile, care with putting pen to paper will help you bring the person to life in a way that is genuine, believable, and interesting. To put this together in the form of a compelling feature, consider these 10 tips for writing better and more compelling profiles:
- Focus on narrative, not quotes. Feature stories, such as individual profiles, are much different than hard news stories. Part of your job is to weave a narrative for readers. When interviewing subjects, focus on getting the details of the story accurate and don't worry so much about taking down everything they say verbatim. Certainly, if someone says something worth quoting, that must be accurate—but an abundance of quotes is not what drives a good narrative.
- Show, don't tell. Most writers remember this cliche from their creative writing classes, and it is especially valuable when writing feature stories. Set a scene for readers, build tension, make them feel as if they are right there in the story, alongside your subject.
- Be clear about why the subject is newsworthy. Perhaps the individual being profiled did something or experienced something uncommon. Or, perhaps the subject had an experience or is involved in something that serves as a microcosm of a broader news story that is relevant at the time. Make it clear to readers as soon as possible why the individual is worth reading about.
- Create an outline. Once you're ready to write, review your notes and mark down the most interesting points and quotes you would like to use to shape your story about this person. Consider what was most surprising and build your story's structure around the peaks and most compelling parts of the conversation.
- Spend extra time at the beginning of your story. Readers will decide whether to keep reading based on your lede and how much you have piqued their interest.
- Write with verbs versus adjectives. Don't describe someone as bitter or an office as sterile, instead describe the details you observed and let the reader envision that person's actions or the characteristics of that office themselves.
- Be strategic with quotations. It can be hard to capture a mood with direct quotes only, so use your own prose and then interject relevant quotes to enhance your point. Be sure to always provide attribution for the quotes that you do use as the reader shouldn't have to ever wonder who is talking.
- Watch for gaps. Are there gaping holes in your story or questions that you have not answered? Ask another wordsmith to read your story and tell you if they are left with more questions than answers at the end of reading your piece.
- Don't end with a conclusion. Instead, consider featuring a particularly resonant quote for the last sentence. Let the person you are profiling be the last voice your readers hear.
- Edit, check for accuracy, and proofread. Once you have finished writing, go back through your work with a fine tooth comb for spelling or grammatical mistakes. Check that you have spelled names correctly, gotten titles right. Also, check and recheck your facts—if you can't verify something, it's probably best to leave it out. The better your work when it reaches the copy desk, the more time copy editors will have to spend massaging and improving your prose, as opposed to fixing common grammatical errors.