Tips for Writing a Compelling Profile of a Person

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A profile is a type of feature story and usually focuses on a person. Profile is a somewhat specific term for a story about a person and, usually, focuses on what's important or interesting about that person now. 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 are usually of people, like a celebrity profile, a journalist can also profile an entity, like a sports team or a company. Profiles are popular types of magazine stories but you will also see profiles in newspapers and other publications.

The focus of profile features should be:

  • on a news angle or an aspect of the person's personal or professional life
  • explaining the reasons why the person is newsworthy, relevant and interesting 
  • based on an interview with the person (not always exclusively)
  • include major elements of hard news stories, but also provide readers with details that capture the essence of the person being profiled.

10 Tips for Writing a Compelling Profile of a Person

Writing a compelling profile involves a few different components. First, the interview portion is often considered the most important aspect of pulling just the right story together. Second, care with putting pen to paper will help you bring the person to life in a way that is genuine, believable and interesting.

And third, crossing your T's and dotting your I's will help tell the story clearly and succinctly. 

To ensure the three components come together smoothly, here are 10 tips for writing better and more compelling profiles:

  1. Start off right.  Identify yourself, know the rules of attribution, and strive to have sources speak on the record whenever possible.
  1. Come Prepared. You should always prepare for all interviews ahead of time and plan the list of questions you you would like to ask. Some people like to talk and when the conversation starts off right, they may need little prompting from you to tell their stories. ​ Others may be harder to interview and so it is always a good idea to have a list of questions to carry you through the interview. Either situation asks that you plan ahead and prepare for your interviews well ahead of time.  
  2. Ask open ended questions and be a good listener. Begin with how or why and don't be afraid of asking follow up questions such as "can you tell me a little more about..." and "what do you mean by..."​ Be sure to leave ample time for your interviewee to speak and don't interrupt when he or she is speaking. Listen closely, take notes or record the interview (and be sure tell them before hand that you are recording).
  3. 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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. Watch for gaps. Are there gaping holes in your story or questions that you have not answered? Ask another wordsmith to read through your story and tell you if they are left with more questions than answers at the end of reading your piece.
  1. 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.
  2. 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, its probably best to leave it out.  

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