Writing the Perfect Profile
Recently a writer posted in the Comments section that she’d love some tips on writing compelling profiles, so I’m posting this article I wrote for Writer’s Digest. [lf]
An editor has asked you to profile an actor, an author, or the local guy who sells his special homemade garlic pickles over the Internet. You could interview your subject once over the phone and turn in a profile that details all of his triumphs in life — or you could follow these tips to craft a piece that shows your subject as the fascinating, multidimensional person that he is.
* Do Your Research
Look at those profiles that have won awards or other kudos, and you’ll see that the writer researched her subject as if she were writing a dissertation on the person’s life: she interviewed not only the subject, but also the subject’s parents, spouse, neighbors, current and former bosses. For example, in Newshound (see the sidebar for more details on the profiles we discuss here), Calvin Trillin did what he called a “longitudinal study” of R. W. Apple, a former correspondent and editor at The New York Times, studying Apple in person as well as interviewing everyone from Apple’s stepdaughter to Tom Brokaw. “You need to have a rhythm based on different forms of evidence: direct evidence and evidence from interviewing, reading, and research,” says Dr. Roy Peter Clark, a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute and author of Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (Little, Brown, 2006).
* Break the Line
A great profile doesn’t simply record history from the subject’s birth up to the present time — how boring would that be? Instead, it roots itself in the present and bounces back and forth between present scenes and past ones. “In Hollywood, they don’t leave a particular camera shot for more than eight seconds because we get bored,” says Tim Hooker, an English teacher at Cleveland State Community College and editor of SushiTuesday.com. “In the profile of [the children's entertainer] the Great Zucchini, we cut to a discussion with his childhood buddies and interviews with happy clients. We bounce around our camera shots to keep the reader engaged.” In her profile of Dr. Seuss, Cynthia Gorney talks to Seuss while he’s hunched over his drawing board, and uses details within that scene as springboards to the past.
* Strengthen Your Core
No, we’re not talking about Pilates — we mean the emotional core of your profile. “Once you have all the raw data in front of you, you have to stop and look into the sky and ask what is the emotional core here,” says Hooker. “The emotional core is that thing that animates and pulls together all those disparate pieces — the one moment you hang everything off of. ” For example, in Gay Talese’s profile Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, the emotional core is the common cold, which represents Sinatra losing his strength as a star in the late 60s. “All of a sudden he’s not the commodity he used to be,” says Hooker. “So Frank Sinatra has a cold.”
* Pull Back the Curtain
Though you don’t want to trash your subject, you also don’t want to gloss over your subject’s intricacies with an overly positive spin. Show the good and the not-so-good. “A good profile pulls back, even if it’s only gently, the screen that the wizard is standing behind,” says Clark. “We all show a ‘public face,’ and we wear different kinds of masks. One of the things that an unmasking can do in a profile is to reveal a much more human figure, a much more complex figure than people know.” For example, Gene Weingarten digs into the Great Zucchini’s public records and trails him on the job and off to reveal him as a beloved children’s performer whose childlike nature extends into his entire life as he neglects to do his laundry or pay his bills.
* Think Like You
To write a profile that grabs readers, think about what makes you fascinating: Is it the fact that you were born in Tulsa in 1968 and majored in American Studies in college — or the fact that you eat peanut butter and cheddar cheese sandwiches for lunch and were once accused of cheating at the national thumb wrestling competition? Use details like these to make your subject come to life on the page — and soon you’ll be a profile pro.
Dr. Seuss: Wild Orchestrator of Plausible Nonsense for Kids
By Cynthia Gorney
The Washington Post, May 21, 1979
Find it here: America’s Best Newspaper Writing: A Collection of ASNE Prizewinners, edited by Roy Peter Clark (Bedford/St. Martins, 2001)
Newshound: The triumphs, travels, and movable feasts of R. W. Apple, Jr.
By Calvin Trillin
The New Yorker, September 29, 2003
Find it here: www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/030929fa_fact1
The Peekaboo Paradox: The strange secrets of humor, fear and a guy who makes big money making little people laugh
By Gene Weingarten
The Washington Post, January 22, 2006
Frank Sinatra Has a Cold
By Gay Talese
Esquire, April 1966
Find it here: The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits and Encounters by Gay Talese (Walker & Company, 2003)
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Apr 12, 2010 Writing