Profile Blues

In my line of work, I write a lot of profiles. It seems like every time someone writes a check, I write a profile. Profiles can be fun, but they can also be frustrating. I enjoy the creative freedom, but mostly I  enjoy just sitting with a person, getting a feel for his or her character and quirks. A profile should reflect the whole person, warts and all. Often, I am asked to erase some of those warts, which takes a bit of the humanity away from the piece. Sometimes, I am asked to write about a person and, well, it takes a great deal of digging to find a good focus. That’s the trick to profiles, you don’t always have an event to center your piece around. Oh, dig deep enough and you’ll eventually find it, but that luxury isn’t always available on a tight deadline. Here are a few techniques I use to try and add some sauce to a profile, particularly those that need something more potent that salt or pepper:

  • Have a conversation about life, the universe and everything. Don’t just limit your interview questions to “How did you feel when that happened” or “What kind of impact did that have on you?” Ask them about their passions; get them energized about something. You may not get one drop of good material, but you will make your subject more comfortable with you, and that will get them to open up more.
  • Conduct secondary interviews. Talk to their teachers, friends, employers, parents, spouses, children, mechanics, baristas, personal trainers, hair stylists… anyone and everyone you can think of who knows your subject. Secondary interviews can give you great quotes and unexpected insights into your subject.
  • Find a related theme where you can connect their story to your audience’s lives. For example, if you are writing a profile of a master gardener for a home magazine, ask him or her about the toughest plant to grow. If you write for an alumni magazine, ask them which faculty member was their mentor and to describe his or her influence. Ask them about their favorite place on campus. Think about how your subject’s experience can benefit your audience’s lives. Whether they can inspire or provide insight, find that common thread and connect it securely.
  • Get in their habitat. If you are writing a profile for a yoga magazine, go to a class with your subject. If you are writing a profile on an IT guru, spend an afternoon shadowing them at work.

Sometimes a story just doesn’t have the legs you hoped it would, but that doesn’t mean it should be trashed. These are just a few ways that I try to get a profile story to jump off the page. These tips can help you paint a scene, using engaging prose to cover up any lack of content.

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