A profile is a feature with one very pivotal point and focus—a certain individual who is noteworthy or exemplary in some way. Your readers want to know as much about him as possible. But they don't want the surface stuff, information that's available in untold other articles about him. They want something new. They want something intriguing. And so do the editors who will consider buying your work.
Mastering that art and learning how to write a good profile article can translate into a great new skill for freelance writers, but even seasoned journalists can sometimes have trouble with them. Anyone can benefit from brushing up on the basics because these are among the main types of pieces published in magazines and newspapers.
The Nuts and Bolts of a Profile Article
The person or subject of this type of article typically fits into a special niche of the magazine or has a new program or product to promote. Generally, her achievements, background, and personality are the focus of the article. So how do you get her personality and voice to come through in your writing? As with all types of writing, it can be a bit tricky, but you can follow some prescribed steps and refine them to your own style.
This method not only builds the article around your subject's voice, but it also tends to get from transcript to rough draft fairly quickly—a real bonus when time is money.
Interview Your Subject
First, you must deal with conducting the actual interview. You can't write an article, much less a profile piece, if you don't have all the underlying information.
You'll wrap up your interview either with a set of notes or a sound recording, but preferably both. It's usually a bad idea to rely entirely on written notes, particularly in this day and age when you don't have to. You're likely to miss telling voice tones and possibly inferences if you're so busy scribbling everything down that you're not really listening.
Not only that, but you're not engaging your target either. You're busy jotting down the information you think you need—today, right now, before you've really begun fleshing out your profile. If you're really listening to your subject as he speaks, you might be surprised at the questions that pop into your mind as you go along. If you're curious about his answers, the odds are strong that your readers will be as well. Stay on your toes.
If you do take written notes, be sure to tidy up them up and double check any special spellings or names while the interview and the interviewee are still fresh in your mind. Otherwise, commit the entire interview to a recording. Then you can sit down later and listen and transcribe what was said. And you'll always have the recording to refer back to if you later have questions.
Organize Your Data
If you use a recording device, you might want to consider hiring a transcriptionist to put the recording into writing for you. They're surprisingly affordable, and you can deduct the cost as a business expense come tax time. But some writers are actually fleet enough of fingers to do this themselves, and it can be beneficial.
Make a one-time, tax-deductible purchase of a dictation recorder and machine, the kind that is used in offices all over the country. Transfer the recording to tape, pop the tape into the machine, and begin typing with a handy little foot pedal that lets you pause the recording when you need to catch up.
This can be a worthwhile purchase if you do a lot of writing that involves interviews. And here's the bonus. When you hit periods of conversation that really don't contribute anything to your profile, you can fast-forward right through them. You'll still have them there on tape if you want to go back to them later, but, again, time is money. Don't waste yours typing words of dialogue you'll never use, or highlighting numerous pages of a transcript you had someone else type for you word for word.
You'll want to limit this period of lag time to a day or two at most, however. You risk losing your gut impressions and instincts—not to mention your motivation—if too much time passes between the interview and when you begin actually writing. And you don't want to wake up yawning one morning to realize that the finished product is due today and you haven't even gotten past this step yet. But you know that already, right? Freelancing for a living requires superhuman discipline.
Review the Transcript
Now it's time to review your transcript or notes. Identify broad subjects that stick out to you. Are there any recurring items, events, or ideas that this person seems to keep going back to? Is anything mentioned twice, three times, or with great passion? Try to gather at least three to five broad subjects from this first reading.
In a perfect world, your interview subject left the door open, and you can go back with a quick phone call to clarify these high points or get additional information.
Narrow Your Focus
Narrow down these broad items. This is a good time to reread the assignment from your editor or, if you're working on something you've pitched to an editor, read over your own pitch. If you haven't even pitched the idea or if you're just flying with this, go back to your original notes.
Was a particular, specific slant mentioned anywhere, such as concentration on the subject's recent accomplishments or promotion of a certain service? Compare your broad subjects to any research on the person that you might have done even before the interview took place. Compare them to your editor's directives or to your own goals. Pull out and refine these broad subject areas and place them temporarily in your transcript as your subheads. You can rename them to catchy subhead titles now, or you can wait until you have a finished product so you can be sure the subheads really grab the gist of the subject area.
Cut and Paste
Use your word processing program's cut-and-paste function to pull the interviewee's quotes about each topic into the appropriate subhead area. Of course, this is easiest if you transcribed the interview recording yourself, but plenty of software programs out there let you scan and edit a transcript typed by someone else if you didn't receive it in a word processor file.
Now you're pulling the subject's words out of the chronological order in which he spoke them, but that's OK. In fact, it's ideal. You're not just rewriting what he said. You're writing a profile.
It's not necessary to pull whole paragraphs. At this point, you'll have a feeling for the direction that your article is taking. Get the best quotes sorted and just leave the rest for future reference.
Practice Your Craft
By now you should have three to five subtitles, depending on your target length, and some great quotes about each of those topics. It's time to tell your readers why all the subtitles are important.
Use transitional phrasing, such as "Mr. Blank agrees..." or "Ms. SoAndSo makes this clear when she..." to move into your subject's quotes. Finish out the paragraph, subtitle, or idea with more research or exposition, and wrap it up or transition it to the next subtitle.
Write Your Introduction
Write the introduction. This step depends on your own writing style and preferences.
Many writers prefer to do this first before fleshing out their subtitles. It can establish some internal guidelines for the subtitles and help you get things sorted out in your own mind as to where you're going with this story. But whether you do it before or after you flesh out your subtitles, introduce the subject, her history, and the background of your piece. The introduction should reflect on the article in general, and it should also frame the interviewee in some way.
Now wrap things up with your conclusion. It often alludes back to the introduction or some interesting part of the interview. You can also use it to give a look ahead to the interviewee's future plans.
No, you're not done yet. Now reread. Revise. Rewrite. And repeat.
Tips From Start to Finish
- Conduct research on your subject prior to interviewing.
- Follow your editor's specifications and listen to that person's take on the interviewee's interest points.
- Allow yourself a day or two after the rough draft before editing, if possible.
- Be aware of the word count assigned as you're writing and make edits, if necessary.