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How to write a profile

A profile story is a portrait of a person in words. Like the best painted portraits, the best profiles capture the character, spirit and style of their subjects. They delve beneath the surface to look at what motivates people, what excites them, what makes them interesting. Good profiles get into the heart of the person and find out what makes them tick.

The problem is that lives are hard to fit into the space provided in an article. Storytellers who simply try to cram into a profile all the facts they can come up with inevitably end up with something more like a narrative version of a person’s resume rather than a journalism story.

Like all other stories, profiles must have an angle, a primary theme. That theme should be introduced in the lead, it should be explored and often it will be returned to at the end of the story. Something of a person’s character, spirit and style will then be revealed through that theme.

Whatever the theme, it takes a thorough understanding of a person’s life to create a revealing sketch of that life. Storytellers should spend time with their subjects while they’re doing whatever makes them newsworthy. For example, if you’re writing about a ballerina, try to observe her performing on stage or at least practicing in her dance studio.

Good profiles – and all good journalism stories – show, instead of telling. Use all five senses when you interview someone. What are they wearing? Do they fiddle nervously with their pencil? Is there a chocolate smudge on their shirt? Is their hair stylishly spiked?

Because a profile cannot be complete without quotes – there is no way to write a profile without extensive interviewing. Frequently, more than one interview is necessary unless the writer already knows his subject well. Good profiles also contain quotes from people who know the subject of your story well. Spice your story with the words of family, friends, enemies and the subjects themselves.

Finally, good profiles strike the appropriate tone.  Think about your profile – is it someone who is involved in a serious issue, like eating disorders? You probably want to be more serious in your tone. Is it someone playful – a comic book artist, perhaps? You can be more playful. But remember – your personal opinion is not appropriate. You are there to merely paint a picture of this person – to let the facts speak for themselves.

One of our next education pieces will be a step by step guide to profile writing so stay close.

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