How To Write A Profile Story
Find someone you think is interesting and newsworthy (someone who’s spending her summer doing something interesting, has overcome difficulties, has an unusual job or hobby, goes out of his way to help others, won a prestigious award, etc.).
Write about the person without stating any of your own opinions in the story. Use third person (he said, she did), with accurate quotes in the person’s own words. Try to capture a sense of the individual’s personality and mood.
Quote at least two other people who know the subject of your story well. Get an action photo of your subject – either take it yourself or get one from them. A list of sources and contact information is required.
Your story should be between 600 and 800 words, unless otherwise specified by your editor.
It is important that you begin work on this or any assignment immediately because it will take you several hours to conduct interviews and write a good story. Additionally, your sources may not be able to set aside time to interview, if you wait until the last moment.
Choosing a Topic for Your Story
Pick something newsworthy to many people, not just to you. Being in a sorority, doing community service, and playing the cello while working and maintaining a B-plus average is impressive. But it’s not newsworthy. Many students successfully juggle many tasks. However, if the same student was the only person to win a national award for community service or just got signed by a professional orchestra, that would be newsworthy. Similarly, being a member of a varsity sports team takes talent but it is not newsworthy. However, if the athlete set a school record for points scored or got drafted by a professional team, that’s newsworthy.
In addition, keep in mind: If another reporter has already published a story about your subject, s/he's not newsworthy. The person is old news. Choose someone else. Choose someone you have access to and whom you can interview (several times, if necessary). Make sure the person is OK with being written about in a story that may potentially be published. Avoid writing about close friends, significant others, family members and anyone who has authority over you (e.g., a boss, a professor, etc.). This is a conflict of interest. Don’t write about dead people – that’s an obituary, not a profile. Remember, you must be able to interview the person you are writing about. In addition, you will need at least two other sources.
How to Write a Profile Story
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 newspaper articles, no matter how much space is allotted for them. Reporters 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 resume 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. Reporters 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.
Click here to see examples of good profiles written by my former journalism students. All of these stories were eventually published in newspapers.
Follow these steps when working on your profile story:
1. BEFORE INTERVIEW
- Before you interview or write the story, think about your goal -- the type of story you want to write, the space you'll have to tell it in, where it'll be published, and who'll be reading it.
- Decide what your angle is: What is interesting or unusual about this person? What is this person's story?
- All of these things will affect the direction you take with your story (as well as how freely your subject talks with you
- Get background info: Do a LexisNexis search for old newspaper articles about your subject and/or do a Google search. Does the person have a personal website or a bio on his company’s website? Ask him to e-mail you his resume.
- You may find something interesting in the resume. For example, if you’re interviewing a teacher, you may find that your subject went to private, exclusive, costly schools all her life but has chosen to teach at a very poor school. What inspired this choice? Why is this rewarding for her? Or you may see that she has won awards in soccer in college, and you didn't know she was a former jock. Do your research before you show up!
- Talk to people who know them well (friends, coaches, coworkers, mentors, parents, siblings, even enemies). Get the correct spelling of names and their qualifications/titles.
2. SETTING UP INTERVIEW
- Assemble Tools: notepad, tape/digital recorder, camera, pens
- Test tape recorder
- Meet them at place they are comfortable but not too distracted. Meet at time they aren’t too busy
- Prepare questions to ask in advance. Group questions into categories.
3. AT INTERVIEW
- The point of an interview is to find out what is interesting about the other person and help them get comfortable talking to you so they'll spill the beans and do it in an interesting, quotable, clear way.
- The initial interview should focus on making the subject comfortable as well as getting general background information out of the way. The writer should try to make his subject as comfortable as possible. In some situations, the interviews should be held in neutral territory, but for some subjects the interview may go smoother is he is in a familiar atmosphere.
- Regardless of where the interview takes place, it should always begin with small talk - develop a rapport with the subject. And once you begin the official interview, start with the easy questions first to get them talking about themselves. Ask them if it’s OK to tape record them for accuracy. Thank them for their time and tell them the purpose of your interview.
- Come prepared with several questions, but be let a natural conversation develop. A reporter's biggest mistake is either to go into an interview with no questions or to go into an interview with a list of question and not deviate from the list.
- A good reporter begins an interview with a set of questions, but knows when to add impromptu questions that will get a subject to continue on a train of thought if it sounds interesting.
- Example: Reporter asks, "What was the goal of the fundraiser'?" Subject answers, "We wanted to make the club look good; no really the goal was to earn enough money to help build a new center for migrant worker education" Instead of skipping to the next question a good reporter follows up on the first part of that answer to find out if there was something behind it. "What did you mean that you wanted to make the club look good'?" the reporter asks next.
- Be conversational but let the source do most of the talking. Never supply or suggest an answer. Be patient and wait for it.
- Good reporting skills equal good observation and listening skills. If you don’t understand something, ask the person to explain. Underline or circle all names, ideas, etc you’re unsure of so you can double check them.
- A good reporter also spends a lot of time looking at the subject as well as the subject’s surroundings. It is a good idea to interview a person in their office, classroom or home if possible because a reporter will always learn more about person by watching him in his environment not yours.
- Notice details in the subject's environment, her personal habits, her appearance, etc.: Does she have knitting on a corner of her desk? Does she wear a locket every day; whose picture is inside? Does she have readily visible tattoos; if so, what's the story behind them? Does she roar up to work or school or wherever on a Harley every day, in a Mercedes, or in a hybrid electric/gas car? Does she flinch every time she sees someone toss a bit of trash on the ground?
- Closely observing the things a person does and doesn't do, the way the person acts and reacts, what the person surrounds himself/herself with -- these are all clues to what makes the person tick. Pay attention. Ask questions.
- Take notes even if you’re recording. Batteries die, tapes get misplaced or stolen, things happen. Your notes will provide a backup and save you time. Reviewing and transcribing your entire interview will take forever. Rather, keep notes, review them and figure out which quotes you want to use. Then go back and listen to the tape to make sure you quote them correctly.
- You have lots of options. You can ask your subject the standard background information just to get the routine stuff out of the way and then move on to other questions.
- If your subject doesn’t seem talkative or provides mostly “yes” and “no” responses, try prodding them a little. For example, if you ask him, “Do you like your job?” and he answers “yes,” follow up with “why do you like it?” If he responds, “Because it gives me a lot of free time,” follow up with, “What do you like to do in your free time and why do you enjoy doing it?”
- What follows are some of the many questions you may want to ask:
- Where did you go to college? What degrees do you have? What, if any, further degrees or certifications are you pursuing? Do you have any other special training that has prepared you for your career?
- Where have you worked before this job?
- What honors/awards have you received?
- Could you give some personal background (single/married, children, etc.)?
- Are you involved in any community organizations (charities, church, etc.)?
- What are your hobbies?
- Where did you grow up? Did you move around a lot? If yes, how did this affect you? If no, how did the stability of living in one place all your life affect you?
- Are there any political or social issues you feel passionately about?
Do you have a nickname?
- List your favorites (book, movie or play, quote, poem, website, type of food or individual dish, music genre, song, band or individual musician, perfume, clothing style or designer, etc.).
- Where have you traveled?
- Tell me about your current job (activity, whatever)? What attracted you to it?
- How do you break it down and handle everything?
- How do you keep a healthy work/life balance?
- What are your greatest stresses and what causes you the most anxiety in your life?
- What is most rewarding about your job; what makes it all worthwhile?
- What are the most critical problems faced by people in your field in this city/state/country? How do you think these problems should be handled?
- What's the hardest thing for you about being a _____? How do you address that?
- What comes easiest to you as a ______?
- Who was your favorite _______ and why?
- So far what's been your most embarrassing moment as a ________?
- What's the newest, freshest approach you are bringing to your job?
- What's the next skill or knowledge set you want to add to your repertoire to make you a better _________?
- Favorite weekend activity?
- What's your favorite funny story about yourself?
- Name one thing about yourself that most people don't know.
- List three misconceptions that people often have about you (and, if none, why).
- What's your life plan? What do you plan to have accomplished in five, 10, 20, and 50 years -- personally and/or professionally?
- What was your favorite toy (or game) as a child, and why?
- What makes you laugh?
- Best compliment you've ever received?
- Anything else you’d like to add?
- Did the person have a model or idol who they aspired to be as a youth?
- Did the person have specific goals as a youth? How did they go about achieving those goals?
- Who has helped them during their personal or professional career?
- Has there been a defining moment in that person's life that made them decide to take the direction in life that they did?
- Does the person have advice to offer people who are aspiring to be as successful as he/she?
- Tell me something about yourself that people might not readily know.
5. AT END
Thank them for their time and ask them if it’s OK for you to contact them again if they have questions. Ask them if there’s anyone else they should talk to about them. Give them a timeline for when you plan to write your story and where you hope to publish it, if you know. However, do not agree to show them your story before you publish it. Otherwise, you will be inviting censorship. If they ask why they can’t see your story before you submit it, you can explain that it’s impractical given your tight deadline and that your journalism professor prohibits it.
Reflect on the interview and try to list your main points of the story. What are the highlights? Jot down any ideas you have for writing the story. As soon as possible, rewrite your notes so they make sense to you. Use tape recorder to fill in gaps or clarify things. Contact source again to supply missing info.