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Procedures, Perks and Pitfalls of Profile Writing
by Shirley Byers Lalonde

Return to Targeting Topical Markets · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

"A profile?" Are you saying you want to draw a picture of me?" The knife maker was puzzled. "I thought you were a writer." He wasn't wrong. I did want to draw a picture of him. A word picture. Just as the artist's profile shows one view of the subject's face, the writer's profile shows one view of the subject's life.

A profile can be as short as 500 words and rarely exceeds 3,000 words, with 800 to 1,000 probably being the most popular length.

Subjects for profiles are everywhere. And so are the markets. A cursory perusal of a recent "Writers Market" reveals twenty-three types of magazines that accept profiles -- everything from retirement to religious to regional, from historical to hobby to humor. You'll find markets for profiles in in-flight, nature, photography, literary, and little magazines. There's even a fingernail magazine clamoring for profiles.

Procedures

Check out all the facts. If your subject tells you she's the only tree surgeon in the city, you'd better make sure that's true or you and your editor could spend the next month reading and responding to indignant letters from slighted tree surgeons. Bear in mind that while facts are facts, they are almost always open to interpretation. The tree surgeon says she can "operate" on twelve trees in an eight-hour day. You're impressed. But before you inject that awe into a sentence or a headline, you'd better ask around. Is twelve trees a day an astounding amount? I don't know. (I don't even know if they call it operating.) But if you're going to write the profile, it's your business to find out.

A profile is the story of one person, sometimes two, or even a group who are engaged in a common endeavor. Besides interviewing the people you're profiling, consider talking to others, and do all the background reading that you can. For example, I wrote a profile on two women in what until recently has been a primarily male-dominated field. They are funeral directors.

Besides interviewing Sally and Rosemarie, I talked to several other people, including the president of the provincial association for funeral directors, a woman who belonged to a religion in which preparation for burial is carried out chiefly by the women of the congregation, Sally's boss, and various people who had dealt personally with Sally and Rosemarie. I also spent some time at the library researching the history of the profession. While the experiences and feelings of Sally and Rosemarie provided the main thrust of the story, the profile wouldn't have been complete without the background and texture provided by the other interviews and research.

When you've gathered all your information, you can begin to write the profile. Use the 5 W's of news: Who, What, Where, When and Why. It's not imperative that you get it all into the first sentence, but try to let the reader know fairly early on who this person is, what they do, where they do it, how long they've been doing it, and why. Listen for the feelings behind the facts and watch for the quotable quotes. Let people tell their own story, with you as the gentle editor.

Perks

Payment for profiles varies from around $25 in the small town weeklies to four figures in a very few, very exclusive markets. While I will never be one to underrate the importance of payment, however -- I am trying to make a living at this game, after all -- there are other pluses to profile writing. Perhaps the best is that you get to meet interesting people. For example, when I was a little girl there was a perfect swimming hole within a couple of miles of our home, a river with a shale bottom. Years later I was astounded to learn that prehistoric sharks, crocodiles, and Loch Ness look-alikes had once frolicked in that same swimming hole 93 million years ago when the it was all part of a huge, inland sea. A local farmer, a gentleman I'd known all my life, had made the first fossil discoveries -- prehistoric shark teeth. I had a lovely chat with Dickson, the retired farmer, and the profile "And on His Farm he Had Some Sharks' Teeth" was born.

Some of your profile subjects will be saleable in more than one market. I sold profiles on a young mom who wrote and published a farm safety coloring book to a daily newspaper, a weekly newspaper, a regional magazine, and a national farm newspaper.

I've also used material gleaned from profile interviews in my fiction writing. Remember that knife maker? What an interesting occupation for a cameo character in a novel. A silk screen artist gave me enough material on her craft to create a setting I might someday use in a short story. Material from the funeral directors might end up in a mystery, and so on. It's all grist for the mill.

Pitfalls

But there are pitfalls to profile writing. For example, be careful of accepting gratuities. Profiles can be helpful to the subject's career, business, or self-estteem, and they may want to thank you. Sometimes they'll want to pay you. You can't let that happen. On the other hand, if the profilee sees you downtown and wants to buy you coffee, I see nothing wrong with that. When in doubt, I ask myself how I would feel if the "thank you" appeared in tomorrow's headlines. "Grateful Tree Surgeon Buys Profiler Large Decaf and Blueberry Muffin" doesn't sound too corrupt.

Also, while it's important to keep an open eye and an open mind, be careful not to let yourself be led where you don't want to go. This happened to me recently.

I had landed an assignment to do an interview with a well known politician. I was fairly impressed with her but thought I could produce an unbiased profile. What I didn't realize was that I was dealing with a person skilled in "media management." She had her own agenda, her own causes to advance. Since they were causes I believed in and she was a skilled communicator, it was difficult for me to steer her away from those topics. I did the interview, I wrote the profile and it was acceptable, but not the best it could have been. Left to may own devices, without the questions my editor had specifically asked me to cover, I would have come out of that interview with little more than a public relations piece.

Yes, profiles are fairly easy to write. Yes, there are tons of markets. Yes, they can even be pleasantly profitable. But always, always be prepared.

Find Out More...

Crafting the Perfect Profile, by John Rains
http://www.writing-world.com/markets/rainsprofile.shtml

Interviewing American Artists for International Publications - Lawrence Schimel
http://www.writing-world.com/international/interviews.shtml

Six Tips for Writing Celebrity Profiles, by Kayleen Reusser
http://www.writing-world.com/markets/celebrities.shtml

Writing Mini-Profiles for Maximum Profit, by Lisa Beamer
http://www.writing-world.com/markets/profiles.shtml

Copyright © 2003 Shirley Byers Lalonde
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Shirley Byers Lalonde is a contributing editor for With magazine. She has written two books and her work appears in two anthologies. One of her earliest publications was a profile piece and they continue to comprise a large chunk of her work.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
All materials on this site are the property of their authors and may not be reprinted
without the author's written permission, unless otherwise indicated.
For more information please contact Moira Allen, Editor

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