Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by John Rains
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A rule: If you set out to do a profile on a living saint, don't waste space quoting five people telling us that the subject is a saint. Instead, show us the subject doing saintly things.
That is one of the key techniques for making profiles or any story come to vivid life -- showing, with a minimum of telling.
Make Time for Solid Reporting
A profile starts, as most good writing does, with reporting. Pretty writing, dazzling writing, cannot substitute for solid reporting.
The first consideration, then, is to try to get time for the reporting. Spend time interviewing the subject and people who know him; spend time observing the subject. It is unrealistic to expect to write a first-class profile based on one interview with a person. Try to get at least one interview outside of the person's own turf. Get him away from the office. (Granted, sometimes circumstances allow only a single interview under less than optimal conditions!)
Use that time well. Your reporting ought to go beyond the routine questions. You should have more in your notebook than facts and quotes. You should have details about the setting, the person's appearance, mannerisms, your impressions, anecdotes. You should end up with a wealth of material to work with. Some of it, maybe a lot of it, you will discard in the writing. However, if you have a lot of material, you have a greater possibility of finding the details that will be useful. It is hard sometimes to sort out the good stuff from the dross, but not nearly as hard as trying to flesh out a story when you have too little material.
Expand Your Focus
When you set out to write a profile, don't focus too narrowly on whatever made the person worth a profile. If you are profiling a business executive, remember that he has a life outside the office. Find out about it.
You need to do some prospecting. You could make up a list of categories to explore in your reporting. Such a list might look something like this:
You probably will not end up writing exhaustively about all of these areas of a person's life -- unless you are writing a book. But you shouldn't neglect them when you do the reporting. The more you know about the subject, the more confidently you can write, and the better your chance of drawing a well-rounded portrait. And there is a purely practical consideration, too -- the more you learn, the less chance of being embarrassed after the profile appears and somebody calls up to ask why you didn't tell people about the time old Joe got arrested.
Use Evergreen Questions
Evergreen questions are simple questions that can be used over and over to get people to open up. You could make a list of almost any length of such questions. Some examples:
You could easily list 25 or 30 evergreen questions, and you should. They come in handy not only for profiles, but also for other stories.
This doesn't mean, of course, that you will go methodically through the whole list when you interview someone. The idea is that, in the course of interviewing, you can pick a question that seems appropriate or that might help restart a flagging conversation. Evergreen questions can turn up information you might not otherwise get. They can get a person to talking and telling you something real instead of telling you what the person thinks would be nice to say.
Writing the Profile
Once you've done the research outlined in the previous issue, it's time to write the profile. A profile can take a number of forms -- it can be short or long; it may be a narrative story, or a day-in-the-life. However you choose to structure a profile, try for a high-octane beginning. With a profile, perhaps more than with many other kinds of stories, we need to give readers a reason to stay with us. Unless we are profiling a celebrity, many readers won't care unless we grab their interest early. And once we grab it, we have to work to keep it.
Whatever the form, a profile should do one thing well: It should give the reader a feeling that he knows the subject as a person, a three-dimensional human being instead of a cardboard figure. Ideally, the reader should find surprises. Even the reader who is close to the profile subject should come away knowing something he didn't know before. Sometimes this can be accomplished directly through another one of those evergreen questions: "What would surprise people who think they know you well?"
More often, it emerges from laborious reporting. Remember that personalities are often a bundle of complications and contradictions. Nothing would be more boring than writing about someone who was totally predictable -- if such a person exists.
Powers and Perils of Description
Think about how we know a person. We first judge people by our first impression: What they look like. Then we come to know them by how they act, what they do, what they say and how they say it.
That's exactly how we let readers get to know the profile subject. We show the character through appearance, mannerisms, quirks and eccentricities, acts, what he says. All of this comes under the broad term "descriptive writing." This is more than mere physical description; it blends physical description with many other details.
Here are some pitfalls many writers fall into in descriptive writing:
In a profile, description and character revelation can be used throughout the story -- provided, again, that it is blended in smoothly, not used haphazardly. A good technique is to use a sentence or two of character portrayal early on, high in the story. Soon after the character is introduced, the reader needs to start getting a sense of his personality. This, again, parallels real life. If you introduce someone to a friend, you provide the person's name and explain where the person is from and a little more -- something that gives them both a bit of common ground, so they can get to know each other. This idea works in profiling people. The more intimately we know the subject, the more we understand him, and the more interesting he is. We needn't expect a profile subject to bare his soul in print, although people will tell the most amazing things about themselves. But if you don't get beyond superficialities, the profile is never going to amount to much.
This business of descriptive writing is terribly important, not only for profiles but for all kinds of stories. And descriptive writing is a skill that many writers, especially newspaper writers, don't develop fully. For those who want to learn more, start with a couple of books: Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan and Description by Monica Woods.
Settings and Feelings
Let's move on to some other elements that enhance profiles.
One is setting. Eudora Welty said you can't write a story that happens nowhere. Profile subjects don't live lives that happen nowhere. They live in specific times and places, in particular social environments, and the story should reflect that. Much of what has been said about describing people applies to establishing sense of place in profiles: Use concrete, specific details. Again, we're talking about more than mere physical detail. Setting involves atmosphere, emotional associations, heritage.
Speaking of emotion, that is another element that should be present in profiles. We all have emotional lives. Things hurt us, sadden us, scare us, depress us. Things make us happy, bring us joy, make us laugh. At least some of this ought to show up in a good profile. That is not to suggest that we engage in some sort of emotional voyeurism or heavy melodrama. But a profile with the approximate emotional content of a turnip is a profile people won't want to read.
What else does a profile need?
One thing is change of distance. Think of a camera. In your story, the perspective should shift, just as it does with the camera in a movie. Move the camera in to show us a closeup of the subject.
Humor is another element that ought to be used when it can be done without being forced. If the profile subject has a good sense of humor, you're in luck. Take advantage of it. Sometimes there are opportunities for humor even when the subject isn't especially witty. An illustration comes from a profile about a judge. The judge seemed to be a pretty sober sort of person. In the middle of the profile, howver, the writer had an anecdote about the man making a slip as he was presiding over one of his first cases. The judge forgot that he was no longer acting as counsel, and when one of the lawyers said something out of bounds, the judge blurted "I object!" It was a neat little anecdote and it brightened the whole piece.
Every profile of any length at all should have a couple of anecdotes, whether they are amusing or not. What exactly is an anecdote? It is simply a short story, something that happened. Good ones can often be told in a couple of paragraphs, or even a single paragraph.
Good anecdotes are little gems that can serve any of several purposes. They can reveal character. They can provide a change of pace. They can drive home a point, illuminate a theme, deepen the reader's understanding. They can be funny or poignant or ironic. They tend to stick in readers' minds, which is reason enough to use them.
Another element that can help make a profile more compelling is a scene. Not a static view. We are talking about scenes in the narrative sense -- an action happening in a simulation of real time. Again, think of a movie camera, or a play. A scene has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. It shows the character doing something or having something happen to him. Sometimes a profile might open with a narrative scene. The reader meets the character right in the middle of something happening. But a scene might happen anywhere in a story.
Creating a Profile Sheet
One more suggestion on writing profiles. Make up a profile or character sheet. On it, list the areas we have been talking about here: roots, education, family, work, civic life, military experiences, etc. One thing you might put at the top of the sheet is a line labeled "first impression" -- what is your subjective reaction on meeting the subject? Add any other categories that you think might be helpful.
A profile sheet can help you remember to deepen and broaden your reporting. It can help you sort out your perspective when you start to write.
The idea of profile sheets was stolen from novelists. Some novelists use such sheets for all the main characters to make sure they keep the story consistent and to help make the character "real." It works for fictional characters and we can adapt the idea to work for real characters as well.
Try a little experiment. Find a profile you like and get yourself a handful of highlighters. Assign colors to different elements. Go through and highlight such things as humor, emotional detail, anecdotes, sensory details. See what kind of color patterns you get. It's a good bet that you'll find a rich mosaic.
Every story, every profile, will be different. Not every profile will use every one of the possible ingredients that you could add, and certainly they will not use them in the same proportions. One profile might be lighter or heavier on humor than another, or on some other quality. But these elements have been proven by good writers. If you think about them and learn to use them, your profiles will be richer and more satisfying to write -- and more satisfying to read.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
John Rains is a newspaper writing coach in North Carolina and has self-published three books: Shooting Straight in the Media/A Firearms Guide for Writers, Writing Beyond the Routine/For More Readable Newspapers, and Write Your Way into the Papers.