Writing A Compelling Profile


By Dick Weiss


Well-drawn profiles of people in your community present a tremendous opportunity for beat reporters. Preparing a profile will have you networking and meeting people you might not otherwise encounter. It helps establish your authority as a beat writer - a reporter who knows and understands important people.


Making the case for more profiles in your newspaper:

  • More than any other medium, newspapers bring depth and a rich array of resources to the task. We can create open pages, draw on our best photographers, and use our web sites.
  • Profiles can be a kind of affirmation. We show people facing and overcoming obstacles. We look at what it takes and the kind of person you have to be to get something done.
  • Taken together profiles provide the measure of a community. Portraits of a ballplayer, a victim's rights advocate, a distinguished geneticist, a child genius, a civil rights figure, a congressman are like the dabs of color in a pointillist painting.

What kind of people do you choose? 

  • Celebrities are easiest. There is an intrinsic interest. The challenge is to learn something about them that people don't already know.
  • People of accomplishment. The challenge is to find the story behind the accomplishment. To write in scenes to show how difficult the task. To show what they had to give up to get where they wanted to go.
  • Unusual people. The challenge is to show how they're very much like the reader.
  • The audacious. People who are out there on a limb, shaking things up. The challenge: Why are they that way?

Framing the story

  • No matter how much space you have, a profile is not a biography. Each piece must have an underlying theme, a promise that the story will take you some where. Write two or three sentences that describe what the story is about and where it's going to go.
  • Get everything you can, but try to leave everything out that doesn't fit into the theme.
  • Finding the essence of the story is the most difficult, but also the most important thing you'll do. You're the cook. You have most of the ingredients from the store, but what you are you going to add to it from your own cupboard? The story is not just about the subject, but the way you see that subject.

Some Approaches

  • A day in the life. Follow your character as she's doing things. Describe the action then flashback in important moments in her life or provide biographical context for what she is doing.
  • Use a basic chronology. Start with the most interesting dramatic moment. Then flash back to where ever the story needs to start. Plot the piece like a movie. Somebody's got a problem - a complication. Your story promises a moment of insight and resolution.

Short Cuts

  • Follow someone for a day, but do your research ahead, reading clips, talking to their friends. Figure out how that day fits into the context of their lives.
  • Person in the news. Sometimes you don't even get a chance to interview the subject. In a sense pretend as if they've already died, Read up, talk to friends, develop a framework for explaining that person's impact on his friends, colleagues, the world. Test it with those who know the person.
  • Deal with one aspect. What's the deal with this CEO who's been married six times? Why does she think her latest husband is the cat's meow? What are Alan Greenspan's reading habits? What's he getting out of Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." Why is Paul Allen so passionate about space travel?

Other Key Points

  • Push the story in a direction where the subjects are reluctant to go.
  • Do due diligence; research your subject's background.
  • Prep your subjects. In a sense you're going to be stalking them. Give them a feel for how big an intrusion this will be in their lives.
  • Go over the story with your subject, which is not to say you should read it back word for word. See if your impressions - your take - is in sync with your subject's. It doesn't have line up exactly. But you need to be comfortable with the differences. Nothing should blindside your subject.