Six Steps to Writing Compelling Profile Stories

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While most writers seem to specialize on one form of writing over others, such as short stories or marketing, there’s a lesser known type of business writing that’s worth looking into. That’s the personal profile.

A profile is a written portrait of a person. The profile is gleaned from research and interviews with the subject and perhaps other people who know that person well. It can be as long as 2,000 words or as brief as 500 words.

You’ve likely seen profiles in newspapers, magazines and websites, usually has a narrative non-fiction piece. I find profiles to be one of the most interesting things to read – and to write. People make interesting subjects because every person has a story to tell. That story can be about their time serving in the military, or going through a divorce or overcoming cancer. You can learn about their hopes, dreams, successes and failures. You can find out what they believe and what they value, and how they see the world.

The subject doesn’t have to be a celebrity or VIP either. They can be a parent who is fighting the city to save the local library from demolition. It could be a doctor who has decided to set up a clinic in an underserved community, or a formerly incarcerated woman who is starting her own business.

Profiles are one of the most enjoyable pieces I’ve written in my career. Most of the ones I’ve done required me to interview only the subject individual. Other lengthier, more detailed profiles include interviews with people who know the profile person well.

There are four things I learned from writing profiles:

  • Everyone has a story to share, something they’ve gone through that molded them into who they are today.
  • Profile subjects can inspire others to follow in their footsteps, or take their own leap of faith.
  • Profiles put you in touch with outstanding individuals who have achieved great things, sometimes against all odds.
  • There is a market for these types of stories. Sometimes entire magazines are devoted to profiles.

At first glance, profiles may seem simple to do, but the key is to create a clear, accurate picture of the person. Getting to the heart of their story isn’t always easy, but necessary. Here are the steps I take to write a profile. You can find other tips on Masterclass and The Write Life.

Step 1: Do research. Gather as much background information as you can about the person. Check their LinkedIn profile or other social media, read any articles that were written about them, and visit their website, which usually has an About Me page. Make notes of the key events in their life that you might want to include in the profile.

Step 2: Find an angle. As you sort through the background information and articles, notice if there’s a recurring trend. Or alternately, notice if an event has been glossed over. I recently worked on a profile about a quadriplegic fashion model. While most articles focused on her accident and her rise in the fashion world, I noticed the initiatives she was involved in that opened doors for other young women in wheelchairs to enjoy a career in fashion. That became the focus of my profile of her. The focus of the profile can be anything from their career, family life or contributions to the community.

Step 3: Draft an outline. Once you know what you want to focus on, draft an outline for the profile. The outline can help you determine what types of questions you need to ask. Then create a short list of questions to prepare for the interview.

Step 4: Schedule the interview. Some people are nervous about being interviewed, so make sure you put them at ease. It might help to make small talk at first so they feel more comfortable talking to you. I usually try to keep the interview brief, no more than 30 minutes, especially if it’s a short piece. It might also help to record the interview so you can go back to listen to it later in case you missed an important detail.  

Step 5: Draft the profile article. Integrate interview notes with the rest of your research material and begin writing. When the first draft is complete, let it rest for a few hours. Then begin editing and rewriting until it is clear and cohesive.

Step 6: Send the profile to the individual to review. I believe this step is especially helpful to make sure you’ve quoted the person accurately and the story is true. This way the person knows what the story will look like, and you get their approval before it gets published.

Once you get the person’s approval, make whatever changes they request, then submit it to the editor.

Writing personal profiles is one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a freelancer. It’s a satisfying feeling when you know that you’re helping people tell their stories.

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