Writing great profiles means getting past the obvious facts

Sometimes the topic I am teaching about makes me want to be a student along with them and do the work. I want to write a great profile, a feature of consequence and I want it to be long. I want it to start on the front of the section and fill up the jump page (maybe even part of a second one).

A lot of news writers, I think, get that way. We write the daily stories and get energy from that. But sometimes you really want to do more. As I teach principles for writing profiles to Intro to Reporting students and principles for the bigger, in-depth feature to my Feature Writing class, I also learn. Things I have said over and over in class somehow have more meaning. And I want to refine those principles in my stories.

In Intro class today, we discussed getting the definition right before you start writing (even reporting) the profile.

  1. True profiles are not simply interviews. If you can convert it to a Q&A, it’s not a profile because it doesn’t get past the surface, the resume, the public perception.
  2. What is the plot or the central theme. The answer is not in the facts. You don’t get the answer from a Google search or a resume. You have to figure this out to write a great profile.
  3. Along with plot, you have to discover the person’s essence. What makes the person tick? What are the most important things a reader needs to know to truly understand this person? It’s about diving below the surface and finding the intangibles that are difficult to impossible to see from above.
  4. So how do you get answers to No. 2 and No. 3? Ask yourself what is this person’s obsession and what motivates them? Then you get to the real them.

These are four principles I learned from Judy Bolch, an author and journalism professor. She visited The Roanoke Times, where I worked from 1996 to 2009, and talked about writing profiles among other things. These principles helped me then and they still do.

My instructions on finding someone to profile are two-fold:

  1. If you choose your subject because of what they have accomplished, don’t make the focus on what they have accomplished. Dig deeper and tell me things about this person I would never know otherwise.
  2. Better yet, choose a person who lives an extraordinary, under-the-radar life and tell me how and why they do it. Introduce me to someone I don’t know and most, if not all, of your readers don’t know either.

I don’t want to write the great American novel, whatever that is. I just want to write something meaningful about someone who becomes meaningful to others. And that’s what I want my students to do.

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