Guide for Writing Journalism Profiles
*This guide for writing journalism profiles was written by Carly Bossert, a former Writing Center Consultant in fulfillment of an assignment for Topics in Composition, the Writing Center staff development course. The first section of this guide provides a summary of what a journalism profile consists of, and the second section consists of a sample journalism profile.
Profiles teach the fundamentals of journalistic techniques. In the end, new is about people, and profiles are just intensive and extensive looks at newsworthy people. It is just up to the writer to find the newsworthiness in their subjects.
For most articles, the fact that a reader does not generally finish an article is a known factor. A profile, on the other hand, functions on the premise that the reader will want to learn the subject's story, and thus will read the entire article. Therefore, it is up to the writer to find an interesting key element that can tie the entire story together into one coherent piece of journalism. Writers have to capably set the scene as well as create a hook, lead, which will keep the reader throughout the entire story.
However, profiles allow more leniency - writers can take a very different approach and be more creative in their leads. Since it is expected that the reader will stick with the article to the end, the writer can take more time setting the scene and unraveling the story. They do this through extensive use of quotes. The essential element to a 'good' profile is using an abundance of quotes from the subject. "Whatever form of nonfiction you write, it will come alive in proportion to the number of 'quotes' you can weave into it as you go along." i A profile differ from other types of stories in that generally one source is sufficient. However, sometimes in order for a story to be thoroughly told, other sources should be included.
Quotes are key to profiles. Use them throughout the entire story, but back them up with facts. They will add ease to transitions. In a sense, it is the subject writing the article. The journalist is merely transcribing the story. Let them tell it. "Get people talking. Learn to ask questions that will elicit answers about what is most interesting or vivid in their lives. Nothing so animates writing as someone telling what he thinks or what he does - in his own words." ii
Because a profile cannot be complete without quotes - there is no way to write a profile without extensive interviewing. Frequently, more than one interview is necessary unless the writer already knows his subject well. Every writer should go to interviews prepared with a writing utensil and a notepad. "Keep your notebook out of sight until you need it. There's nothing less likely to relax a person than the arrival of a stranger with a stenographer's pad." iii
Additionally, come with a set of questions developed ahead of time. But, it is also important to be flexible; be sure not to stick to the preset questions too rigidly or a potential hook might be lost. It is unlikely that the writer will successfully predict each and every one of the subject's responses. Therefore, it is a good idea to consider his responses in the formation of additional questions.
The initial interview should focus on making the subject comfortable as well as getting general background information out of the way. The writer should try to make his subject as comfortable as possible. In some situations, the interviews should be held in neutral territory, but for some subjects the interview may go smoother is he is in a familiar atmosphere. Regardless of where the interview takes place, it should always begin with small talk - develop a rapport with the subject. "Take an while just to chat, gauging what sort of person you are dealing with, getting him or her to trust you." iv Do not jump right into the questions; it will seem more like an interrogation than an interview. By chatting with the subject on topics unrelated to the interview, he will be put at ease.
The journalist should also be aware of body language. Sit in a relaxed posture, but be sure to appear intent on what the subject is saying. Do not focus too much on taking notes. Be aware of what he is saying and write down as much as is possible but do not ignore the subject for sake of getting everything written down verbatim. If the subject is talking too fast, ask him to slow down. Someone would rather be asked to slow down than be misquoted because he was talking too fast.
Some journalists tape-record their interviews. If the deadline is short, tape recording may be a wasted effort - it takes far too long to listen to tapes and transcribe the conversation to written text. However, if the subject's dialect, syntax, or speech patterns need to be included in the story for content's sake, it may be a wise choice to record the conversations. Always make the presence of the tape recorder apparent, and receive the subject's permission to record the interview.
There are other issues that make a tape-recorder more of a nuisance than an asset. It may turn out that "educated people who you think have been talking into you tape recorder with linear precision turn out to have been stumbling so aimlessly over sands of language that they haven't completed a single decent sentence." v The listener's ear make automatic allowances for mistakes. Additionally, the presence of a tape-recorder turn a writer into a listener. They become focused on finding the perfect quote they know is on the tape somewhere, that they never get any words on paper.
Once enough time has been spent with the subject of the profile, the writer should whittle the notes down, try to find a single story to tie them together or piece them together in a coherent order. It is permissible to splice quotes together and rework some as indirect quotes. As long as two quotes are related, it is okay to up them together, even if they took place at distinctly different points of the interviewing process. Don't use ellipses to tie ideas together. Be careful not to repeat the quotes in the introduction. For example, DO NOT write: "He said it was a nice day each Tuesday as he walked to the coffee shop." 'It was a lovely afternoon each Tuesday as I wen to the coffee shop,' said Smith.
If there is a possibility that a quote might misrepresent the subject or there is concern that it might be a misquote, contact the source and clarify the wording. As usual, it is better to be overly careful than wrong. "It is just not possible to write a competent interview without some juggling and eliding of quotes. What's wrong is to fabricate quotes or to surmise what someone might have said." vi
Profiles, while they may allow writers to disregard some elements of
the journalistic writing, still need to follow general guidelines. Quotes
should not include profanity, and the journalist has the right to 'clean
up' any quotes that may include incorrect grammar or word usage. Additionally,
all profiles should follow stylistic guidelines outlined in the Associated
Press Style Book. Stay true to the rule of always suing 'said' when using
a direct quote. "Don't make your man assert, aver, and expostulate just
to avoid repeating 'he said'." vii Always steer clear of writing 'he smiled'
or 'he laughed'. Smiles are not spoken words. The reader automatically
skips over the 'he said' so it is pointless to try and replace it.
The following is an example of a profile. While this profile does
a good job of outlining the personal history of the subject and adequately
displays the subject's 'newsworthiness', it does not allow quotes to carry
the majority of the story. The reader cannot get a sense of the subject's
voice. They get more of the writer's version of the story than the source's.
In 1997, Lisa Schlesinger submitted a play to the 10th Annual International Playwriting competition, sponsored by the British Broadcasting Company. Her submission, entitled Rock Ends Ahead, was selected from over 1,300 other plays for the first place in the competition. In 1998, the BBC produced the play for its network of radio shows. In all, Rock Ends Ahead was heard in sixty countries worldwide.
Three years later, Schlesinger is an instructor of rhetoric at Coe. This year she is teaching classes such as: Creative Writing, Reading Literature, and Seminar in Non-Western Literature.
To Schlesinger, writing is "an act of labor that has social and political implication...the classroom as a space of possibility." In order to help students share the best of themselves, she wants to give them "the tools and the confidence with which to voice those views." In doing so, she hopes to instill in them a critical awareness of the world around them. In her opinion, the most indispensable aspect of education is to help students "become more than they previously thought they might be."
Schlesinger hopes to "hone student's interpretive skills and facilitate the process of ideas and examining our ways of seeing, reading, and writing in terms of gender, class, and race...that students may begin to see different cultures not as mutually exclusive, but as part of a vibrant unsettling exchange of viewpoints."
According to some of her recent students, she as succeeded in doing just that. Several Coe students from the Advanced Writing Workshop Schlesinger taught last spring genuinely appreciate the atmosphere she presents in her classroom. "Her passion for writing was so apparent through her teaching methods, it became infectious," said fourth-year student Melodee Aune. Another student simply said, "She believed in my writing, now I do too."
Born in New York City, Schlesinger graduated from Hampshire College, in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in American Literature. In the fall of 1985, she was accepted to the prestigious Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, and over the next ten years, Schlesinger earned to master's degrees, one in fiction and another in theater arts.
Upon graduation in 1995, she took a job with the Henry A. Wallace Birthplace Foundation as a historian and dramatist. An Iowan, Wallace, was the vice-president under Franklin D. Roosevelt; the foundation focuses on preserving his legacy and hired Schlesinger to write plays for their acting troupe that visits various locations in Iowa with presentations based on the live of Wallace. Currently her play Hybrids and Ploughshares is touring with the Iowa Arts Council's Access to the Arts.
Throughout her career she has had the opportunity to live and work in various European countries such as Holland, Ireland, and Greece. She was the founding artistic director for two theaters, one in Dublin and one in Crete. Locally, she worked as the editor for the fiction and drama section of the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies from 1993 to 1995.
Over the years, she has taught both in Iowa and at her alma mater, Hampshire College. At Hampshire, Schlesinger taught courses in creative writing and dynamic scriptwriting. During her time at the University of Iowa, she taught courses in playwriting and playscript analysis. She also worked with the university's outreach and summer programs.
As a result of the BBC competition, Schlesinger was asked to write a second play for the network's radio productions. In December of 1999, the BBC produced Bow Echo. Schlesinger has also recently completed a play, written for the University of Arkansas, entitled Manny and the Chicken. She is currently working on another play for the BBC called Rift.
"Lisa Schlesinger, uses radio brilliantly, considering she hasn't written for the medium before," says a radio drama critic for the Evening Standard regarding her play that placed first place in the the British Broadcasting Company's 10th Annual International Playwriting Competition.
"Rocks Ends Ahead...was an automatic winner. You think you know what sort of play it is and where the action is going, but it confounds expectations...A combination of factors made it stand out: the unexpectedness of what takes place, the poetic quality of language, and the richness and originality of the characters," says director Andrew Jordan
Judges and critics agreed unanimously that Schlesinger's submission was
by far the strongest out of all her 1,300 competitors. Various acclaim
for her play includes praise such as: "Funny, lyrical and full of yearning
fantasy, it was luminously beautiful," and "A new writing star, bringing
economy of expression to an affecting, lyrical turn of phrase, has been
unearthed by the BBC."
i Zinsser, William. On Writing Well. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998, page 100-115.
This web site created and maintained by the Coe Writing Center. Copyright 2001.
E-mail Dr. Bob Marrs with any questions, comments or suggestions.