Curious about how to write a profile story that people will want to read? Check out our guide and see how easy it can be to create a compelling article.
Have you ever looked at a painted portrait of someone and marveled at how clear the details were? A skilled portrait painter can make the picture look so real and three-dimensional that you can reach out and touch the person. A profile story is the same idea but with written words. It’s a written portrait of a person that shows why they’re interesting and worth reading about. They show a portion of a person’s life to show why they’re interesting; check out these examples of profile stories to get a better idea of what they are.
It’s not a bland, boring biography, though it does contain biographical details as background information. Rather, it’s a moving, emotional story about a person that also shows their personality profile. A great profile story is interesting to read, has some news angle that makes it worth reading, and tells the story of who the person is and why they’re remarkable.
A profile story is an important part of news journalism. The New York Times publishes a feature story on a person every single Saturday. These aren’t the typical news stories familiar to the publication but are profile stories. Profiles in Vogue or The New Yorker are essential to making a celebrity a household name. Profile stories are essential to branding, particularly for personal branding. These stories have power, but they must be written well to be successful. If you can write them well, you will be in higher demand as a freelance writer.
Step 1: Choose a Subject
You need a person to write about before you can write the first paragraph of your winning profile story. Though a skilled writer can make a story about just about anyone using the right questions and their overall writing skill, finding an interesting profile subject will make your job easier.
Look at Good Examples of Profile Stories
If you don’t have a subject in mind, take some time to read good examples of profile stories. This will give you an idea of the type of subject that works well for these pieces. Here are some excellent stories to consider:
- Most recent profile stories from The New Yorker
- “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof” from GQ
- “The Princess Myth: Hilary Mantel on Diana” from The Guardian
- “Pet Project” from Esquire
Choose Someone You Can Research
First, make sure you choose someone you can research. One option is to choose someone you know personally. The local shop owner of a favorite boutique store may not be a close personal friend, but if you’ve shopped there and interacted with her, she might be a good profile story candidate. If you don’t want to write about a personal friend or acquaintance, think about someone you could get access to. You will need to interview the person and observe them daily. This type of observation requires access.
Choose Someone of Interest
As you consider your subject, ensure the person is someone people want to read about. This doesn’t mean they need to be a headlining celebrity, but it does mean they should be someone of interest. Some examples of good subjects for a profile story include:
- A local celebrity or musician
- A well-known philanthropist
- A local business owner
- An online influencer
- Someone from a podcast
- Someone in the government or politics
- Someone who seems to be one thing but is another, like a quiet housewife who is a brilliant scientist
Be bold and choose an unexpected subject. For example, “Pet Project” in Esquire is a profile of Matt Nelson, a random internet celebrity who became famous for building the wildly popular WeRateDogs Twitter account and the resulting web empire. This person didn’t intend to become famous, and people were fascinated by his work. A person doesn’t need to be in the public eye to be an exciting subject. The key is to find an interesting angle to talk about.
Step 2: Research
You can’t write a great profile story if you don’t have sufficient research. Remember, your subject gives their valuable time when they agree to an interview for your profile story. You want to make that time worthwhile and walk into the interview with confidence that you have the right knowledge about them and the right questions to ask. Start your research before you even contact the person for an interview; you want to enter the interview with basic subject knowledge so your questions are relevant.
Start with the Website
The first place to start your research is the Internet. If the person you’re interviewing has an online presence, whether it’s a blog, website, or LinkedIn profile, research it thoroughly. Read their posts and words to understand them and what you can learn about the person’s story.
Read Other Related Content
After you’ve read everything from your subject that you can find, read what other people have to say about them. If there are newspaper articles or online publications about the person, read them all. Look for patterns, too. If information is repeated regularly, use that as a jumping-off point, but don’t focus too much on these in your feature article. You want your profile story to be as unique as possible.
As you research, take copious notes, more than you think you should. The goal is to understand the point of view of your subject before you even start interviewing and writing, so be as detailed as you can. Your notes may also help you find your news angle to use in your profile feature article, so take your time. In your notes, record any questions you have about the person that isn’t already discussed in the articles and stories you read. These questions could be the starting point for your work.
Step 3: Conduct Interviews
In most cases, a good profile will require an interview to get direct quotes that aren’t already shared elsewhere. The interview doesn’t have to be in person; you could conduct it via email. However, it would help if you interacted with the person to get a feel for their real-life story.
Prepare Your Questions
Be thorough as you prepare your questions for your interview. The research you gathered in Step 2 will help you, but go into the interview with a list of open-ended questions. If they can answer the question with “yes” or “no,” you won’t get much information from the answer. Instead of asking simple questions, ask leading questions like, “Can you tell me more about . . . “or “Why did you . . . ” ” These types of questions allow your subject to give you more details. They give you a better chance of getting the small details you need to create a well-rounded, unique story.
Let Them Talk
Your interview should be 90% your subject talking and 10% you asking the questions. Don’t interrupt, even if they are veering off-topic, because you might get some tidbits you weren’t expecting. Let the conversation grow a little if there is a pause. Sometimes this silence can encourage them to share more, resulting in a deeper and more meaningful conversation.
Record with Permission
You may want to ask permission to record the interview. You’ll forget details after it’s over, and you may not be able to write fast enough to get them all recorded. In addition, you might make mistakes in your notes that could lead to issues in your facts when you start writing your piece.
Observe Your Subject
While it’s technically not a part of interviewing, an important part of profile writing is observing your subject in their natural environment. You need to watch the musician practice or perform, see the business owner on the job, or notice the politician at a political rally. Your observations in these settings will help you tell the story more effectively.
Look for Quotes
As you interview, look for quotes you can weave into your piece. Have at least one stand-out quote for each of the main points in your piece. If something sounds particularly quote-worthy, ask follow-up questions after they have explained that particular topic.
Step 4: Organize Your Thoughts and Information
Any time you write, having organization to your writing is important. From starting with an angle to creating and relying on an outline, you will want to get and stay organized, and organization starts with your thoughts and information.
Create an Angle
You need an angle to your profile story. This angle is what sets it apart from a biographical piece. This angle should be something newsworthy or an overall theme. Everything you write needs to tie into that angle, serving as the foundation for your story.
Outline the Piece
An outline is an important part of any type of freelance writing, but it’s particularly valuable when writing a profile story. You should have a basic outline before your interviews and then a more robust one after the interviews. If a traditional outline doesn’t work for your writing style, consider using a storyboard to outline the beginning, middle and end.
Use Note Cards or a Note Taking App
Use paper note cards or a note-taking app to organize information. This will help you pull relevant facts or quotes to a particular part of your story when needed. It also ensures that you don’t lose facts that you forgot. Reorganize the notes into the structure you’ve created with your outline.
Structure the Story
A profile story is a non-fiction work, but it’s still a story. It needs a structured beginning, middle and end. Figure out which part of the story your quotes go in, putting at least one quote into each section. As you plan the structure, remember that the beginning and the ending are the most powerful parts, so spend some time planning here. As you plan the story, make a timeline.
You might walk through a person’s day or a snapshot of their life, but keep the timeline consistent. As you make your plan, remember that the average online profile story is only about 750 words, so you will need to write succinctly and you may need to limit some of the details you share. Pieces published in magazines or newspapers as feature articles will be longer.
Step 5: Write the Story
If you’ve done the first four steps well, the writing should be pretty simple. The key to writing a compelling profile is using the right writing style to tell a story, not just list and convey facts. Here’s how:
Title It Well
Your title needs to give your reader an idea of what you’re writing about and why. It should be catchy and tie into your profile story’s theme and structure. For example, in a GQ profile story on Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, author Caity Weaver uses the title “Dwayne Johnson for President!” This headline instantly draws in the reader and makes them curious about why the author would want the celebrity to become the president.
You will want to start the piece with a strong lede, the opening line and paragraph that captures the reader’s attention and interests them in the subject’s life. Once you’ve hooked them, lead them into the story’s beginning, middle and end using a narrative writing style. In her profile story on The Rock, Weaver introduces the big celebrity as everyone’s friend. She opens her article like this: “When Dwayne Johnson meets you (and I can assure you, he would love to), the first thing he will do is ask you six thousand questions about yourself, and remember the answers forever.”
Then she concludes this opening paragraph this way: “I’ve known the man for only two hours—and have been in his car now for only a few minutes, listening to the Dixie Chicks, headed to what he’s luxuriously described to me as his “private gym”—and already it’s apparent that I am Dwayne Johnson’s greatest friend in the entire world.” With this opening, she paints a picture of a friendly, gregarious celebrity who people want to know.
Use the Right Style
Profile stories require a narrative writing style filled with descriptive language. You’ll be using your words to paint a picture of your subject, so the tone and style you choose are vital. Show the reader who the subject is and what makes them tick, rather than simply telling them.
End your story in a way that conveys the character of your subject to the readers. Do not leave unanswered questions. Tie up all loose ends. Consider telling the reader what the subject will do next in their life, or leaving it somewhat abstract and open-ended, so the reader wants to learn more about the person. Ending with a quote can also be a powerful way to conclude your piece.
Step 6: Edit and Revise
Your work isn’t finished once you have a draft of your piece; you must spend some time editing and revising your story so it shines. In fact, good profile stories usually require a couple of edits to get the tone and facts right.
Start with Fact Checking
You need to fact-check everything you include in the piece; your profile story must be factually correct. Double-check that your information is accurate unless it’s a direct quote from the person.
Proofread Your Work
While editing your own words can be hard, thorough proofreading is important. Read through your piece to change anything confusing or grammatically incorrect. You can also use a grammar-checking tool like Grammarly to help make your profile article better.
Hire an Editor
Consider hiring a professional editor to review the piece to check all the grammar, spelling and punctuation. Professional editing is well worth the cost to create error-free work, and sometimes, it takes another person’s eyes to catch the errors you naturally overlook in your work. Ask your editor not only to check the grammar and spelling but also to look at the overall tone of the piece to ensure it aligns with your goals.
A Final Word on How to Write a Profile Story
A profile story is a powerful way to tell readers about a person in narrative form rather than biographical. These articles are quite popular in major publications. They are a human interest style piece that draws in the reader and makes them interested in learning more about a person. Writing profile stories can be a great way to expand your portfolio and give you more paid writing jobs, but this writing style has some challenges. You can find success by going through these steps, including interviewing and researching.
Are you ready to try your hand at writing a profile story? Check out our round-up of articles about examples of profile stories to learn more.
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