Sunday, November 23, 2008

Attempting to Master the Art of the Profile

Last year around this time, I was assigned one of my most challenging stories for The Washington Examiner: profiling a Virginia woman on her 100th birthday. I drove out to her house on a rainy morning the day before Thanksgiving, and spent two hours talking to her.

(My job was not made easier by the presence of the Examiner photographer who snapped away while she talked, making her visibly uncomfortable.)

When I got back to the office, I had pages and pages of notes about "Cornie" McGrath's life, and faced the difficult task of assembling them into a coherent narrative that didn't just go along the lines of she was born, she did this, she did that, she moved to Virginia, now she's 100.

With this in mind, I've been focusing on profile-writing in the first semester of journalism school. I have two in the works now, and recently finished one that I was able to use as a school assignment and a posting on Above The Law: Legal Profile: Nick 'Ultimate Fighting Lawyer' Thompson.

There seem to be a few tricks to writing profiles:
  • Research. Get background material to inform the questions you ask. Has the person been interviewed before? Has he written articles/books? Does she have a blog?
  • Extract an anecdote to provide color or insight into a person's character or story, and leading the piece with that.
  • Triangulation. It's tempting to write the profile based on one interview with the subject, and your impressions of the person. But it's best if you track down friends, colleagues, and other "experts" to lend insight and quotes to the piece.
  • Multiple interviews with your subject. Talk to him or her, then talk to others, then talk to him or her again. Try writing along the way to figure out what you've forgotten to ask about.
  • The phone just ain't as good. Interview your subject in person. If you can, follow your subject around for a few hours, or a day, to get a sense of how he or she interacts with others and how he or she behaves when not in "interview mode."
  • Creative narrative arc. Don't get stuck in a biographical/encyclopedic retelling of someone's life story, following the easy chronological path. (Write down everything, but figure out which details can be dropped. Most of the time, we probably don't need to know which high school he or she went to.)
Well, this was a form of procrastinating before tackling my current profile piece. Time to put the nose back to the grindstone.

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