By Lori Russell
A great profile begins with an idea. It can be a topic (renewable energy, women traveling solo) or a person’s occupation (glass blower, female pilot in World War II) or an experience in someone’s life (walking the Pacific Crest Trail, recovering from a life-threatening accident or illness).
Here are three ways to take a general idea and shape it into one you can write about:
1. Narrow your focus. Profiles can put a face on a larger issue. By selecting one person who has built a “green home,” you can address how that person sees the issue of renewable and sustainable energy.
2. Turn your ignorance about a subject to your advantage. Act as the interested observer rather than the expert, and use what you find out when you write the story. But don’t forget to keep the audience in mind. For instance, readers of a general interest magazine do not need to know the chemical composition of the glaze a potter uses. The story and the potter is more interesting when you explain that she knows because she holds doctorates in both mathematics and chemistry.
3. Change your intended audience. How is a topic of national interest being handled by someone locally? Does a business in your region have national interest? Changing your intended audience changes the way you write the story.
For ideas, look at your daily newspaper, national publications, and those of your local college, hospital, and businesses. If you have a platform already, don’t limit yourself to just the publications in your area of interest. Listen to the stories of your friends, neighbors, relatives, coworkers, and members of your professional organizations. What are their life experiences, previous jobs, hobbies?
Once you have narrowed your idea to a story that you can write, don’t write it yet. Editors rarely, if ever, buy a completed and unsolicited profile article. Most assign a writer an article after receiving a well-written, well thought-out query letter that explains why the idea is perfect for the publication at the time, and why the writer is the perfect person to write it.
In preparation for writing your query, look at the profiles in the publications you would like to write for. What type of hook do they use? Is the writing style formal or casual? If your profile idea looks like a good fit, review the writer’s guidelines and editorial calendar. Focus on the ideas that you can turn into profiles that someone else will publish. Return the rest to your file until the right time/publication comes along.
This month, review some publications that print profiles you like to read. Pick two. Jot down anything you notice about the articles’ length, style, and format. Pick two topics or subjects you might profile for this publication. Then get ready to query.
Lori Russell has written profiles about people, their passions and their places for more than a decade. Her nonfiction articles have been published online and in magazines and newspapers around the country. She is a contributing editor for Columbia Gorge Magazine, a regular contributor to Ruralite magazine and has co-written the “In the Spotlight’ column for WOTR for the past two years. She is currently enjoying a writing residency teaching memoir writing to high school students through Columbia Gorge Arts in Education, an organization that brings professional writers and artists to the public schools.