The Scoop on Writing Profile Articles: Anatomy of a Profile

Lori RussellBy Lori Russell

I am a curious person by nature and I love a good story. Give me a one-on-one conversation with someone and I’m in my element listening carefully and asking lots of questions. Most begin with “Would you tell me more about…” or “Why?”

Because people fascinate me, it is not surprising that when I began writing nonfiction, I was naturally drawn to profile articles. A profile article explores the background and character of a person, group or business. Whether the focus is on a news angle or a single aspect of the subject’s personal or professional life, a profile gives the reader a greater understanding of the subject through the lens of his or her personal interests, career, and educational and family background.

Some may call me a snoop, but my professional moniker as a profile writer gives me a legitimate reason to contact total strangers and ask them about their lives and their interests. Everyone has a story and profile writers help tell them to the world (or at least to the readers of the magazines and newspapers they write for). You can, too. Here’s the basic structure of a profile article:

Bait, hook, lead-whatever you call it
Your profile article starts with an intriguing beginning that draws your reader into your story. Like with good fiction, a profile lead grabs the action and puts the reader in the middle of it. It can be an anecdote, pure information, a description, a quote, a question or a comparison. The lead can flashback to what the person’s life or a business was like in the past or what is happening in the present.

Unlike news articles, profiles do not need to answer the standard questions of who, what, when, where, why, and how in the first paragraph. Also known as a “nut graf,” this paragraph explains who your article is about and why this person is interesting. In a profile, it is usually found following the lead.

Building a Great Body
The body of a profile article, whether organized thematically or chronologically, weaves background material with details and quotes. In a narrative profile, you may want to include comments from additional or secondary sources such as family, friends or colleagues. In the Q & A format, your interview is only with the subject.

Wrapping it up
Unlike news articles that conclude when all the info has been presented in an inverted pyramid form, profile articles-like essays and fiction-need closure. An easy way to wrap up is with a circular ending, which refers back to your lead or the article’s subject or thesis. Another easy way to end is with a descriptive scene or a summary statement. An interesting quote from your subject will leave his  voice in your readers’ heads long after they complete the article.

Subjects for profile articles are everywhere. This month as you move through your days, make a list of the interesting people you meet or already know. Then ask yourself: “What careers, hobbies or experiences do they have that others might want to know about?”

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. Learn more at Story Behind the Words, Lori’s new blog.

7 Responses to “The Scoop on Writing Profile Articles: Anatomy of a Profile”

  1. 1 Janet Fish February 8, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    Are you the Lori Russell who wrote the story “One Last Time” that was published in “If I had my life to live over”?

    I read that story years ago, and it touched me. A wonderfully written story. The copyright on the book is 1992. I just read the story again this week. It touched me even more deeply because in the ensuing years life has happened. My thought was, I’ve got to find that writer and read more!

    I didn’t know about this site “Writers on the Rise.” I will read your blogs and pass along the link to my friends.

    Janet Fish

  2. 2 Lori Russell February 16, 2009 at 7:08 pm

    Hi Janet,
    Yes! I am the author of “One Last Time”. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Must be a bit of synchronicity that you reread it recently. Last week, I shared with students in a writing class that it was my first published short story and that the experience really gave me confidence to keep going. And here I am 17 years later still growing.

  3. 3 redkinoko May 11, 2009 at 2:37 am

    Thank you for writing this. I’m going to be writing my first profile article in a few days and this has been of great help. 🙂

  4. 4 sonia August 11, 2009 at 9:37 am

    hey… i was just keen to know that while writing a profile are you suppose to focus on the entire life of the person (like a mini biography) on the whole. or can you focus on one aspect of his life and write about it…


  5. 5 Lori Russell August 11, 2009 at 5:21 pm

    Hi Sonia,
    Good question. It is best to first determine the angle or aspect of the person’s life you want to focus on. This is usually based on the publication you are pitching or writing for. Then choose only the details about their background that are relevant to your angle.

    If your subject rescues animals and you are writing for a pet publication, then details about where she was born, the number of children she was, etc. aren’t relevant. Details about how he/she started rescuing and some background about experience with animals is. If you are writing for a regional publication, then the subject’s ties to a certain geographical area are important to include.

    Check out the rest of the blogs on this topic and you’ll see how to focus your profile from your query letter and through to the final draft.

  6. 6 Debbie September 28, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    I’m writing my first profile for Journalism class. I have interviewed the subject (what an interesting lady, I wouldn’t mind writing a book about her), but I find I have too much info, since the assignment only calls for 250 to 500 words. I am not sure what to leave in or out, but your article has helped me focus more. Thanks!

  1. 1 Writing Profiles Articles « Words into Print Trackback on February 19, 2009 at 2:48 am
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