The Scoop on Writing Profile Articles: Preparing for the Interview

Lori RussellBy Lori Russell

In March’s column, I discussed how to pitch an idea for a profile article to an appropriate publication with a query letter. Once the editor gives you the go ahead to write your profile article, what should you do next?

Before you schedule an interview with your subject, reread your query letter. It holds the key of how to research, interview and write your profile in a timely manner.

As writers, we are expected to be “instant experts” who know about a variety of topics and can explain them using original metaphors and flowing prose. To do that in a timely manner, you need a strategy so you don’t over or under research or write your article. Luckily, because of the work you did crafting your query letter (narrowing the focus of your topic, determining your angle, choosing your interview subject), you already have a great start.

When I wrote a profile on a couple who run a clinic teaching rural kids how to hunt wild turkeys, my angle focused on the efforts of 100 adult volunteers who teach children the basics of carrying on a hunting tradition in their community. Because I knew my angle and my audience’s familiarity (or lack there of) with the subject manner, I didn’t have to know how to a pattern a shotgun, delve into the specifics of turkey biology or be able to imitate the call of a hen to draw in a “tom.”

Familiarize yourself with the basics of your topic first and use the interview to get the color and quotes that come with talking with someone.

After you’ve found your information, copy all your notes into one notebook or computer file. Copying the information rather than simply cutting and pasting from websites forces you to think about which facts are useful. It also anchors those details in your mind-something that is helpful when you begin to write.

Here are some more dos and don’ts when preparing for the “Big Talk”:

  • Do familiarize yourself with your topic before the interview.
  • Do develop questions for your subject about the activity or status that led you to choose him/her for an interview and about the life that brought him/her to that activity or status.
  • Do use your questions to get and keep the conversation going if your subject is nervous, shy or withholding.
  • Don’t feel you have to stick to your list if all goes well and the interview flows naturally.
  • Do interview secondary sources. Consider friends, colleagues or adversaries of the subject. Look for experts on the Internet, through professional associations, trade organizations or the public relations department at a college or university. Contact writers or editors at technical, professional or trade publications in the field you are writing about.
  • Do use the phone or email when you are trying to collect background information or get a supporting quote or anecdote from a secondary source.

Assignment: Reread one of your query letters from last month and review what you promised to deliver to your editor. Research the basics of your topic and compile your notes in a notebook or computer file. Compose a list of questions for your interview subject.

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.

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