The Scoop On Writing Profile Articles: The Interview

Lori RussellBy Lori Russell

You’ve queried, researched and prepared. Now it is time to interview the subject of your profile article.

Profile interviews are usually done in person or over the phone. When you set up the appointment, let your subject know the angle of your story and the approximate amount of time you will need.

Because you have prepared in advance, you already have a clear idea of where you want to go and what you need to get from your interview.

Your first question sets the tone for the entire conversation so begin by asking something easy. The point is to get the subject relaxed so he will talk rather than just answer questions. Small talk is not useless. You can use the time to take notes on surroundings, appearance and mannerisms.

Once you get the conversation going, be quiet and listen. This is not the time to talk about you. “Uh-huh” -the universal interviewer response-and its cousin the nod, keep the conversation going. For variation, restate or feed back what your subject has just said.

If your subject is skimming the surface of the topic, pursue the details. Go for breadth and depth by asking open-ended how and why questions. Be friendly but to the point if he veers off track.

I prefer to take notes during an interview rather than using a recording device. I am looking for the most vivid quotes, not every word my subject utters. Taking notes allows me to capture gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice and the relationship of the speaker to the setting that I cannot get from a recording.

Taking notes also allows me to edit while listening. Will I use this quote? Is this information what I’m really after?  As I listen, I begin to shape and select my material even as I formulate my next question. What gaps need to be filled in with answers or anecdotes? What areas have already been covered?

Develop a system of note-taking shortcuts. I put a star next to good material and use brackets when noting my own observations about the surroundings or what the subject is saying.

With practice, you will be able to recognize an opening hook, an intriguing quote or a closing anecdote as soon as it is uttered. Often, the best revelations come at the end of your time with a subject, after the notebook is closed. Keep listening and write them down as soon as you can.

Nearly every interview requires a follow-up call or email to check facts or ask an additional question. In my experience, subjects appreciate when you take the time to get the story right. Make that call or send a quick email. And always remember to say thank you.

Assignment: Set up and conduct an interview with your profile subject. Afterward, reflect on what you did well and what you would like to improve on for the next interview.

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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