The Scoop on Writing Profile Articles: Find the Story with an Outline

By Lori Russell
Lori RussellLast month, we discussed how to interview your profile subject. After all your hard work, the best thing you can do to move your article along is to take some time off–even if it is only the rest of the afternoon. This part of the writing process involves more head time than minutes at the keyboard, yet it is equally valuable. While you enjoy a walk or prepare dinner, your subconscious is doing what it does best-spotting patterns and connections in your material.
After your well-deserved break, reread your query letter and any notes from your editor about the size and scope of your article. Knowing where you want to end up with your final story guides you in how to take your next step-outlining.
Did I hear a groan? While you may have had to follow your English teacher’s rules for outlining when you were in high school, you are now free to use whatever method works for you-formal or informal, computer software, index cards or a legal pad. However you do it, the goal of any outline is simply to help organize your information.
I begin by typing the notes from my interview into a computer file. With each new thought, I skip a line and begin a new paragraph.
After printing my notes, I fix myself a cup of tea and head to my recliner with my pages and a jar of colored markers. Most profiles include details about whom the subject is or what he or she has done that has led you to write the article. I mark any information that pertains to this in one color along with the category in the margin. Then, I mark each of the steps the person took to get to this point in a different color. I continue through my notes, color-coding different aspects of the material. I don’t get too hung up in analyzing; I am just grouping patterns.
Next, I return to the computer to cut and paste all the information with the same color together to form my rough outline. I work from broad to specific, breaking the information into smaller subgroups in each category.
Organizing your material with an outline forces you to see what’s important in the story and what can be left out. It reduces backtracking and rewriting. Think of your outline as a working draft that grows and changes as you add details, and research info and quotes.
After you have your basic outline, determine the logical progression of the story you are telling and put the information in order. This will help later when you are writing your drafts and creating transitions from paragraph to paragraph. The time you take to create an outline of your article can save you hours later when you sit down to write.
Assignment: Reread your query letter to remind yourself what article you have promised to write. Then pull out the colored markers, index cards or scissors and outline your profile story. 

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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