How to Write a Profile: 8 Tips for a Compelling Piece

How to Write a Profile: 8 Tips for a Compelling Piece

From about us pages to blogs, feature profiles are used to communicate a business’ brand, but also to put a human face on a business. By creating a compelling story, good profile writers can benefit from this high-need area of freelance writing.

Profile writing involves disparate parts of the brain in order to produce an emotionally involving piece. An effective profile comes from thorough research, thoughtful interview questions and an ability to organize large amounts of information into a concise story.

How to write a profile of a person

Here’s how to write a profile story, in eight easy-to-follow steps.

1. Research your subject — a lot

For my first profile assignment, I interviewed a jazz great who enjoyed a five-decade career in music. Being young and unaware of his music, I asked him how long he’d been playing. The musician playfully laughed at me and replied that he had been playing most of his life. He then asked me if I knew anything about him. The feeling of embarrassment sunk the rest of my interview.

But from this defeat, I learned the importance of researching my subject.

Your goal should be to understand your subject’s point of view before the interview begins if you hope to capture that person’s journey.

Start by thoroughly reading their website. If the business or individual maintains a blog, you will want to read their posts to understand their identity. This will clue you into what’s important to your subject.

Then explore articles written about your subject in other publications. What’s the general angle of these articles? Is there any information that’s repeated again and again? This will help differentiate yourself from previous material written about the same subject.

2. Create questions that linger

When interviewing, the worst thing you can hear from a response is “yes” or “no.”

Try to focus your questions on material your subject is passionate about, and don’t ask questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Start phases with: “Can you tell me about?” or “Why did you…?”

This gives your subject the opportunity to go “off script” and share unique details about their story in a way that makes them feel comfortable.

3. Let your subject to do 90 percent of the talking

It may be tempting to interrupt your subject with your own commentary, but resist this at all costs.

Interrupting cuts into your subject’s flow, which will result in glossing over important information. Through digressions, subjects will often provide entertaining stories. These stories can further illustrate your subject’s unique personality.

Do not be afraid of pauses and silence. Sometimes this means your subject is thinking about your question, and giving them time will elicit more detailed answers.

For others, silence creates a bit of awkwardness, which they might be eager to fill by sharing a story they might not have otherwise shared.

4. Record your interviews

Handwritten notes are great, but it can be difficult to record every word a subject says. Mistakes in note-taking can be costly when it comes time to write the profile.

And you certainly don’t want to rely on your memory. Get comfortable with a recording app in advance to ensure you capture your entire interview.

5. Develop your angle

Profiles need an angle, or a specific focus to sustain the reader’s attention.

A unique angle will set your profile apart from the other material written on the same subject. Use an angle that’s newsworthy or contains the essence of the business’ philosophy. Profiles that are simply a list of things that happened are rarely interesting.

When reviewing your interview and notes, find a theme that links together the material. For example, if your subject talks about failures that led to their success, the theme of persistence in the face of failure can serve as a good angle.

6. Find pull quotes that move the story

Don’t use quotes just to fill space. Instead, lean on quotes to help tell the story. Using the subject’s words can be the most effective way to develop the profile’s main points.

Not sure how many quotes to use? Here’s a good rule of thumb: Each section of a profile should contain at least one quote that ties the material together.

Find pithy, meaningful quotes to provide maximum effect. Reserve the best quote that best encapsulates your angle and use this for your concluding paragraph. This leaves the reader with a clear picture of the main theme and takeaway.

7. Tell the story

Remember you are telling a story, so it needs a beginning, middle and end.

A scattershot piece with no clear timeline will confuse the reader.

Create an outline or storyboard so you can keep track of the direction of your story. In your outline, include quotes you plan to add to the story, so that you can shape your piece around your subject’s words.

8. Check your facts (and check them again)

Getting information wrong is an embarrassing moment for a writer, especially if you hear about it from your subject.

You’re responsible for presenting facts as truthfully as possible. If you are unsure of certain information, contact your subject and ask. They will appreciate the effort. Don’t throw away your credibility by failing to fact-check your piece.

Profile writing is a great way to flex all of your writer muscles in one assignment. Over time, you’ll develop a knack for interviewing, which is helpful for lots of writing work. With the right amount of preparation, organization, detail and practice, you’ll paint the perfect picture of your subject.

This is an updated version of a story that was previously published. We update our posts as often as possible to ensure they’re useful for our readers.

Photo via GuadiLab / Shutterstock 

Filed Under: Freelancing


  • Gwendolyn Soper says:

    Great article! Do newspapers accept personality profile submissions? They’re so different from op-ed. Where do you recommend people submit personality profiles?

  • Tam says:

    An excellent article on writing profiles! I’ve written hundreds for a number of publications. Only one little thing: “3. Let your subject **to do** 90 percent of the talking.” I almost stopped reading when I saw this. Glad I didn’t, but it’s still scratching on a nerve like fingernails on a chalkboard.

  • Great tips that can be summarized into “do your research” and “let the subject be himself/herself”.
    Now I want to write a profile.

  • Waconda Clayworth says:

    Hi and liked this a lot..I am not too much for make a fortune with
    blah, blah, blah..So, was happy to read the article and the responses.
    I was an EFL teacher and am now an ESL tutor here in south Texas.
    Am not the radical that writes for Cinco Puntos but would really like
    to co-ordinate on articles about the unaccompanied who come hererom
    from Central America and Mejico…I have not seen the “Life of Pi” but
    think there will be some similarities…
    My favorite old interviews were Studs Terkel’s “Working”…I read part
    of “Evicted” but it was just too real and too depressing.
    Currently I am writing children’s re-views for the Aransas Pass City
    website via the local library…monthly newsletter link…
    What I think is good are positive spins on wrenching stories..It can seem
    that tears and terrible things are just ways for interviewers to spice up
    their online time, but real life can be pretty terrible for kids…
    Would like to know what Mr. Foster’s favorite or best interviews have been..

  • Charmaine Ng says:

    I had training as a journalist and I find that developing an angle is the most important tip. It’s also super fun! Often I have an idea of what the angle will be (after research) and try to meander my interview around it, but sometimes the interviewee ends up surprising me.

    – Charmaine

    • Joel Foster says:

      Yes, I try to hold off on a specific angle until the interview is done, just in case there are surprises. If you go into the interview with an angle in mind, sometimes the interview can be too leading and you might miss those surprising moments. Thanks for the read!

  • Not so much in the realm of writing a profile, but I did find a lot of useful stuff in this post when it comes to doing interview, and I do plan to start interview other authors on my podcast sometime next year. So I just wanted to say thanks!

  • Rigan says:

    How can I start writing and how many days will it take to be a good writer..?? can I earn from my first writing..??

    • Days? Try “years.”

      Writing is both an art and a craft. To expect to earn money from the time you start would be like someone saying, “I want to be a professional artist” and expecting to sell the first coloring book page they touched with a crayon.

      One piece of advice I read years ago that I still think should be given to everyone who says, “I think I’ll be a writer” is this: Dim the lights, stretch out on the couch with a cool cloth on your forehead, take two aspirin, and wait for the feeling to pass. This is not something to get into on a lark. There are far, far easier ways to make a living.

      If you’ve tried that and the urge to write just won’t go away, that’s the time to start honing your skills. Read every day (from things people were actually paid to write), and write every day. Only when most of what you write is better than most of what your read will it be time to start trying to sell your work. That doesn’t happen in a matter of days or weeks or even months.

      If you do end up deciding to embark on this long road, I wish you (eventual) success!

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC
      Editorial Services and Writers’ Resources

    • Joel Foster says:

      Like Trish said, it takes years to become a good writer. It’s definitely a discipline that rewards patience, but if you love it enough, then it’s easy to stick with. You can earn money from your first assignment, although you’ll encounter clients trying to take advantage of your lack of experience by shortchanging you. I actually started by writing for non-profits, which wasn’t paid but gave me some good experience, a byline and clips to use. Beware: Don’t write for free unless it’s something that you personally believe in because you’ll be preyed upon by people looking for you to write for free, which is an unfair position to put yourself in.

  • Even though I earn the bulk of my freelancing income editing the writing of others, one form of professional writing I have done is About pages for small business owners, whom I have not met in person and must get to know through electronic communication.

    It is a weighty responsibility, and a profound privilege, to write in the first person in another’s name about something they have created from their own passion. It is truly a form of ghostwriting far more common than many people realize, and it can make or break a client’s very livelihood.

    I would add to this excellent article a step that Joel may have felt went without saying, but that I think merits an explicit mention: Always build at least a round or two of revisions into your price for such writing. In general, I have not needed it, but I like knowing (and I’m sure my clients like knowing) that if I have not quite captured the essence of the owner or their business, they can have me tweak it until it is right.

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consutling LLC

    • Joel Foster says:

      Good point Trish! I don’t think I’ve ever nailed it the first time around. In the early days, I seriously underestimated how much time it would take to complete a profile. And yes, About Us writing is seriously in demand these days and a great way for a budding journalist to get his feet wet. There are so many businesses that either don’t have an About Us page or have one that’s lacking, so there’s lots of opportunities to swoop in and be their superman. Thanks for the read and the comments!

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