Introduction to the Profile
by Kate Geiselman, Sinclair Community College
The purpose of a profile is to give the reader new insight into a particular person, place, or event. The distinction between a profile and, for example, a memoir or a biography is that a profile relies on newly acquired knowledge. It is a first-hand account of someone or something as told by the writer. You have probably read profiles of famous or interesting people in popular magazines or newspapers. Travel and science publications may profile interesting or unusual places. All of these are, in effect, observation essays. A curious writer gathers as much information as s/he can about a subject, and then presents it in an engaging way. A good profile shows the reader something new or unexpected about the subject.
Dialogue, description, specific narrative action, and vivid details are all effective means of profiling your subject. Engage your reader’s senses. Give them a sense of what it’s like to be in a particular place. Try to show your reader what’s behind the scenes of a familiar place or activity, or introduce them to someone unique.
A profile is not strictly objective. Rather than merely reporting facts, a profile works to create a dominant impression. The focus of a profile is on the subject, not on the writer’s experience. However, the writer is still “present” in a profile, as it is s/he who selects which details to reveal and decides what picture they want to paint. It is the writer’s job to use the information and writing strategies that best contribute to this dominant impression, which was a concept discussed in the narrative introduction as well.
Above all, a profile should have a clear angle. In other words, there should be an idea or purpose guiding it. Why do you think your subject is something other people will be interested in reading about? What is the impression you hope to convey? The answer to these questions will help you discover your angle.
Writing Strategies for Profiles
The best way to conduct research about your subject is to observe it firsthand. Once you have decided on a topic, you should spend some time gathering information about it. If you decide to profile a place, pay a visit to it and take notes. Write down everything you can; you can decide later whether or not it’s relevant. If you have a smartphone, take pictures or make recordings to refer to later. Most people think of observing as something you do with your eyes, but try to use of all of your senses. Smells, sounds, and sensations will add texture to your descriptions. You may also spend time observing your subject at his/her work or in different contexts. Again, write everything down so you don’t forget the key details. Remember, it’s the specific details that will distinguish the great profiles from the merely proficient ones.
If you choose to profile a person, you will want to conduct an interview with him/her. Before doing so,
plan what you are going to ask. You probably have a good idea of why this person will be a good subject
for a profile, so be sure your questions reflect that. Saying “tell me about yourself” is unlikely to get your
subject talking. Saying, “tell me what it was like to be the first person in your family to go to college,”
will get a much more specific answer.
Organizing your profile
Once you have gathered all of your information, it’s time to start thinking about how to organize it. There are all different ways to write a profile, but the most common organizational strategies are chronological, spatial, and topical. Most profiles are some combination of the three.
Chronological order is presenting details as they happened in time, from start to finish. A chronological profile of a person might talk about their past, work up to their present, and maybe even go on to plans for the future. A chronological profile of an event might begin and end when the event itself does, narrating the events between in the order they happened. If you’re profiling a place, a chronological profile might begin with your first impressions arriving there and end with your departure. The advantage to writing in chronological order is that your writing will unfold naturally and transition easily from start to finish. The disadvantage, though, is that strict chronological order can get tedious. Merely recounting a conversation or experience can be dry, and can also pull focus from the subject onto the writer’s experience.
Spatial organization is presenting information as it occurs in space or by location. This is a great choice if you’re writing about a place. Think of it as taking your reader on a tour: from room to room of a house, for example. For an event, you might move your reader from place to place. If you are writing about a concert, for instance, you might describe the venue from the outside, then the seating area, then the stage. Spatial organization can even work for a person, depending on your focus. Try profiling a person at home, work, and school, for example.
Topical organization is just what it sounds like: one topic at a time. Think first of what you want to say about a person or place and organize details and information by subject. A profile of a person might talk about their home life, their work, and their hobbies. A topical profile of a place might focus on the physical space, the people who inhabit it, its historical significance, etc. Look at the information you gather from observation and/or interviewing and see if any topics stand out, and organize your paper around them. Most profiles are some combination of chronological, spatial, and topical organization. A profile might begin with a chronological narrative of a hockey game, and then flashback to provide some background information about the star player. Then it might go on to talk about that player’s philosophy of the sport, returning to the narrative about the game later on. As you read the sample essays, notice how the
writers choose details and arrange them in order to create a specific impression.
Vivid descriptions are key in a profile. They immerse your reader in the subject and add texture and depth to your writing. However, describing something is more than deploying as many adjectives as possible. In fact, the best descriptions may not have any adjectives at all. They rely instead on sensory detail and figurative language. Sensory detail is exactly what it sounds like: appealing to as many of the reader’s senses as possible. Adjectives can be vague, and even subjective. Think about this example:
“My grandmother always smelled good.”
What does good mean? What does good smell like? Do we even agree on what kinds of things smell good? Instead, try this:
“My grandmother always smelled good: like Shalimar, Jergen’s lotion, and menthol cigarettes.”
Now your reader knows much more. Perhaps they are even familiar enough with those scents that they can imagine what that combination would smell like. Moreover, you have delivered some emotional information here. Not every reader would agree that the smell of cigarettes is “good,” but perhaps that smell is comforting to you because you associate it so strongly with someone you care about. Of course, smell is not the only sense you can appeal to. Sights, sounds, temperatures and tastes will also enliven your writing.
Figurative language can add depth and specificity to your descriptions. Use metaphors, similes, comparisons and images creatively and purposefully. Consider the following:
“She was so beautiful.”
“Beautiful” just doesn’t tell us much. It is, like “good,” both vague and subjective. We don’t all have the same standards of beauty, nor is beauty one particular quality. Try a comparison instead:
“She was so beautiful that conversation stopped every time she entered a room.”
True, we don’t know much about what she looks like, but we do know that nearly everyone finds her striking.
Similes (comparisons using like or as) are not only efficient, but are also more vivid than adjectives. Compare these two sentences:
“He was short and muscular.” vs. “He was built like a bulldog.”
Write With Clarity
by Joseph M. Moxley, Writing Commons
Considering point of view
Because a profile is a first-hand account, you will need to consider point of view carefully. Many profiles are written entirely in third person. Others use first person. Different instructors may have different expectations, so be sure to consult your assignment guidelines to see what your options are. In a third-person profile, the writer is not “present” in the writing. S/he does not refer to his/her own actions or use first-person pronouns, but is more of an objective observer or “fly on the wall.” Most journalistic profiles are written from this point of view. The advantage of using third person is that it places your subject firmly at the center of your paper. In a first-person profile, the writer is an active participant, sharing his/her observations with the reader. First person narration closes the distance between writer and reader and makes the subject feel more personal. On the downside, it can pull focus from your subject. If you use first person, be sure you’re not intruding on your subject too much or making the piece about you.
From: The First Person By Fredrik deBoer, Writing Commons
Using appropriate verb tense
Often, profiles will be written in present tense. This gives the reader the sense that s/he is “there,” experiencing the subject along with the writer. Present tense lends a sense of immediacy and intimacy that past tense may not. It may also help the writer stay focused on the “here and now,” rather than reflecting on the past, as s/he might in a memoir. Other times, writers may need to shift tenses to talk about previous events or background information. Be sure to use verb tenses carefully, shifting only purposefully, correctly, and when the subject demands it. You can read more on tense shifts here.
Finding a topic and an angle
Virtually anything can be the subject of a profile. What matters is that you have something to say about it. People are an endless source of material; everyone has a story. Make a list of people you know who
– have lived through important historical events: war, the civil rights era, the Depression, etc.
– have been through challenging experiences: survived a major health crisis, difficult childhood, etc.
– have an unusual job or hobby, or special talent or skill.
– have unique personalities: they are eccentric, funny, selfless, energetic, artistic, etc.
Places can be equally interesting. Consider a local establishment, a natural wonder, a festival or celebration, a landmark, a museum, a gathering place, etc. What makes that place interesting and worth visiting? What makes it special or noteworthy?
Don’t just think about what you want to write about; instead, think about what you want to say about it. Why is it interesting to you, and why might your audience find it worth reading about?
Student Paper Rationale
For an assignment to write a profile essay, Joshua Dawson described his purpose and audience: “This essay is about my grandmother and how she overcame the hardships of life. [. . .] The purpose of this essay is to show how a woman can be tough and can take anything life throws at her. I hope the essay reaches students who have a single parent and those who don’t know what a single parent goes through.” Joshua showed a clear idea of what he wanted his essay to do.
As you read the sample profiles provided or linked in this chapter, consider the following:
What dominant impression is the writer trying to convey?
How effectively does the writer use sensory detail and figurative language?
What is the writer’s point of view (first person, third person, or mixed)?
How is the profile organized (chronological, spatial, topical, or some combination thereof)?
What tense does the writer use, and what effect does this have?
The following profile was excerpted from pp. 64- 68: Girard, Rosemary, “The professional writer’s many personae: Creative nonfiction, popular writing, speechwriting, and personal narrative” (2015). Senior Honors Projects, 2010-current. 109. https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/honors201019/109
Joseph Larson, who surprised everyone but himself
Sometimes in life we think we have drive. Then we hear stories like *Joseph Larson’s. *Name has been changed for privacy
If you happen to catch Joseph Larson grabbing his double shot espresso every morning, he looks much like the suit-and-tie, briefcase-in-hand worker we expect to brush elbows with some of the government’s most influential employees.
Every morning, he makes the fifteen-minute walk from his home in Northern Virginia to the metro station and commutes on the Orange and Green Lines to Washington, D.C. I’ve made a similar Arlington-to-Washington commute during rush hour, observing the hard-faced, overtired, overachieving men and women in suits whom I’d like to offer a smile and a cup of strong coffee. But something tells me Larson would catch my eye. Even if I weren’t aware of his profession, something about the quizzical, concentrated, and analytical way he was reading the newspaper might tip me off: he’s a lawyer.
But he’s not the guy with an earpiece in, swiping and tapping his iPhone screen. He’s the kind of man who—perhaps by his legal training, but more likely because of his inherent disposition—pensively absorbs information; the kind of man who, on a daily basis, makes critical legal decisions, yet is far beyond the intellectual limits of taking one’s self too seriously.
One thing I wouldn’t guess about Larson by my metro observation, though, is this: he is a high school dropout. Without a high school diploma, or even a GED, to his name, Larson climbed himself out of a broken family, an abandoned home, and a completely “adult” life thrust upon him at the shy age of ten years old.
Growing up in the Los Angeles basin, Larson spent the first ten or eleven years of his life in what he described vividly as a typical one-story, single-family house in the foothills of the San Bernadino mountains. He fondly recalled running barefoot and shirtless through the orange and lemon groves surrounding his house, basking in the 70s-and-sunny atmosphere of Southern California.
Larson described himself as a great student who enjoyed performing well and achieving good grades. “At the start of the year in second grade they gave me some tests and sent me to a third grade class,” he explained. But being a year younger and physically smaller than his classmates, Larson felt socially removed from his peers (he joked that, standing about 5’5” now, he was small to begin with). “I spent a lot of time in the library at recess instead of on the playground. I read a lot and was a bit reclusive.”
Still today, there’s something quite reserved yet so present about his demeanor—the type of person who often lets the extroverts of the world do the talking, but, when prompted, could shock any loudmouth to silence with his quick wit and unwavering knowledge on a subject of anyone’s choosing.
At about the same time that his home life became shaken, his time spent at school grew a bit rockier as well. “I remember around sixth grade being unwilling to accept authority that I felt was unjust,” he described. “I mostly got along with teachers, but there were a couple of really insecure, bullying types, and I really didn’t accept that well.”
As Larson read about and studied education, he became increasingly convinced that the school system he belonged to was flawed. “I was openly critical of some of my teachers’ methods, which landed me in the principal’s office,” he admitted. “I remember telling one poor science teacher in middle school that he was wasting our time.”
Behind the series of disagreements between Larson and his teachers, however, was a childhood falling apart at its seams. “My parents were really smart and loving people, and we had a very close family until I was about ten or eleven years old,” Larson said. “At that point, my family began to fall apart. My poor mother had a very rough time of it, and I ended up taking care of her while she went through a very difficult self-destructive stage after my father left.”
Larson revealed that while his mother did wind up marrying a nice guy, it only followed after a couple remarriages and various failed relationships. Amid these unsteady relationships, however, the men his mother kept as company were neither friendly nor accepting of having Larson around. He and his mother lost contact for quite a while. His relationship with his father wasn’t much better. “My father was mostly absent after that point in my life,” Larson said. “He tried to stay in touch, and I know he really loved me and my sister, but he was busy living his life, so we didn’t spend much time together.” His older sister, likewise, had a difficult time adjusting to the family’s new dynamic and lived with her boyfriends in the years following.
“My family house was vacant, as my father had left and my mother had moved out, and I actually lived there alone for a while, until the house was sold as a part of their divorce and I had to find another place to sleep,” Larson explained. “It was just as well, as the house kind of gave me nightmares—I’m sure just remnants of the family I had lost.”
Surprisingly, Larson remained confident, self-sufficient, and found various jobs as he tackled his newfound independence as a youngster. He didn’t get into trouble and seemed satisfied with the freedom he acquired, kept an emotional distance from others, and grew a hard shell.
Still, the combination of his battered home life and his resistance to the school system culminated in his decision to leave high school. “I gradually came to the realization when I got to high school that I had better things to do than sit in a classroom. I had really read a lot about education at that point, and became convinced that I could pretty much learn what I needed to learn in other ways,” he said.
So, he stuck out his sophomore year, got straight As to prove he could handle the work, and then dropped out.
“This was absolutely perfect for me at the time, since I really was living from one friend’s apartment floor to the next, and loved the anonymity. It was really liberating, and I was perfectly happy to move on,” Larson recalled. “It was insanely easy for a kid that age, at that time, to kind of disappear into the suburban landscape.”
Hearing Larson’s viewpoints toward formal education at the time is reminiscent of a California-bred, more put-together, Will Hunting—minus the attitude and the bitterness. It seemed clear to Larson that learning was a matter beyond the confines of structured education; no matter if he maintained enrollment at an institution, his desire to learn would naturally crop up in all aspects of his life.
After leaving high school, Larson made his living from a variety of small jobs— everything from dishwashing, bussing tables, cooking fast food, painting houses, and working as a tech in animal hospitals. He explained that he never spent money on anything other than food, so these jobs were sufficient.
Describing himself as having long hair and dressing poorly, Larson became a “hippie” and protested the Vietnam War at a young age. “I was fascinated by the counterculture, and read a lot,” Larson remembered. Still a lover of literature, Larson read everything “from Ginsburg’s poetry (‘Howl’) to Ken Kesey (‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’) to Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ and pretty much everything written by Hermann Hesse.” He often hitchhiked to get around, and made trips to the San Francisco area as it was a “Mecca” for hippies at the time.
It wasn’t until he was about seventeen that he truly acknowledged the wounds he’d never healed. After attending a self-development course, Larson was able to tap into deep seated feelings about those turbulent years. Surprised at his own grief after years of independence, he admitted, “I was shocked to find that I was heartbroken by the loss of my happy family and cried and cried about it at the training. I had a chance to grieve the loss, finally, which I think helped me move on.”
Despite his resistance to formal education in his early years, Larson was still an academic at heart. Soon, he grew bored of his life without the thrill of education in it, so he enrolled in several courses at the local community college as well as the local State Polytechnic University (Cal Poly Pomona). Meanwhile, Larson landed a job in a lab at the City of Hope where he assisted in lab work on animals for human disease research. “The doctors in the lab took an interest in me and encouraged me to get a degree,” he said. “I applied to the University of California at San Diego and was shocked to find I got in.”
At UCSD, Larson studied Linguistics and fell in love with it. He also enrolled in a French class, which led to him studying abroad. Describing himself as an opportunist, Larson discovered that he could get a student loan and spend a year in France during his junior year without working. After graduating from UCSD, he soon attended American University for law school.
Larson recalled a conversation he had with the registrar at American University about his lack of a high school degree or GED. “I remember the registrar looking at my transcript and noting, shocked, that I never graduated from high school. I remember asking if that was going to be a problem, but she just said, ‘No, I just haven’t ever seen this before!’”
What is perhaps most notable about Larson is the normalcy with which he treats his road to success and his forgiveness of the situation he was tossed into. “I think everyone has adversity and challenges,” Larson said. “I loved the freedom I had as a youngster. I think it gave me a great deal of confidence, and I had some amazing experiences.”
Speaking to his humility and compassion, Larson actually attributed much of his success to his family. Remembering his early childhood fondly, Larson feels grateful for the love his family showed him in his early years. Being rooted in such a solid foundation was key when Larson was forced to make difficult choices later on.
Although it may not have been the easiest path, Larson was always confident in his ability to rise out of life’s challenges. “There was the occasional reality check, those times grilling burgers with a jerk for a boss, or loading trucks late at night, which would motivate me,” he said. “I always knew I would do more than those jobs, and those tough realities are just the thing to motivate a person to move on.”
There seems to be something intrinsically laced in Larson’s character that drives him to success and is fueled by a love for learning—something beyond motivation and the often shallow push from parents to succeed, which Larson lacked anyway in his formative years. Looking at his background on paper, I’d expect to find Larson, at worst, drug addicted and alone. At best, still cooking fast food and struggling to make ends meet. But seeing the challenges he’s faced as opportunities, Larson doesn’t see that there were any other options: he had to succeed.
In his own California-roots fashion, Joseph Larson takes time to absorb and study the world around him. He has an appreciation for those who have chosen to live life differently, and he values the family and life he now has. He’s been given the opportunity to decide what he wanted to do and who he wanted to be, and so he invites others to do the same.
“What motivates us ultimately to do what we do, to me, is still a big mystery,” he said.
This speaks to Larson’s enigmatic self as well. He had every opportunity to fail, was the thought that pervasively and dogmatically prodded at my mind. And yet, with tenacity that is difficult to fathom, he picked up the pieces his family left behind and, without a blink, proved he had every tool to succeed.
When the necktie comes off, it drags with it all stereotypical assumptions we might have conjured about this metropolitan man. It’s anyone’s game as to what Larson is up to once he steps out of lawyer mode (although, if it’s trivia or crossword puzzles, I’ve been warned not to challenge him). Often, he’s tending to the various animals for which he couldn’t refuse a place in his home. He’s watching the Washington Nationals game over dinner. He’s putting that suit and tie back on for a night at The Shakespeare Theatre in DC. He’s listening to everything from Native American flute music to Neil Young. Or, he is—after multiple hip replacements on both sides—running and training for his next marathon.
Amid the surprises and the proved-everyone-wrongs, perhaps only three things are certain about Joseph Larson: his love of learning, his love of life, and that double shot espresso.
The following profile examples are under copyright but can be accessed through the links:
- Joanna Walters: “Inside the Rehab Saving Young Men from their Internet Addiction” – https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jun/16/internet-addiction-gaming-restart-therapy-washington
- DeNeen Brown: “Six-Pack Abs at Age 74” – https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/six-pack-abs-at-age-74-age-is-nothing-but-a-number-says-guinness-world-records-oldest-competitive-female-bodybuilder/2011/03/16/AG5lGvCH_story.html?utm_term=.f87c99f9b7d0
- Bill Laitner: “Heart and Sole: Detroiter’s Lengthy Commute Part of Life” – https://www.lansingstatejournal.com/story/news/local/2015/02/02/heart-sole-detroiters-lengthy-commute-part-life/22656077/
- Werner Herzog, From One Second to the Next: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xk1vCqfYpos