20 Profiles

Introduction to Profiles

This chapter explores the process of profile writing. Writers compose these articles or essays to present some essential insight about the subject to the audience; subjects can span a wide variety of topics, including individuals, groups, places, and events. A good profile tells one clear, overarching story, chosen from other possible stories about the subject.

Although the central purpose of a profile is to convey a sense of the subject’s significance, a profile may have a more specific goal. Profile writers may simply want to inform audiences about their subjects, or they may aim to inspire audiences with the examples their subjects provide, highlighting something overlooked or underappreciated about them. In all cases, though, the writer’s goal is to share a crucial insight about the subject with the audience.

Profiles lie on a spectrum between two related forms: informal interviews and formal biographies. Like interviews, profiles usually depend on direct conversations with living people. Like biographies, they make use of other sources of information about the subject. Profiles such as those published in popular magazines are usually longer and more focused than interviews but considerably shorter than biographies. The material in this chapter will help you develop a profile that will show a new perspective on a subject of your choosing to inform and inspire your readers.

History of Profiles

Beginning with its first issue in 1925, The New Yorker magazine has run a regular feature called “Profiles.” The earliest of this series of biographical sketches combined the elements still in use for profiles today: anecdotes (brief stories), interview data, descriptions of the subject and their surroundings, and researched information to provide background and context. In the early 1950s, then senator John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) had an idea to develop a similar article about U.S. senators who had shown moral courage in the face of opposition. He asked one of his speechwriters, Ted Sorensen (1928–2010), to research examples of senators who had displayed this quality. As he researched, Sorensen found so much information that he suggested Kennedy write a book about these individuals.

The 1956 volume, titled Profiles in Courage, spotlights eight senators who took unpopular stances against majority consensus; subjects range from John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) to Robert A. Taft (1889–1953). Many of the profiled senators lost political power as a result of their actions. The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation later established the Profile in Courage Award, given to “a public official (or officials) at the federal, state, or local level whose actions demonstrate the qualities of politically courageous leadership” (“About the Award”). Kennedy’s book established a connection between the profile genre and the idea of courage, and other writers have continued drawing on this connection.

One such writer is Veronica Chambers, this chapter’s trailblazer. In her book Resist: 40 Profiles of Ordinary People Who Rose Up against Tyranny and Injustice, Chambers includes profiles of individuals who displayed uncommon and often unpopular courage. Although profile pieces do not always focus on courageous people as subjects, that particular focus can provide a strong angle—a viewpoint or lens—for profile writing. Like Kennedy and Chambers, profile writers often communicate admiration for some attribute that their subject displays, whether courage or another quality that might provide an example to others.

Although other types of writing can inspire readers to develop admirable qualities, profiles do so particularly well. They are generally short enough to read in one sitting and strongly focus on one main idea for readers to absorb. They are compelling because they combine elements of both storytelling and reporting. Profiles of people who embody certain ideals or principles can provide models for readers to become better at living up to those principles.

Potential Profile Subjects and Angles

You can find profile subjects everywhere. The purpose of a profile is to give readers an insight into something fundamental about the subject, whether that subject is a person, a social group, a building, a piece of art, a public space, or a cultural tradition. Writers of profiles often conduct several types of research, including interviews and field observations, as well as consult related published sources. A profile usually reveals one aspect of the subject to the audience; this focus is called an angle. To decide which angle to take, profile writers look for patterns in their research, then consider their audience when making choices about both the angle and the tone, or attitude toward the subject.

Preparing to Write: Conducting Research

Profile writers learn as much about their subjects as possible. Be sure to take advantage of all available sources of information, and follow up on new leads wherever you find them. After completing your research, you will be able to refine your angle and draft your piece. As you gather your research, keep your target audience in mind, and look for details about your subject that will interest them.

Before you begin to do research, you will need to contact people via email about setting up interviews or gathering other necessary information. To come across as a credible researcher, follow professional email protocol when contacting subjects for interviews or other information. 

Professional Email
Take care to use professional email etiquette when contacting potential interview subjects.
  • Subject Line. Your subject line, like an essay title, should represent your main point.
  • Salutation. Open with a polite greeting; use the person’s title or honorific (such as Mr., Ms., Mrs., or Dr.).
  • Introduction. Introduce yourself to the person. Your name will appear in the signature line; here, offer information that shows the relationship you have to the request.
  • Statement of Purpose. State your purpose clearly.

  • Statement of Request. Make a polite request.

  • Next Steps. Say what you would like to happen next.
  • Closing. Include a polite closing line, use a professional complimentary close, and type your full name.

Subject: Interview Request

Dear Dr. Kamau,

I am a student in Dr. Liu’s first-year composition class, and I am researching the English Language Institute (ELI) on campus in order to write a profile on tenacity in relation to the ELI.

I am writing to ask for a brief interview with you to find out more about the ELI.

Would you have 15 minutes within the next week to speak with me by phone or videoconference?

I hope to hear from you soon.

Thank you for considering this request.

[Best, Regards, Sincerely, Yours]

Sylvia Varela


Talking with your subject is the best place to start your research. Interviews generally fall into the category of primary research, or research you collect directly for yourself. People who know, live, and work with your subject can provide additional, helpful background information.

The easiest way to conduct an interview is to schedule a brief, informal conversation in a comfortable setting. For a successful interview, have questions prepared and be ready to take notes as you talk. Your questions should address all aspects of the prompt for the profile assignment.

Note that you will need to cite any interviews you conduct, both within the text and in the Works Cited list. The Works Cited entry for an interview will read as follows:

[Last name of interviewee], [First name of interviewee]. Personal interview. Day Month (abbreviated) Year.

Another form of primary research is field observation. If at all possible, observe your subject in their element—watch them (with permission!) during their workday, spend an extended period of time in a related space, or watch available videos of your subject. In all cases, take thorough and detailed notes to create  a careful record of every sensory detail you can capture—smells, sounds, sights, textures, physical sensations, and perhaps tastes. This thick description can provide meaningful details to illuminate the points in your piece. Meticulously record all sensory information about your subject and their setting, writing in-depth notes about what you see, smell, hear, feel, and taste. Remember to use words that express size, shape, color, texture, and sound. If you are taking notes on a person, describe their clothing, gestures, and physical characteristics. At the same time, take note of the interview setting. If the interview takes place in a neutral space, the setting can provide a backdrop for the profile. If the interview setting is a person’s room or apartment, record the details that tell the most about your subject’s special interests.


Sample Profiles

Here are two sample profiles for you to read and analyze. As you read, consider the features that you find for each of the elements of content, organization, language, and design, and consider the values that the writer and audience share.

Profile on Lucas Threefoot – principal dancer with the Oregon Ballet Theatre

Profile on SDSU Fowler College of Business alumna Bernadette Griggs


Characteristics of Profiles

Profile writing are articles or essays in which the writer focuses on a specific trait or behavior that reveals something essential about the subject — this is often called a dominant impression. Much profile material comes from interviews either with the subject or with people who know about the subject. However, interviews may not always be part of a profile, for profile writers also draw on other sources of information. In creating profiles, writers usually combine the techniques of narrative, or storytelling, and reporting, or including information that answers the questions of whowhatwhenwherewhy, and how.

Defining Terms and Writing in the Genre

These terms, or genre elements, are frequently used in profile writing. The following definitions apply specifically to the ways in which the terms are used in this genre.

  • Anecdotes: brief stories about specific moments that offer insights into the profile subject.
  • Background information: key to understanding the profile’s significance. Background information includes biographical data and other information about the history of the profile subject. It often helps establish context as well.
  • Chronological order: information or a narrative presented in time order, from earliest to most recent.
  • Context: the situation or circumstances that surround a profile subject. Situating profile subjects within their contexts can offer deeper insights about them.
  • Factual information: accurate and verifiable data and other material gathered from research.
  • Field notes: information gathered and recorded by observing the profile subject within a particular environment.
  • Location: places relevant to the profile subject. For a person, location might include birthplace, place of residence, or place where events occurred.
  • Narrative structure: text organized as narratives, or stories, weaving research into the story as applicable.
  • Quotation: words spoken or written by the subject or from interviews about the subject.
  • Reporting structure: structure that relays factual information and answers whowhatwhenwherewhy, and how questions.
  • Show and tell: descriptive and narrative techniques to help readers imagine the subject combined with reporting techniques to relay factual information.
  • Spatial structure: used in profiles of buildings, artworks, and public spaces. This structure reflects a “tour” of the space or image.
  • Thick description: combination of sensory perceptions to create a vivid image for readers.
  • Tone: the writer’s attitude toward the subject. For example, tone can be admiring, grateful, sarcastic, disparaging, angry, respectful, gracious, neutral, and so on.
  • Topical structure: structure that focuses on several specific topics within the profile.





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Writing in Genres Copyright © 2023 by Stephanie Frame is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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