Category Archives: Tipsheets

How to write profiles

It’s cliche, I know, but the truth is often stranger than fiction. That’s one reason I love interviewing people. The world is full of fascinating characters and we journalists are lucky to be able to meet some of the most interesting people.

One interesting character I enjoyed writing about was Ronnie Biggs, a fugitive I met in South America. Here’s how I started the story:

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – One of the world’s most notorious fugitives is living out his golden years in sunny Brazil, sipping frosty mugs of beer, spinning tales and lounging poolside.
“I’ve wiped the slate clean,” says Ronald Biggs, who helped pull off Britain’s Great Train Robbery, one of the most sensational crimes in history. “I’ve done my time.”
British authorities see it differently, saying Mr. Biggs is an outlaw who served less than two years of a 30-year sentence for helping rob a mail train stuffed with cash in 1963.
He broke out of prison in 1966 and went on the run, using phony documents and plastic surgery to outfox Scotland Yard.
He’s been in Brazil since 1970.

See the rest of the Biggs’ profile here.

Ronnie Biggs. Photo: Mirror News

Ronnie Biggs. Photos: The Mirror

Ronnie Biggs with a friend in Rio. Photo: The Mirror.

Today in Reporting II class, we’re going to talk about profiles and character sketches. Below are some of the tips I’ll give students:

How to write a profile

A profile isn’t a biography. It isn’t a recounting of a person’s work history. It’s a story about some interesting aspect of a person’s life.

Important: When choosing a profile subject, do not pick a friend, co-worker, supervisor or relative.

Key elements of a profile include:

  • An interesting lead. You need to hook the reader right away. Try to capture the reader’s attention and then keep it.
  • Lively quotes. The reader needs to know you were there. You interviewed your subject. This isn’t some second-hand story taken from a press release or a web site.
  • Anecdotes. Funny, sad, touching or dramatic anecdotes will boost your story’s appeal. Profile stories should entertain and inform.
  • Perspective. What makes your subject worth a profile? If you are profiling a hairdresser, what made you pick this hairdresser? What makes your profile subject special? You should give your reader a clue high in the story why you are doing the profile. Sometimes it’s because a subject is exceptionally interesting. Sometimes it’s because the person has sudden been thrust into the news.
  • Background. Some description of how your subject got to this point in his or her life. You don’t need to tell your subject’s entire life story, but give some idea of the person’s journey. Try not to raise questions unless you can answer them. For instance, don’t say your subject is motivated by a great personal tragedy that occurred a decade earlier and then never tell your reader what happened. Don’t leave holes in the story.
  • Color. Some description of your subject. What does he or she look like?
  • A logical flow. Add transitions between paragraphs when needed.
  • Another point of view. Interviews with other people who know your subject enrich your profile. Keep in mind that profiles aren’t necessarily puff pieces. Just because you are writing about someone doesn’t mean you work for the person or are the person’s public relations agent. What matters is that you try to tell the truth. Your story should have balance. If a politician with a supposedly spotless record turns out to be a child molester – and you have some evidence or proof – then that’s your story.
  • Depth. Profiles sometimes take on an investigative nature. Some reporters are known to do dozens of interviews for in-depth profiles of a single person. Profiles should not be single-source stories. You shouldn’t just take your subject’s word on everything he or she says and leave it at that. You should try to bring some depth to your story.
  • News and timeliness. Profile a subject with some connection to news stories or controversial issues if possible. This will help make your profile more timely.


  • Before your interview, learn all you can about your subject. Google your subject to see what, if anything, has been written.
  • Go to the interview with a list of questions. Try to come up with a strategy or possible angle for your story before the interview, not after.
  • Try to discover what makes your subject newsworthy. Develop a theme. Areas you might explore include your subject’s character, habits, feelings, and struggles and dreams. You want to try to discover if your subject is at a turning point in his life.
  • Dress appropriately for the interview. Establish a rapport with your subject. You may be talking to this person again, so make a good impression. Usually, the more your interview subject trusts you, the more information you’ll get.

Students’ assignment is here.

Getting the most out of Google

I have begun to list some of the Google tools and links that journalists find especially useful. Please send in your ideas. Thanks!

Google Zeitgeist – See patterns and trends using data from billions of searches. Included in Zeitgeist:

  • Google Insights for Search – Type in topics that you write about to learn search patterns by date and region.
  • Google Trends – Easily compare search terms of your choice over time.
  • Hot Trends – See the 100 fastest rising searches in the U.S.
  • Trends for websites – See traffic data for websites of your choice.
  • Google Reader – Automatically scans your favorite blogs and news sites for new content.