10 Steps to Writing a Great Profile Feature

Hume Johnson. PHD

A “profile feature” is an article that explores the background and character of a particular person (or group). The focus should be on a news angle or a single aspect of the subject’s personal or professional life. The article usually begins with the reason the subject is newsworthy at this time, and is based (not exclusively) on an extensive interview with the subject (New York Times, 1999). Profiles are therefore a useful Public Relations tool that can establish favourable opinion about individual clients. Here are ten steps to guide you on your way to writing a great profile feature piece for your client.

1. Research, Research, Research 

You must gather a minimum of 5 articles on the subject for your research. This is important to that you can have various perspectives on the subject. It should be written as an interesting conversation piece, not like a eulogy or a Wikipedia article. Biographical material is important, but should not be overemphasized: the biography is background to the news. Readers should be allowed to better understand the subject by seeing this person in the context of his or her interests and career, educational and family background.

2. Decide on an approach. Outlining your story is the best way to start. This means reviewing your notes, marking the most interesting or articulate quotes, making a list of important points, and creating a structure into which you can fit your information. Spend extra time of the beginning of your story. Readers will decide whether to proceed based on the capacity of your lead to grab their interest.

3. Focus on what’s most compelling. Before you start writing, think through all the information you have and all the points you plan to make. What’s surprising? What’s important? What’s useful?

4. Show, don’t tell. It is tempting to describe a room as messy or a person as nice. But carefully-observed details and well-chosen verbs will “show” the reader who the person is, and makes a much stronger impression than adjectives.

5. Put your story in context. You must help answer a reader’s biggest question about any story: Why should I care? What makes your subject special or significant? Why should readers care to know about him or her?

6. Don’t overuse direct quotes. Sometimes you can best capture a mood with your own prose. Think of direct quotes as icing on a cake — they enhance, but they shouldn’t form the substance of your story. The quotes you do use must be attributed, always. The reader should not have to guess who is talking.

7. Fill holes. Are there questions raised by your story that you have not answered? Ask a friend or colleague to read through your story and tell you what else he or she would want to know.

8. Triple-check for accuracy. Spell names right. Get titles right. Get facts right. If you are unsure of something and cannot verify it, leave it out. Before you turn in your story, ask yourself these questions: Have I attributed or documented all my facts? Are the quotes in my story presented fairly and in context? Am I prepared to publicly defend my facts if they are questioned?

9. Proofread. Do not turn in a story with spelling or grammatical mistakes.

10. Don’t end with a conclusion, so to speak: Don’t end your article with a conclusion. Consider saving a particularly resonant quote for the last sentence. This way your article will end with a voice the reader may be left hearing long after he or she has finished your story. You can also close with a statement that sums up the person and their accomplishment, or says something significant that resonates with the reader.

* Parts of this article taken from ‘How to Write a Profile Feature’, New York Times, 1999.

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