Profile Writing: You can observe a lot by watching

I spent the weekend talking about a variety of topics at the Associated Collegiate Press convention in Minneapolis, but my favorite presentation was on how to write personality profiles. I often find these stories are the staple crop of college newspapers’ feature sections and yet they often lack the kind of depth and richness that draw readers in.

One of the biggest things that makes the difference between a good profile and a weak one is the quality of the observation the reporter conducts and the way in which those observations are used in writing the profile. Too often, profiles don’t paint a picture in the mind’s eye of the readers and that usually comes from a lack of quality observation. This leads to the cliche openings of “So-and-so is not your typical college sophomore…” To make the profile better, you need to see what your source does, who your source is and how your source behaves.

Or, as Yogi Berra once noted, you can observe a lot by watching

Consider this opening in the piece Jeff Pearlman did for Sports Illustrated on pitcher John Rocker:

A minivan is rolling slowly down Atlanta’s Route 400, and John
Rocker, driving directly behind it in his blue Chevy Tahoe, is
pissed. “Stupid bitch! Learn to f—ing drive!” he yells. Rocker
honks his horn. Once. Twice. He swerves a lane to the left.
There is a toll booth with a tariff of 50 cents. Rocker tosses
in two quarters. The gate doesn’t rise. He tosses in another
quarter. The gate still doesn’t rise. From behind, a horn
blasts. “F— you!” Rocker yells, flashing his left middle
finger out the window. Finally, after Rocker has thrown in two
dimes and a nickel, the gate rises. Rocker brings up a thick wad
of phlegm. Puuuh! He spits at the machine. “Hate this damn toll.”

With one hand on the wheel, the other gripping a cell phone,
Rocker tears down the highway, weaving through traffic. In 10
minutes he is due to speak at Lockhart Academy, a school for
learning-disabled children. Does Rocker enjoy speaking to
children? “No,” he says, “not really.” But of all things big and
small he hates–New York Mets fans, sore arms, jock itch–the
thing he hates most is traffic. “I have no patience,” he says.
The speedometer reads 72. Rocker, in blue-tinted sunglasses and
a backward baseball cap, is seething. “So many dumb asses don’t
know how to drive in this town,” he says, Billy Joel’s New York
State of Mind humming softly from the radio. “They turn from the
wrong lane. They go 20 miles per hour. It makes me want–Look!
Look at this idiot! I guarantee you she’s a Japanese woman.” A
beige Toyota is jerking from lane to lane. The woman at the
wheel is white. “How bad are Asian women at driving?”

This is a simple (OK, maybe not “simple” for most people) car ride that becomes a window into the mind and life of this guy. In a few paragraphs, you can understand who he is, what he thinks and how he feels about things. The author sets the table perfectly for the readers and gives them what they need to know.

However, for my money, the best profile in terms of the painstaking description is Nancy Jo Sales’ piece on reality star Kate Gosselin. The introduction breaks one of the most basic rules I usually adhere to: No quote leads. However, the author knows the rules and when to break them, so we get this:

“Nobu, Nobu, I want Nobu!”

Kate Gosselin wants to go to Nobu.

She’s got a night away from her eight kids—also her co-stars on the hit reality series Jon & Kate Plus Eight—and a reporter is offering to take her out on the town. “I want sushi!” Kate says, leaning back in an armchair in her suite at the Essex House hotel overlooking Central Park, checking her BlackBerry, popping gum.

The first time I read this opening, I was hooked. I got the vibe of a pouty toddler/entitled teen in that opening quote to the point I could almost imagine her stomping her foot on the ground in a demanding way. Later in the piece, the author describes a trip to F.A.O. Schwarz, an upscale toy store:

As the S.U.V. pulls up to F.A.O. Schwarz, the paparazzi arrive in a crush at the car door. Chick-chick-chick-chick-chick. Kate climbs out, assisted by Neild, who escorts her into the store, warning the paparazzi not to follow her.

“That’s the mother that had eight kids!” a shopper squeals. It’s a weekday, and the store is filled with tourists, men in khaki shorts and women with scrunchies. Suddenly everyone is pulling out a digital camera. “It’s Kate Gosselin!”

Neild asks a security guard to call for backup.

Everyone wants to take a picture with Kate. She stops obligingly, here and there, posing with the same elated smile for every picture—it’s the same smile she’ll wear in her People cover next week: “Kate Strikes Back!”

A personal shopper, an older lady in a floral-print dress, is summoned to help Kate select toys for her brood. Kate sails along beside her, ignoring all the gawkers. The personal shopper shows her some hacky sacks: “Boys like these.” “I’ll take your word for it,” Kate sniffs, moving past them. The personal shopper shows her some action figures: “This is the hottest stuff for boys.” “I’d rather die,” says Kate. “Moving right along!”

“You look fabulous, Kate!” a woman shouts. “Kate, we love you. Stay strong!” says another.

Kate accidentally steps on a little boy’s foot with her three-inch heels; he yelps. “Oooooh, sorry about that,” she says, moving right along.

Everything from word selection (“her brood” and “Kate sniffs”) to the specificity of her shoes (three-inch heels) provides the reader with a rich sense who this person is and what she really values. If you read through the whole profile, you will find only one mention of her children by name and, spoiler alert, it wasn’t from Gosselin herself.

The way you get this kind of description is through observation. Nancy Jo Sales took the time to look for every tiny moment and every scrap of detail, using what helped advance her storytelling and discarding the elements that didn’t. The profile thus becomes a window into the life of the subject and a chance for the readers to watch the story emerge.

The next time you have a profile assignment, consider spending a day with your subject for the sole purpose of gathering detail and description. It may seem like a large investment, but it will be worth it.

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