Four things that can kill a personality profile and how to avoid them

All about me Memes

If this is your approach to profile writing, try something else with your life…


I got a note from a former student regarding her dissatisfaction with some big-wig publications and their approaches to personality profiles:

Question oh esteemed journalism professor: why are so many writers inserting themselves (“my impression” “I first encountered”) into features and profiles about other people? I absolutely hate it and it takes me out of the story I am reading but it’s been happening so much more. Today is the NYT but I’ll also see it in WaPo and occasionally the Sun Times. What is it?

After I washed off the sarcasm from that first line, I responded in a way that can’t be repeated here, thanks in large part to SAGE folks reminding me that “certain words aren’t for everyone.” Let’s just say I made the case that the writers tended to like themselves too much for their own good and in a way that would have the average Catholic priest requiring 14-year-old boys to say five “Hail Marys” before heading home with a promise not to do that again.

That said, I’ve found similar complaints over the years in regard to perfectly good profiles turning to trash, thanks in large part to writers making bad choices. With that in mind, here are a few things that can damage a profile and a couple ways to avoid those problems:


PROBLEM 1 – First-Person and Second-Person Writing: Even though profiles are less hemmed in by the strictures of the inverted pyramid and paraphrase-quote structure, it doesn’t follow that you can just cut loose with all the bad habits you picked up in a creative writing class.

One of the first casualties of the war on quality writing is the use of first and second person. Suddenly, “you” wouldn’t imagine how cool it is to be a firefighter or “you” would really love to eat at this vegan restaurant. The writer becomes ultra-omniscient and knows what every single reader is thinking, liking, doing or imagining. This can serve as a major turnoff for readers, who like most humans of a certain intellectual acumen, don’t like being told what to do or think or feel.

An even bigger war crime kicks in when the writer decides to shift into first-person writing. There are clearly degrees to this, as we discussed with the Woody Harrelson and Adam Sandler profiles earlier. That said, even an occasional lapse into first person can distract the reader, who is trying to “get into” the profile and feel engaged with what is happening at that point.

SOLUTION: Don’t be lazy. First and second person often show up when the writer wants to get something across to the reader but can’t figure out exactly how to describe it or failed to gather enough information to report it properly. Thus, they show up like a weird tour guide and force a transition on the readers through the use of “I was curious” or “I caught up with” or “I had to know…”

Think about it like this: Let’s say you’re watching the new Indiana Jones movie (yes, I’m obsessed, but watch the trailer. The odd-numbered movies in the franchise are the best.) and at the height of a car chase, the director pops on the screen: “Hey, folks! I bet you’re thinking, ‘I wonder how Indy’s gonna get out of this one!’ Well, get ready because I put this cool moment in where you get to see how he can use his whip in a way he hasn’t before in four other movies!”

Now, you’re taken entirely out of the scene and instead of experiencing something, you realize it’s just a movie and Harrison Ford’s stunt double is in no way at risk.

If you’re not being lazy, you’re instead being self-centered, which is probably worse. Here’s the unvarnished reality of your surroundings: Nobody gives a damn about you, reporter-person. They came to learn about Selena Gomez or The Weeknd or Bob Woodward or Elmo. You are inconsequential, other than for your ability to provide that information. Stop thinking you matter and just give the readers what they came for.


PROBLEM 2 – Source Conformity: We tend to equate quantity with value when it comes to a lot of things in this world, and sources are no different. To that end, a lot of beginning writers tend to slather on a heavy dose of sources that provide very little in terms of quality information.

For example, let’s say someone is profiling me for some reason. A weak profile would have the writer interview all 15 kids in my Writing for the Media class and ask, “So, what do you think of Dr. Filak?” They all might say things from how great I am to things that SAGE will not allow me to print here, but in the end, all these sources do is act as one-trick ponies. They give the writer one basic quote, based on spending four hours per week with me in one classroom environment.

What this does is allow me, the primary source, to blather on for pages and pages before the writer tacks on a couple, “Dude doesn’t suck as much as most professors” quotes from three or four people. It’s a profile, but not a good one.

SOLUTION: I often refer to the idea of building the donut around the hole. I forgot where this concept came into being, but we were talking about how you don’t know how big a hole really is until you define it by the things that surround it (dirt, wood, donut). To that end, you want to find sources that each add some special insight to the profile regarding this person.

Here’s how it looks:

This is the “me” that is completely undefined by anything:

Now, with each source, you kind of “wall off” part of me, as they explain different things about me. Some have more say while others have less:

This is now how I’m defined or explained by these sources. If the donut thing bothers you, you can always think about it like each of these people represent one facet of a gem, through which the rest of the stone is viewed. Each angle shows or hides different aspects of what’s inside.


PROBLEM 3 – Welcome to Clicheville: Profiles are long and involved pieces that ask a lot of investment from a reader. Like most things, people will decide whether they want to make that investment in the first couple paragraphs, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to make those paragraphs interesting. An opening of “Jane Smith is not your average college student…” does not inspire a great deal of investment.

Neither does the use of a wide array of well-worn phrases that attempt to put the person into a specific frame of reference. (“…a friend to all who meet her…” or “… she has a fun, engaging personality…” or “… clearly (fill in any word that follows this adverb)…”) If this person is worth profiling, you probably need to do more than tell me they’re not average or just like a dozen other people who all could meet the same basic cliche standards.

SOLUTION: Writing that has a formula doesn’t have to be formulaic in the worst sense of the word. Start the piece with an experience, such as this one about the go-to photo fixer in the fashion business:

For a charity auction a few years back, the photographer Patrick Demarchelier donated a private portrait session. The lot sold, for a hundred and fifty thousand
dollars, to the wife of a very rich man. It was her wish to pose on the couple’s yacht.

“I call her, I say, ‘I come to your yacht at sunset, I take your picture,’ ” Demarchelier
recalled not long ago.

He took a dinghy to the larger boat, where he was greeted by the woman, who, to his surprise, was not wearing any clothes.

“I want a picture that will excite my husband,” she said.

Capturing such an image, by Demarchelier’s reckoning, proved to be difficult.

“I cannot take good picture,” he said. “Short legs, so much done to her face it was

Demarchelier finished the sitting and wondered what to do. Eventually, he
picked up the phone: “I call Pascal. ‘Make her legs long!’ “

The story picks up at that point with a solid nutgraf that tells me why this Pascal Dangin is the secret weapon for making photos look amazing without making them appear inauthentic.

A source talking about the main subject, a scene setting that establishes the subject’s bona fides or whatever else puts people in a place and time can work well here.

The same thing can be said for other parts of the piece. Let the sources do the heavy lifting for you instead of you trying to cliche your way to the finish. If the person is truly “a friend to all” let a source give you an example of how that manifested itself. If the person is really “a tough SOB,” let a source give you a “for instance’ on that topic. This helps provide more depth and value while also avoiding you trying to tell the story in a generic fashion.

PROBLEM 4 – Generic Language: Speaking of generic, when it comes to language, we can really rely a lot on things that don’t mean a lot.

Think about descriptors people use and how little value they have, like referring to someone as “tall.” What does that mean exactly? I’ll often put kids in my class through this simple exercise to illustrate the pointless nature of generic descriptors like that:

Me: Are you tall?

Kid: Not really.

Me: How tall are you?

Kid: about six feet tall.

Me: So if I stick you in a kindergarten class, you’re a giant, right?

Kid: Well… yeah…

Me: And if I stuck you on the Bucks basketball team?

Kid: Uh…

Me: Yeah. You’re Shorty the Towel Boy.

I’ll also ask kids in class what they think “a lot of money” is, or what an “expensive dinner” is. Not only do the numbers vary among the students, they’re variable to what a professor, a chancellor or Donald Trump would consider to be “a lot of money” or an “expensive dinner.”

The point is that everything is perspective and context, so saying someone is beautiful or ugly or tall or short or skinny or fat doesn’t really give someone a lot to go on. Instead, we need to be able to see the situation in our mind’s eye when we read the profile.

SOLUTION: Paint word pictures for your reader. The goal of good writing is to help your reader see a scene, a character or a specific object in a way that feels like the reader was standing next to you as you wrote down what you’re observing.

Some of the best descriptions came from comparisons. I remember reading someone describing a double to the gap in Yankee Stadium as being “a white pea, skittering across a lush green table cloth, under a black Bronx sky.” THAT is something I can see.

A student who profiled a Hollywood makeup artist described him as being “5-foot-2, both tall and wide, having bright orange Hawaiian shirts stretched over his ball-like torso.” She also noted that his voice “sounded like Michael Jackson after ingesting helium.”

Not sure if it works for everyone, but at least I knew he wasn’t a typical anything.

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