Career Advice

6 Secrets of Successful Profile Writers

By Susan Johnston July 25th, 2014

Many freelance journalists have dreamed of writing in-depth profiles of celebrities. But editors usually assign these stories to staffers or someone familiar already considered a seasoned celeb-wrangler.

Finding the elusive Average Joe with a fascinating story and a willingness to open up is a more realistic option for emerging writers, but that doesn’t make it any easier. “Everyone has a story, but I don’t think we want to read every one of them,” said Cristina Rouvalis, a Pittsburgh-based freelancer who’s written profiles for in-flights, regional, and major consumer magazines.

The Freelancer picked the brains of Rouvalis and two other veteran profile writers to uncover their tricks of the trade.

Go beyond the usual suspects

To find a profile subject who hasn’t been splashed all over the press already, keep your eyes and ears open. Marti Attoun, a Missouri-based freelancer who’s contributed profiles to American ProfileLadies’ Home Journal, and Good Housekeeping, finds nearly all her subjects by reading local publications and researching online. One such story was about a “Kansas teen computer whiz who made his young friend a prosthetic hand using a 3-D printer at his library.” When Attoun read about the teen in a local newspaper, she knew it would have national appeal and successfully pitched the idea to her editor at American Profile. Similarly, Rouvalis has followed her own curiosity to find interesting characters such as a racewalking coach or a repo man.

Get the subject’s buy-in

For many writers, deciding when to contact a profile subject can feel like a chicken-and-egg scenario. Do you get someone excited about media coverage that might never materialize? Or do you risk pitching your editor a subject who might be unresponsive? Attoun calls her subjects before pitching to gather background information and make sure the subjects are willing to be interviewed.

“I’m upfront about saying that I don’t have an assignment yet, but hope to interest an editor in the story,” she said.

Put your subjects at ease

Attoun prefers to interview subjects in person if the publication will cover travel expenses. “People feel more relaxed and comfortable talking face to face,” she explained. “Often, a family photo or some object in the environment will spark questions that lead to a better story.”

Michele Wojciechowski, a Baltimore writer, uses humor to diffuse any nerves her subjects might have. “I tell them, ‘You’re gonna get this first question right: Spell your first and last name,'” she said. “Everybody laughs at that.” She’s even written about serious topics like medical issues and used humor judiciously to help her sources relax and open up.

Talk to the subject’s mom

Many successful people are reluctant to toot their own horns. But as Rouvalis pointed out, their mothers will gladly do it for them, as well as possibly offer some interesting backstories. When Rouvalis interviewed the mother of three-time Olympic sprinter Lauryn Williams, she found a great story about Williams’ reaction to a hot dog vendor who joked about her dropping the baton at the Olympics.

If it doesn’t make sense to interview the mom, seek out other sources such as siblings, former professors, friends, or business partners to add another voice to the story.

Look for unexpected profile markets

Newspapers, consumer magazines, and top-shelf publications like Rolling Stone and The New Yorker aren’t the only places that publish profiles. During interviews, Wojciechowski will ask her subjects where they attended college, where they grew up, and if they belong to any fraternal organizations, because those details might spark ideas for additional profile markets.

“Alumni magazines are always looking for profiles, but there are all kinds of different ways to categorize people,” she said. Certain ethnic groups, professional organizations, and even religious groups publish their own magazines.

Use details selectively

All good profile writers collect more information than they can possibly use in the published piece (Wojciechowski has written profiles as short as 150 words!), and paring it down can be the toughest part of the job. “Sometimes I get great anecdotes and I can’t use them because of space or because of the publication,” she said. “When I sit down with the interview transcript, it’s a matter of fitting the pieces together.” When a great detail just doesn’t fit, Wojciechowski enjoys knowing she learned about it, even if her readers won’t.

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