Profile Assignment


The Basics:


Observe and interview a subject.  3.5-5.5 typed pages (9-14 paragraphs).  Consider an original title that reflects your topic.




For the remembering a person essay, I asked you to write about someone you once knew well; for this assignment, I am asking you to write about someone you do not know at all.  I would like you to act like a journalist and go out to uncover what you can about someone you find interesting.


I expect you to spend some time observing your subject and then to interview him or her.  I warn you in advance that this assignment will call for the most time and the most planning on your part.  I will urge you to begin thinking about it well before you begin to write it; be certain to make your arrangements as soon as possible.


One way to think about this essay is to imagine it as a documentary.  In your research, you gather information from what you see, from what you hear (both through the questions you ask and through anything you overhear), and through what you know.  As you write, weave that material together so that your reader experiences your subject in the same way that you did.


The challenge here is to present a new person to your audience.  Pay attention both to what the person does and to the way that he or she is surprising as an individual.


Think of yourself as telling a story.  At the beginning you expect something from your subject; those expectations should grow out of the details you show us right away more than they should grow out of something you tell us.  By the end, you should have demonstrated what you have found in light of those expectations.


Appropriate topics: 


I urge you to profile someone who works in a field that interests you.  If you think you might one day want to go into law enforcement, then try to find a police officer, sheriff, or security person who would be willing to serve as your subject.  If you think you want to go into business or computers, then try someone along those lines.


As an alternative, you might consider profiling someone who strikes you as particularly unusual.  If you you’re intrigued by someone you know only from a distance, this assignment might be your excuse to get to know him or her.


Some of you might have access to a celebrity of some kind.  Feel free to pursue such opportunities, but be aware that it is often more difficult to write interestingly about someone famous than it is to write about someone the rest of us just seem to have overlooked.


Be brave as you make your plans.  If you’re interested in someone, give him or her a call.  Most people are flattered when they find out you are interested in them.  Even the people who say no are usually good natured about it.


Some pitfalls:


First, keep up with the schedule.  Since we’ll spend almost a month on this essay, it’s easy to imagine that you have all of the time in the world.  In fact, our schedule is really rather tight. You will find that you have only a day or two in which you can schedule your appointments.  Many people need at least a week’s notice before they can meet with you, and you will be lucky if you are able to arrange something just when you need it.  Get started right away, even if you are not certain what you are doing.  I am happy to advise you on specific possibilities if you are confused.


Once you write the essay, be wary of telling too much about what you have learned.  A good profile shows your subject rather than tells about it.  Be careful to give as much detail as you can about what you see and what you hear.  Spend whole paragraphs describing your subject’s office or way of doing a particular task.


Be careful to include many quotes.  I expect most paragraphs will have at least one lengthy quote.  (Try to avoid lots of very short ones, however.)  Be sure to use direct quotes rather than paraphrases.  The way your subject talks is probably more important than what he or she has to say.


Let yourself get interested in the tiny details.  Even a 10-minute interview and observation should give you enough material if you are attentive.  If you do not write down quotes and do not keep your eyes open to all of the small things you see, then you might find that you do not have enough material to fill out this essay.


When you write, be sure to use the present tense to describe events that have already taken place.  It might seem odd to do so at first, but the present tense will make it possible for you to include more detail than otherwise, and it will give your essay a documentary-like tone.  An essay in the past tense seems as if it is finished more quickly than one in the present, and it will often seem flatter and duller as well.


Pay particular attention to your opening paragraph(s).  That’s where you want to define your expectations most clearly, but you want to do so subtly.  It isn’t wrong to say “I expect to find...” but you might try to imply what you expect through good detail rather than by saying it directly.  You will probably find that makes your essay more interesting to read.


Features of the best essays:


If you really succeed with a profile, you manage to capture an individual doing something that the rest of us don’t have the opportunity (or, perhaps, misfortune) to do.  You can make a good documentary-like study of someone you find interesting, and you can persuade the rest of us to find him or her interesting, too.


You might also find that you have tested the waters of some profession that interests you.  There can be a real energy in a profile where you, yourself, figure in as an important second character.


Finally, remember that many magazines publish profiles.  More than with anything else you write this semester, the profile gives you a chance to look at your work in light of the way professional writers write.  Look at the magazines and newspapers you read; most of them will probably include regular profiles of one sort or another.