Profile writing is common in Literary Journalism, but even freshman English Composition classes often assign a profile essay. What distinguishes a profile from other types of written assignments?
A profile usually asks you to closely observe a person. A good profile subject is someone who may represent a culture, place, or situation that is unique or intriguing. For instance, profiling an unknown tri-athlete can show an audience what it might be like to overcome challenges or demonstrate the dedication it takes to compete. Profiling a local pastry chef may show a unique occupation that has been gaining popularity from TV shows like Cupcake Wars.
A profile is similar to a narrative essay in that it utilizes a narrative method of organization, incorporating narrative storytelling devices such as scenes, sensory detail, and dialogue, to build the essay. All of these details work together to show the character of the profile subject. Specific details are shown in scenes; descriptions are shown through the use of sensory detail, such as sight, smell, touch, taste and sound, as well as literary techniques like metaphor and simile, and other figurative language.
Most profile essays will require you to interview your subject. This is a narrative storytelling technique which allows the subject to speak for themselves, again showing the character and personality of the subject. As the interviewer, you will be required to have a good ear to relay the spoken word. You’ll have to transcribe the interview into dialogue form, which is fun and challenging at the same time. Choosing what to leave in and what to edit out will determine how your profile subject is characterized.
Finding a great subject is half the battle, as a profile is only as good as the subject. Think outside the box when considering who you might want to profile. Good subjects come in unlikely places. The grocery store clerk. The Starbucks barista. The school security guard. All of these subjects work in places with lots of setting specifics and sensory detail.
Profile as Part of a Larger Project
It’s not unusual to incorporate a profile piece into an argument essay as a way to hook the audience and to dramatize an issue. Take a look below at the “Profile” introduction to an argument essay. The writer is trying to persuade the audience to require breathalyzers in the cars of convicted drunk drivers:
Charley Wolf left the bar at 1:00am after consuming seven beers and ten shots in a three hour period. Wolf slid behind the wheel of his Ford pickup, turned the ignition, and put the truck in “Drive.” In the next twenty minutes, Wolf was spotted by other motorists weaving on the expressway, running over a curb, and knocking down a road barrier. Within ten minutes, Wolf hit another car head-on, killing the driver and critically injuring the passenger. As the police booked Wolf, they learned he had four previous drunk driving offenses.
Consider this alternate scenario: Wolf consumed seven beers and ten shots in three hours. He left the bar to drive home. But when he got behind the wheel, the ignition wouldn’t unlock until he took a breathalyzer, which he failed. Wolf took a cab home, avoiding what could have been a tragedy.
In this example, the writer profiles a subject to show a tragic scene, hooking the audience with the emotional appeal of a true story, adding support to his argument requiring breathalyzers for previously convicted drunk drivers.
When writing a profile essay, take some time to consider who might make a good subject, and what you want to “show” in the profile. Details you’ll glean from the interview and observation will help characterize the subject. Think about what you want your audience to take away from the profile. Maybe the grocery store clerk has been at the same store for thirty years and is a part of the local culture of the neighborhood. The Starbucks barista may have something interesting to say on this special form of addiction (caffeine!). Take your time with careful observation, and prepare interview questions ahead of time. A good subject and careful prep will go a long way toward a great profile.