Profile Essay

Writing About People, Places, and Events:
Writing Profiles

What happens behind the scenes at a mortuary? How do incarcerated mothers act when their children visit them in prison? What compels participants to scarf down 25 corned-beef sandwiches during eating contests? Answers to these kinds of questions are explored in the writing of profiles: essays about individuals who may represent a social, cultural, or professional group to which they belong. The author of a profile often tries to answer this question: If I look closely at this person at work or at play, might I gain insight about other people in his or her position?
When you write a profile, you work near the realm of ethnography—the study of people and subcultures. A sub-culture or micro-society might be skate boarders, truck drivers, bird watchers, adolescent girls who spend weekends at shopping malls, or art connoisseurs who perpetually stroll the corridors of art museums. The ethnographer’s job is to closely observe and even interact with a person in order to learn more about the group or culture that individual represents.
Profiles take readers behind the scenes through slice-of-life portraits. As cultural ethnography, profiles rely primarily on the field research techniques of personal interview and observation to provide a vivid, detailed description, in which specific information is interwoven with the profiler’s analysis and interpretation—what can be called the essay’s perspective—to convey a full, meaningful experience.
Look at your essay as an opportunity to expose—to bring to light—truths that most people aren’t aware of. (After all, a profile that tells readers things they already know, or might easily guess, is hardly worth writing!) Generally speaking, the best subjects for profiling are individuals who exemplify the larger groups to which they belong—nannies, volunteers at homeless shelters, urban fast-order chefs, surfing enthusiasts—and who have stories to share about their experiences.
Whether examining something you know well or something you want to learn more about, you should focus on it as if for the first time and choose details that will not only make the profile come to life, but also show how your subject is significant and intriguing. As you write the essay, aim to weave the information gained from interviews and close observations with your personal insight to construct a richly described portrait that entertains as it informs.

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