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The Art of the Profile

ENGL 161.301
M 2-5:00

“Choose someone who touches some corner of the reader’s life.”—William Zinsser, on profile-writing

We’ll explore—and practice—some of the key elements of profile-writing: Gaining access to the profile subject; conducting an effective interview and extracting quotes that reveal the person; observing the profile subject in action, and extracting details that reveal the person; making the profile subject compelling—and, ideally, relatable—for the reader. We’ll also debate issues that have long challenged profile writers: How do you persuade complete strangers to share compelling details of their public or private lives? What are the best ways to assemble the essential ingredients of a good profile: facts, quotes, and/or anecdotes? Do you tape the interviews or just take notes? How can you best structure a profile in order to keep the reader’s attention? Is it possible to write a profile if the person won’t talk—or if the person is deceased? Is it better to quote at length—or merely to observe? When, and under what circumstance, should the writer insert his or her judgment/voice into the profile story? On the other hand, is there sometimes a problem of having too much access? Beyond all that, is it even possible to capture the essence of a person on the written page? Are you a friend, a confidante, or a manipulator? A journalist at The New Yorker once said that a writer’s relationship with the profile subject is “a kind of love affair”—but, on the other hand, a famous author once said that a profile writer is typically “gaining their trust and betraying without remorse.” Which is closer to the truth? All told, profile reporting challenges one’s social skills. How good are yours?

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