Part 4: Rhetorical Modes

17 Profiles

Introduction to the Profile

by Kate Geiselman, Sinclair Community College

The purpose of a profile is to give the reader new insight into a particular person, place, or event. The distinction between a profile and, for example, a memoir or a biography is that a profile relies on newly acquired knowledge. It is a first-hand account of someone or something as told by the writer. You have probably read profiles of famous or interesting people in popular magazines or newspapers. Travel and science publications may profile interesting or unusual places. All of these are, in effect, observation essays. A curious writer gathers as much information as s/he can about a subject, and then presents it in an engaging way. A good profile shows the reader something new or unexpected about the subject.

Dialogue, description, specific narrative action, and vivid details are all effective means of profiling your subject. Engage your reader’s senses. Try to show your reader what’s behind the scenes or introduce them to someone unique.

A profile is not strictly objective. Rather than merely reporting facts, a profile works to create a dominant impression. The focus of a profile is on the subject, not on the writer’s experience. However, the writer is still “present” in a profile, as it is s/he who selects which details to reveal and decides what picture they want to paint. It is the writer’s job to use the information and writing strategies that best contribute to this dominant impression, which was a concept discussed in the narrative introduction as well.

Above all, a profile should have a clear angle. In other words, there should be an idea or purpose guiding it. Why do you think your subject is something other people will be interested in reading about? What is the impression you hope to convey? The answer to these questions will help you discover your angle.

Writing Strategies for Profiles

Conducting research


The best way to conduct research about your subject is to observe it firsthand. Once you have decided on a topic, you should spend some time gathering information about it. If you decide to profile a person, watch an interview and take notes. Write down everything you can; you can decide later whether or not it’s relevant. If you have a smartphone, take pictures or make recordings to refer to later. Most people think of observing as something you do with your eyes, but try to use of all of your senses. Smells, sounds, and sensations will add texture to your descriptions. You may also spend time observing your subject at his/her work or in different contexts. Again, write everything down so you don’t forget the key details. Remember, it’s the specific details that will distinguish the great profiles from the merely proficient ones.

If you choose to profile a person, you may want to conduct an interview with him/her. Before doing so, plan what you are going to ask. You probably have a good idea of why this person will be a good subject for a profile, so be sure your questions reflect that. Saying “tell me about yourself” is unlikely to get your subject talking. Saying, “tell me what it was like to be the first person in your family to go to college,” will get a much more specific answer.

Due to time constraints and distance, an interview may not be possible. If interviews have already been video recorded, watch them carefully as if you were there.

Organizing your profile
Once you have gathered all of your information, it’s time to start thinking about how to organize it. There are all different ways to write a profile, but the most common organizational strategies are chronological, spatial, and topical. Most profiles are some combination of the three.

Chronological order is presenting details as they happened in time, from start to finish. A chronological profile of a person might talk about their past, work up to their present, and maybe even go on to plans for the future.  The advantage to writing in chronological order is that your writing will unfold naturally and transition easily from start to finish. The disadvantage, though, is that strict chronological order can get tedious. Merely recounting a conversation or experience can be dry, and can also pull focus from the subject onto the writer’s experience.

Spatial organization is presenting information as it occurs in space or by location. This is a great choice if you’re writing about a place. Think of it as taking your reader on a tour: from room to room of a house, for example. Spatial organization can even work for a person, depending on your focus. Try profiling a person at home, work, and school, for example.

Topical organization is just what it sounds like: one topic at a time. Think first of what you want to say about a person and organize details and information by subject. A profile of a person might talk about their home life, their work, and their hobbies. Look at the information you gather from observation and/or interviewing and see if any topics stand out, and organize your paper around them. Most profiles are some combination of chronological, spatial, and topical organization. A profile might begin with a chronological narrative of a hockey game, and then flashback to provide some background information about the star player. Then it might go on to talk about that player’s philosophy of the sport, returning to the narrative about the game later on.

Using description
Vivid descriptions are key in a profile. They immerse your reader in the subject and add texture and depth to your writing. However, describing something is more than deploying as many adjectives as possible. In fact, the best descriptions may not have any adjectives at all. They rely instead on sensory detail and figurative language. Sensory detail is exactly what it sounds like: appealing to as many of the reader’s senses as possible. Adjectives can be vague, and even subjective. Think about this example:

“My grandmother always smelled good.”

What does good mean? What does good smell like? Do we even agree on what kinds of things smell good? Instead, try this:

“My grandmother always smelled good: like Shalimar, Jergen’s lotion, and menthol cigarettes.”

Now your reader knows much more. Perhaps they are even familiar enough with those scents that they can imagine what that combination would smell like. Moreover, you have delivered some emotional information here. Not every reader would agree that the smell of cigarettes is “good,” but perhaps that smell is comforting to you because you associate it so strongly with someone you care about. Of course, smell is not the only sense you can appeal to. Sights, sounds, temperatures and tastes will also enliven your writing.

Figurative language can add depth and specificity to your descriptions. Use metaphors, similes, comparisons, and images creatively and purposefully. Consider the following:

“She was so beautiful.”

“Beautiful” just doesn’t tell us much. It is, like “good,” both vague and subjective. We don’t all have the same standards of beauty, nor is beauty one particular quality. Try a comparison instead:

“She was so beautiful that the conversation stopped every time she entered a room.”

True, we don’t know much about what she looks like, but we do know that nearly everyone finds her striking.

Similes (comparisons using like or as) are not only efficient but are also more vivid than adjectives. Compare these two sentences:

“He was short and muscular.” vs. “He was built like a bulldog.”



Profiles, Another Perspective

by Sybil Priebe

On the cover of most magazines are people posing and photoshopped. Profiles are the textual piece that’s written about that person about halfway into the magazine. Rolling Stone might do a profile piece on the most influential band at the time, Glamour might have a profile piece on some actress who has a movie coming out, and even Hunting might have a profile piece on the newest species to watch out for.

The best profile pieces typically include interviewee statistics, intriguing quotes from that interviewee woven in with a summary of the interview, concluding analysis of what the interviewer thought of the whole interview, as well as background information on the interviewee before or during the interviewer’s body paragraphs.

Unlike some profile pieces in magazines, most teachers will not want students to simply report back every single word the interviewee said. They will want that nice balance of quote + summary: approximately 30% quotes and 70% summary/analysis.

Why Read Profiles?

To learn about others’ lives through the unique perspective of a particular (yet biased) journalist, etc.

Memorable Profiles

Anyone Barbara Walters has interviewed? Anyone Diane Sawyer has interviewed? Anyone Chuck Klosterman interviews?

When to Write Profiles?

For class, for the “About Us” page on a company’s web site, etc.

How to Write Profiles?

Ask specific questions that will lead to finding out more about your subject.

Profile Creation

A good profile piece requires a well-rounded person; these are people who are fleshed out in detail, with, for example, a back story that explains their motivations. A flat profile piece is less well rounded, possibly even one-dimensional. They are not as interesting to read.

The following takes you through the steps to create a well-rounded profile piece – it starts on the outside and works its way to the insides of the person.


Profile’s Appearance

The appearance of a person is important, but remember as a writer you are describing the appearance and much will be left to the readers’ imagination. Of course, if you are writing for film or television or for a visual work like a comic book, then appearance becomes more important.

Physical Attributes

You should decide the physical attributes of your profile person. At the least you should consider:

  • Height – are they tall, short, average?
  • Weight – are they overweight, underweight, average?
  • Skin tone and freckles, hair and eye color
  • Distinguishing features – birthmarks, scars, tattoos
  • Hair color – brunette, blonde?
  • Hair length – short, long, shoulder-length?

Some of these attributes will be worked into the writing early on to allow the reader to form an image of the stakeholder in their “mind’s eye.” You should try to avoid the stereotypes – not all pirates have only one eye and have a wooden leg!

Accessories & Clothing

Think about the things your stakeholder wears, carries, and uses and whether any should be distinctive. Think of Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver, James Bond’s Walther PPK, or Carrie’s heels in Sex in the City! These are all iconic accessories. People in real life tend to favor certain items and these items are part of how we recognize them and think of them. The glasses they wear, the type of watch they use, the jewelry they wear. Add accessories to shape your profile person. Are they fascinated with different sorts of glasses? Funny t-shirts? Vintage Levi’s jeans? Use a pocket watch instead of a wristwatch? Wear a locket around his/her neck?

Profile Background

This section covers the creation of the profile person’s background. The background is essential, even if it is not actually detailed. As well as making the profile more interesting and adding depth to the story, the writer can use the background to ensure the profile person’s behavior remains consistent. If the writer has written up the background and stated that the stakeholder is claustrophobic, then the readers are more likely to understand why the profiled person doesn’t like MRIs if the interviewer asks them about medical issues the profiled person has had.  Educational background, early years, how they got into the environmental field (or connected to your topic), there are any number of areas you can focus on as you establish their background.

The Basics

Start out with writing down some of the basic facts:

  • Is your stakeholder male, female, transgender?
  • Where was your stakeholder born?
  • How old are they?
  • What kind of education do they have?
  • What is their current job?
  • What are their interests outside their job?
  • How did they get involved with the environment?
  • Who are their enemies and friends?

Motivations & Roundedness

You need to understand why your profile person behaves the way they do. Ask them about motivations that you can’t understand – otherwise, you won’t be able to write effectively about them.

Very few real people are static or completely stable. Your profile person might have things that drive them and things that repel them – but there will probably be more than one. Nobody is just a custodian, nobody is just a mother caring for her children, nobody is just a busy doctor.

Profile’s Personality

Is your profile person mean, nice, funny? That can be determined all by their personality…

Personality Mix

Most people have a mixture of a few personalities. The caring mother mentioned above might be a Type-A scrapbooker and a wine lover. The busy doctor might compete in triathlons and have three pit bulls who she/he puts into competitions. The custodian may be a collector of vintage motorcycles, obsess over a particular hockey team, and spoil his/her grand-daughters. It is your job to explore the person beyond what you already know. Here are a few questions to look into that you would ask if you were interviewing them:

  • What adjectives would your friends use to describe you?
  • What hobbies do you have?
  • What would your “best day” consist of?
  • What is on your Bucket List?
  • Describe yourself in one sentence.
  • What’s something weird in your fridge right now?
  • What three items would you want on a deserted island?


Profile: The Little Details

Details are very important in writing a profile piece; they could make or break your story! I won’t give you tips on little details, since there can be so many, but I will tell you one thing: when writing out details, be careful, they can change your profile piece a lot! For example, a reader can tell that a stakeholder is impatient if he/she taps her feet from time to time.

Example: Profile


She “Wants to be a Zombie in a Future Life”

When she was born, I called her “that girl.” Apparently, I wasn’t too keen on having another kid around. I had the place to myself for three years, so, I guess I had territorial issues.

She was chubby = “Just say I was a fat kid already.” She still claims that her baby gut never went away; in college, it was expanded with her addiction to diesel Pepsi. Since then, she’s given up that all-out sugar and fills the baby gut with beer. “It’s the only right thing to do.”

She also felt the oddness, once the other siblings were born, of being the middle child = “It sucks.” Alisa was accused of things the rest of us did, which was not cool but it happened. Of all of us, she was an easy target; she feels guilt quicker (“It’s that damn Catholicism at worked!”) and had a very secretive rebel side that no one knew of until later. Did she really start smoking at age 14? Yep. And drinking at 15? Yes. But we didn’t suspect it.

We lived together when she decided to go to NDSU. At that point, I was a clean freak and she wasn’t, but when I ended up on my own later, teaching & exhausted, we would switch spots. Now, she’s almost got OCD (“I like things done in 5s; when people touch the volume in my car, I have to ask them to do it in units of 5.”). And what adds to it is her English degree. We both get easily irritated with spelling and punctuation errors.

With that English degree came more awkwardness of what to do with it. She’s very creative but lacks confidence. And she’s not a huge book reader, either, which shocks most. Her most recently read book was The Zombie Survival Guide.

While at times I have felt like a mom to her, she is my best friend. We look similar, but her very blue eyes and naturally brown hair make her look wiser and more authentic (“Do people think I’m older than you because I’m angry?” Me: “I think it’s your hair color.”). She’s brutal and fun and knows how to kick ass. Any mention of zombies or pirates or sharks (“Shark Week! Did you know…”) or Peyton Manning, and she’ll talk your face off. She’s almost gotten two nicknames related to her storytelling skills = Sideline and Bulldozer. She tends not to stay on track, and, yes, she’ll bulldoze you over with statistics any time.

She’s the glue in our family. I wouldn’t be as close to my youngest siblings if it weren’t for Alisa. We’ve been through a lot together, but we stick by each other. We’ve paid each other’s way, financially or otherwise (“Red Lobster, courtesy of Ma & Pa!”).

At the end of my life, I hope her and I follow-through on our wishes = to have purple hair and wear sweatpants along with t-shirts that say stupid stuff like “Princess” or “Bite Me.”


Works Cited

Priebe, Alisa. Personal Interview. 14 Dec 09.



Time to Write

Purpose:  This assignment will demonstrate the understanding of how to do a thorough investigation of a person. Students will research a person and identify the full context of that person in relation to the topic they have chosen.

Task: This assignment frames a single individual (stakeholder) for the approved research topic.

Write a Profile Essay.  This essay should clearly identify a person that interests you.  This person should be someone that you can research.  Your research should include who this person is, their background, and how they connect to your topic.  This is an INFORMATIVE (Expository) essay, so you aren’t making an argument, you are just presenting facts about this person.  Explain who the person is, their background, their presence (descriptive essay style), their opinions and perspectives, anecdotes of their actions, and how they connect to the problem.  Conclude with a statement of what the readers should understand about this person after reading your essay. Your research should include quotations from the person to show their perspectives.  Don’t just state what you “think” they believe, show their own words that demonstrate that stance.  Draw on a variety of sources that include interviews, observations, and research.

Key Features of a Profile:

  • The subject is someone compelling, interesting, maybe even puzzling
  • Profiles provide descriptive, sensory details to help readers imagine how the subject looks, sounds, act, maybe even smells
  • Profiles include several direct quotations from the subject or others that help readers understand the person’s opinions and perspectives
  • Profiles draw on evidence and insights from a variety of sources, such as personal observations, interviews, and library and online research
  • Profiles present several anecdotes about the subject that show readers the background and experiences that have shaped the subject
  • Profiles lead readers to a particular emotional response to, a fresh take on, or a logical conclusion about the subject


Key Grading Considerations

  • Content
    1. A clear controlling idea about this person
    2. Narrative elements
    3. Supporting points are credible, clear, and explained
    4. 3 solid, supporting points
    5. Subject knowledge is evident.
    6. All information is clear, appropriate, and correct.
  • Key Features are included
  • Organization
    1. Transitions
    2. Expository Thesis Statement
    3. Topic Sentences
    4. Some Narrative Elements that flow with the paper
    5. Clear introduction, body, and conclusion
  • Descriptive Language
    1. Dialogue is used
    2. Academic vocabulary
    3. Descriptions and quotes to help visualize the person
  • Language Use, Mechanics & Organization
    1. Correct, appropriate, and varied integration of textual examples, including in-text citations
    2. Limited errors in spelling, grammar, word order, word usage, sentence structure, and punctuation
    3. Good use of academic English
    4. Demonstrates cohesion and flow
  • Fully in APA Format
    1. Paper Format
    2. Citation Format
    3. Cover Page





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