How to Write a Profile Essay
A profile essay is a literary work that focuses on description of a person (people, event, or place) and its goal is, first and foremost, being informative. This type of essay should function as a work of journalism – be factual and descriptive, while retaining traits of a literary work: presenting your perspective on the subject and providing an interesting, immersive experience for the reader. Writing a profile essay is difficult work – in just a few pages you have to establish a character, their environment, what makes them tick and your opinion on it all. But this work can be fulfilling, and, for many, a welcome chance to flex their writing muscles. So, how do you write a profile essay?
Learn From the Best
The first step of writing a successful profile essay is reading other profile essays. Pick up a magazine that frequently publishes them (The New Yorker, Esquire, et al.) and read through a few. Even though the ones you're reading are likely to be about celebrities, try and see what makes reading these essays interesting other than that. Note how the subject of the essay is established early – in a ten-paragraph essay, by the second paragraph, you already kind of feel like you know the person it's about.
Choose Your Subject Carefully
Next, pick the subject of your essay. It will be easier to write if the subject (in the case that it is a person) immediately seems to have had remarkable experiences (celebrity, veteran, casino robber), but essays where the subject is not immediately intriguing can be very interesting to read, and the opposite is true as well – it's all in the hands of the writer. If you're writing for a college assignment, do try and pick something achievable – no presidents or celebrities (unless you know them personally).
Prepare For the Interview
Unless this is a special case, you'll need to interview the subject of your essay in person. Before you do, you should prepare questions. Aim for the questions that are broad and open-ended, starting with who, what, where, when and why. Yes or no questions should be kept to a minimum, since there's always a risk that your subject will be quiet and you'll end up burning through your questions and them just nodding or shaking their head instead of providing proper answers. Gather as much information about this person as possible – do the homework now, and you'll end up with a bevy of material to use in your essay.
Writing the Essay
This is where the bulk of your work lies. When you're writing your essay, it's important to keep in mind that the entire essay should be framed by your perspective on the events. Strive to be fair, but understand that, since you can't literally transport the reader into the events, and by the very fact that you're writing an abridged version of whatever happened, you're being subjective – and that's not an issue. In fact, a clear point of view on the person and the events that transpired will make for a better essay and a figuring out a “dominant impression” is key in profile essays. Just like in essays you've written before, you have to make a statement and present arguments to back it up. “Grandma Ruth is a sweet, kind old lady […] She helps her disabled neighbors and goes to church every week.”
Something you should avoid is writing out a transcript of your interview and presenting it as an essay. This is often the first inclination of students, but try and construct a narrative of the events – your essay should have a clear structure of a beginning, middle and end wherein the subject starts in one place, goes for a (figurative) journey, and ends up in another. Others might want to construct their essay topically – going from one subject to the next – which is the method most often used in profile essays written for magazines. Most will end up using a combined approach.
Your goal for this essay is to engage the reader and make them feel like they're there. To achieve this, use lots of small details – something we'd have noticed if we were there. A good tip is to engage one of the five senses at a time – sound, sight, touch, smell and taste.
And there you have it. Hopefully, these small tips will end up being useful in your essay writing. If all else fails, remember this: reader's perspective is key. So, when you're done writing it all up, take a step back and try to read it with fresh eyes. Do you feel like like you understand the subject at least very well? If not, consider revising.