August 22, 2002

Lifestyle Columnist,
Detroit Free Press
Synopsis by BINH HONG

When Susan Ager, lifestyle columnist for the Detroit Free Press, was 10 years old, she was diagnosed with diabetes. That experience has defined her life.

She thought she wouldn’t live past 30. She’s now 47. She thought it would be too dangerous and decided never to have kids.

“Until you understand your own life, you can’t hope to write about someone else,” Ager said.

Struggles help define a person, she said. Struggle and change are inherently interesting.

When writing a profile, think of yourself as the reader. Why would you want to read about someone you’ve never met? Can you see ways this person is and isn’t like me?

“It’s that animal instinct in humans that makes us want to sniff each other,” she said.

Most profiles do not tell someone’s internal resume – feelings, thoughts, who they were at different points in their lives.

Every life has a plot, where the internal and external resumes are combined. Every life has a turning point or fork in the road. Every life has oddities, quirks and surprising details.

“With every question you ask, you’re pulling a thread,” Ager said. “Some lock and don’t go anywhere; others unravel and reveal who a person is.”

Journalists can introduce readers to the people they are too busy to get to know themselves, she said.

Yet, to a reader, many profiles are like meeting too many people, and they can’t remember any specific one. Good profiles have anecdotes that reveal how the person became who they are.

The subjects of profiles could be people who are on the brink of change, unusual people, people in the community others may have wondered about but never bothered to notice, such as someone who styles the hair of dead people.

“I used to think the world was divided into two people – the interesting and the boring,” Ager said. But her husband pointed out that maybe she hasn’t asked some of them the right questions yet to make them interesting. So now she practices by talking to strangers on airplanes.

Questions to ask yourself while preparing a profile:

  • Why this person?

  • Why now?

What kind of profile should I try to do?

  • A vignette: A moment in time.

  • A day in the life

  • Fifteen minutes of fame

  • Full-life profile

Psychological profile

  • Do readers understand why they should care about my subject?

  • What’s the payoff for readers?

  • Can I provide insight and/or inside details about my subject?

  • What do average readers want to know?

  • What’s the payoff for my subject?

  • Why should he/she admit to this process?

  • Can I watch my subject work/live/play?

  • Will I keep the interviews conversational?

  • Will my questions be fresh, direct, specific?

  • Will I ask about mundane details, as well as touchy, intimate matters?

  • Can I make time for two, three or more interviews, even if they are brief?

  • Have I talked to others who understand my subject or might see my subject with different eyes?

  • Do I, by the end of my reporting, understand what motivates my subject, and will I make that clear to readers? Is my story plump with vivid, memorable details about how my subject works and lives?

  • Will the reader want to recount those details to friends?

  • Are the quotes spicy and telling?

  • Have I cut out all long, dull and predictable quotes?

  • Can the reader see my subject in a scene or two?

  • Are the turning points in my subject’s life obvious to the reader, and explored for their lasting impact?

  • Is it clear how my subject is different than others who do the same job or live the same life?

  • Is it also clear how my subject is the same as everyone else?

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Bill Mitchell is CEO and publisher of the National Catholic Reporter. He was editor of Poynter Online from 1999 to 2009. Before joining Poynter, he…
Bill Mitchell

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