Sample Profile Assignment

“Profile” assignment

Some how-to websites and writing resources define a profile narrowly:

A profile is the story of one person, sometimes two, or even a group who are engaged in a common endeavor.  –

A profile article explores the background and character of a person, group or business. Whether the focus is on a news angle or a single aspect of the subject’s personal or professional life, a profile gives the reader a greater understanding of the subject through the lens of his or her personal interests, career, and educational and family background. – Lori Russell, “The Scoop on Writing Profile Articles”

John Rains in “Crafting the perfect profile,” at provides more helpful detail about how to get beyond an obvious two-dimensional portrait of a person, so his page is worth reading for starting points for writing a profile.

But I want us to think more broadly in this profile assignment. Why focus on just one person or group of people? Why not profile a place, such as Mills Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park? Why not an idea, like the “golden ratio”? (See Natural History, March, 2003.) Or a cultural phenomenon, like the Big Bands? You’ll probably find that your focus still comes back to the people involved with that place or idea, but an idea might be at the center of this writing as is “contagious cancer” in Quammen’s piece (even though the people and the named Tasmanian devils set up his frameworks for writing about the idea).

But, you might say, if I can write about any topic, then why call the assignment a profile at all? I’m trying to capture some features of the narrowly defined profile as elements of your task.

  • Profiles require some personal interpretation or perspective, often because of a stake in the topic.
  • Profiles typically provoke more thinking about ideas even beyond the “individual” at the center of the profile.
  • Profiles develop the “breadth, depth, dimensionality, and contradictions” inherent in the topic, notes Professor Steve Reid.
  • Profiles might emphasize the exotic, peculiar or bizarre, but they always get beyond the surface, sometimes with emphasis on social, political, or moral implications implicit in the topic.

In short, your readers could look up your topic on Wikipedia to get the basic facts, but they’ll read your profile because of your personal interpretation of the topic.

(If this concept still seems fuzzy, think more about how Quammen profiles cancer, Russon profiles Supinah the orangutan, Talbot profiles the juvenile criminal justice system….)

The basics

  • 5000 words geared for publication(s) with editorial control
  • 1500-word chunks due for workshops on March 29, April 5, April 12 (and some misc. workshopping thereafter)
  • Final copy due on May 3

Hm, those basics don’t help much…
You get to make most of the decisions about this task. For instance, you’ll pick your topic and perspective(s) on your topic. You’ll specify narrowly targeted audiences. You’ll need to decide how many documents to write to get to your 5000-word goal. You’ll choose which genres to write in for your target readers. You’ll develop any multimodal elements you want to include.

For example, if I were profiling “Big Bands”, I’d know right away that I couldn’t possibly cover all the territory in 5000 words. So I’d start by narrowing in on some particular aspects of Big Bands that I could reasonably cover. I would probably emphasize the perspective of the rapidly dwindling number of Big Band musicians. I’d use my father as a great resource, and he’d figure prominently in the final piece. I’d probably write at least one of the documents as the liner notes for a CD featuring his reed work on well-known Big Band songs, and I would include at least one song in the final project. I have some great pictures from WWII and more recent snapshots that I’d want to work into one of the texts, probably an article targeted to Smithsonian. I might write a sidebar to the Smithsonian piece looking at the influence of Big Band reed-section harmonics on the recent swing revival exemplified by Squirrel Nut Zippers and Cherry Popping Daddies, and I’d embed in this piece a URL to an audio file with comparative reed segments.

As Steve Reid notes further in his observations about profiles, “the investigation into time and place and context is simply what is required of a good profile, and what makes a good profile more than a brief bio or feature.” So plan to invest lots of time digging into your topic to collect more “information” on your topic through reflecting, interviewing, observing, and fully developing your perspective/interpretation.

Some considerations

  • I prefer that you write for non-academic audiences, but if you have a great reason for writing to an academic audience, let’s talk.
  • The task cannot be fulfilled with a report. You will almost certainly use fact-based resources to build background on your topic, but you must move well beyond those bare facts.
  • The scope of your topic and perspective could be a major pitfall. Think carefully about how much space/attention you will have from target readers in a given genre as you decide how broadly you can frame your topic. If you plan to write shorter texts, you’ll need to choose a narrower focus. Keep in mind, though, that 5000 words might sound like an expansive space but it’s not.
  • Your style choices will reflect your specific rhetorical contexts for documents; still, I will look for careful attention to sentence structure and effect.
  • You don’t have to include sound or moving images, but I will look for formatting appropriate for your target journal/genre for the final draft of each text.
  • If you have a great reason to write some part of your final profile for a public forum not under editorial control, let’s talk. But the whole project cannot be geared toward highly personal, non-publishable genres such as diaries, letters, family scrapbooks, etc.