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Writing Creative Nonfiction: The Profile/Biography Sketch

Friday, August-02-13

Dave Hood

A profile is not a biography or autobiography. The profile is a biography sketch, providing details of the person’s character, an overview of the person’s life story, and highlights of the person’s achievements and accomplishments. When the writer crafts a profile, the writer makes “some person” the focus of the story. The writer can profile a stranger or someone he/she knows well. The writer can also profile someone ordinary, such as a teacher, or priest, or police officer, or someone extraordinary, like Margaret Atwood, David Hockney, or Steve Jobs. For instance, in the November 11, 2011 edition of The New Yorker magazine, writer Malcolm Gladwell wrote a profile on Steve Jobs called “The Tweaker: the real genius of Steve Jobs.”

Before writing a profile, the writer must answer the question “Who is this person?” If the writer knows the person, the writer will rely on memory and observation and personal experience to write the profile. For instance, Charles Simic wrote a profile about his uncle called “Dinner at Uncle Boris,” which is based on a dinner at his uncle’s home. If the writer doesn’t know the person, the writer will conduct research, interviewing the person, visiting various places where the person works, lives, socializes, observing the person in their daily life, reading books, articles, and other material on the person.

A good profile includes telling details, dialogue, and storytelling. The writer will also use scene, summary, and personal reflection. A good profile is also interesting, profiles someone new, encourages the reader to think more about the person. A good profile informs, educates, and entertains readers. Some profiles have a serious tone, and other have a humorous tone.

In this article, I’ll discuss how to write a profile or biography sketch. The following will be covered:

  • Definition of a profile
  • Types of profiles
  • Gathering material to write the profile
  • Writing the profile
  • Additional resources to learn more about writing a profile

Definition of a Profile

A profile is not a book-length biography, which is an in-depth description of the life and times of another person. Nor is the profile a book-length autobiography, which involves writing about one’s own life. The profile is usually only a few pages and published in magazines or newspapers as an essay. The writer can profile someone he/she knows or a stranger. As well, the writer can profile someone ordinary or extraordinary. Sometimes the profile is about the good guy. The writer profiles a person who wants to achieve or accomplish something worthy. Perhaps the amateur athlete dreams about winning a gold medal at the Olympics, or the starving artist desires to achieve fame and fortune, or the writer aspires to write the next bestseller.

Some profiles are about “the villain.” In the September 24th, 2012 edition of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes a profile about child molesters called “In Plain View: How Child Molesters Get Away with It.”” In the essay, Gladwell narrates two stories about pedophiles, to illustrate how the sexual predator uses “trust” to create the opportunity to abuse a child.

The writer will include details about the person’s private life, psyche, and public world. The inner world deals with the person’s thoughts, feelings, opinions, views of other people. In writing about the outer world, the writer identifies some of the important setbacks and obstacles, as well as the significant accomplishments and achievements.

The writer can profile someone he/she knows or a stranger. If the person knows the person he/she will profile, the writer can create the profile from memories, observations, and personal experience. To write a profile about a stranger, the writer must have access to the person. Having access allows the writer to interview and to observe the person at work and at play. The writer will also interview family, friends, and work associates.

Sometimes a portrait isn’t based on an interview but a conversation. For instance, Charles Simic wrote a profile called “Dinner at Uncle Boris,” which is based on a dinner and evening conversation with his uncle. He includes humour, telling details, dialogue, scene and summary, and personal reflection to construct the portrait of his uncle.

The good profile of a public person answer several questions, including:

  • Why is the writer profiling the person?
  • What is unique about the person?
  • What is significant about the person?
  • What are the person’s achievements or accomplishments?
  • What obstacles or setbacks did the person have to overcome?
  • Why is the person in the news or public consciousness?
  • Does the writer likes the person? Dislike the person? Why?

The best profiles answer the question ” Who is this person? Unfortunately, people perform many roles, such as husband, breadwinner, parent, and so the writer will not be able to write a complete profile. No matter how much research the writer completes, the writer will never know the person completely, because people have darks sides they don’t share and personalities traits that aren’t always revealed.

Types of Profiles

In “Telling True Stories,” writer Jacqui Banaszynski, in his essay “Profile,” identifies three types of profiles:

  • Cradle-to-Current Profile. It is a profile about the person’s entire life, up to the present. The writer invests a great deal of time in researching, writing, and fact checking.
  • Niche Profile. It is a profile that is 1,000 words or less, and can be written in a short period of time. The writer composes a profile about someone in the news. This type of profile includes relevant background information. For instance, if the writer is crafting a profile about a person who won a Pulitzer for Literature, the writer would include education and previously published works. But biography details about place of birth and early education would not be relevant. Instead the writer focuses on “telling details.”
  • Paragraph Profile. This type of profile is brief, providing essential details about accomplishments or achievements, and the person’s significance to the story. It is a paragraph or two, and part of a larger story.

Gathering Material for the Profile

Before writing the profile, you must gather material about the person. Your goal is to answer the question “Who is this person?” Here are a few ways to answer the question:

Begin by searching the Internet to find out what else has been written about the person. Start by completing a Google search. By reading what other writers have written, you can obtain a general sense of the person, such as their level of education, work accomplishments, interests, tastes, reason for being in the news.

Interview the person you are profiling and other people who know the person, such as friends and family. As well, interview subject matter experts. For instance, to get related information about being a stunt pilot, writer Annie Dillard collected quotes from a pilot who as a crop duster

In the interview, what sorts of questions should you ask? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. What are the events or moments that shaped your life?
  2. What are your biggest accomplishments and achievements?
  3. What are you afraid of?
  4. What is your biggest regret?
  5. What setbacks or obstacles have you faced?
  6. What motivates you?
  7. What are your fears and worries?
  8. What do you value?

In addition, you should try to observe the person at work or in their natural habitat. For instance, before Anne Dillard wrote, “Stunt Pilot,” a profile about a stunt pilot. She watched the, Dave Rahm, the pilot fly his plane. She writes:”Rahm did everything his plane could do: tailspins, four-point rolls, flat spins, figure eights, snap rolls, and hammerheads.” (You can read this profile in Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style with Readings by Eileen Pollack)

If the person is deceased, you can sometimes uncover their inner world of the person by reading their diaries, journals, letters, Facebook profiles and other social media.

Immerse yourself in the experience. Before writing the sketch about Dave Rahm, the stunt pilot, Dillard immersed herself in the experience of flying by taking a seat in the plane and flying as Rahm’s passenger. She writes: “Later I flew with Dave Rahm; he took me up…We flew from a bumpy grass airstrip near the house…We were over the clouds at five hundred feet and inside them too…”

If the person is a well-known public figure, you can read a biography about the person. If the person has written their own autobiography, make sure you read it.

How do you know when to stop researching? You must continue to research until you have sufficient “telling details” to write a profile that’s compelling. Your goal is to create a revealing, interesting, and entertaining profile.

Writing the Profile

Many of the best profiles are written as narratives. The writer crafts true story involving a central character. For instance, Charles Simic, In “Dinner at Uncle Boris,” profiles his uncle, writing a story about a dinner conversation. Annie Dillard, in “The Stunt Pilot,” profiles a pilot flying a stunt plane.

To write a profile, follow these suggestions:

Structure

Structure the profile using the narrative arc. It includes:

  • Inciting incident
  • Conflict, such as setbacks or obstacles
  • Turning point and climax
  • Resolution or end of the story

Developing Character

To reveal character, use the fictional methods of characterization. These include:

  • Dialogue. Use interviews or immersion to capture interesting quotes of the person you are profiling. Use these quotes in your profile.
  • Description of Appearance. Observe the person you are writing about. Make note of their physical appearance, including hair style, clothing, gestures, hygiene, and so forth. Use concrete, particular, significant details to describe the person.
  • Dramatic action. Show what the person does, their actions and reactions, in the narrative.

Point of View

Use both the first person POV(“I”) and third person (“he/she”). For instance, in the profile “The Stunt Pilot,” Dillard uses third-person POV to write the narrative of the pilot flying in the sky, performing his daredevil stunts, and to provide narrative summary. She begins: “Dave Rahm lived in Bellingham, Washington, north of Seattle…Dave Rahm was a stunt pilot.” She shifts to first person POV (“I”) to share personal reflections about the stunt pilot.

 

Scene, Summary, and Personal Reflection

Use a scene to recreate important events. A scene always includes setting details, dramatic action, vivid description, dialogue, and POV. Use summary to tell” or explain. Use personal reflection to express your views about the person, sharing your own thoughts, feelings, opinion, emotional truth.

Vivid Descriptions

To reconstruct setting and events and people, use sensory details, writing descriptions of what you see, hear, smell, taste, touch.

Don’t include every detail. Instead use “telling details.” These are concrete, significant, particular details, which reveal deeper meaning than their descriptions.

Facts not Fiction

Don’t fabricate dialogue or events. This is writing fiction. As well, complete fact-checking.

Writing Style

Follow the advice in “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser and “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. As well, read “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Pricilla Long.

Revision

The first draft is never your best work. Always revise the draft, completing a macro-edit (structure, tone, elements of fiction, POV) and micro-edit (grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice, sentence patterns).

A Few Tips for Writing a Profile

Here are a few tips for writing a profile or biography sketch:

  1. Select a person to profile, and then begin with an interesting question you want to answer. If you are going to profile someone you know, mine your memory, observe the person in real life, and write about some significant event. (In Dillard’s profile, she answers “what it is like to be a stunt pilot?”) If the person is unknown, collect your material by researching the person.
  2. Before interviewing, have a list of open-ended questions you want to ask. These require the person being interviewed to respond with more than just “yes” or “no.”
  3. After doing the research, decide on an approach. How are you going to begin? With a scene? With a quotation? With a question? Before writing, outline your story. making a list of all the important points you want to write about.
  4. Always focus on what is significant or compelling. What is surprising? What is important? Any secrets? Oddities? Peculiarities? Contributions to society? What is their legacy?
  5. Show and tell your reader. You tell the reader by explaining and summarizing. You show the reader by writing in scenes. For any significant event, write a scene.
  6. Include dialogue. A good profile includes dialogue, revealing some personality trait.
  7. Include telling details. A good profile includes vivid description, revealing some personality trait.
  8. Don’t create one-dimensional portraits or profiles. Every person has a dark side. Every person has attributes you don’t admire. Share these telling details with the reader.
  9. Your subject is living an epic. In other words, the profile fits into a larger story about life. Consider the larger story as you write.
  10. Every story has a theme, a universal truth, shared meaning. For instance, Steve Jobs was one of the great inventors and innovators. He was a visionary who reshaped communication, use of leisure time, and everyday life with digital technologies.

Additional Reading

For more information on writing a profile or biography sketch, read the following:

  • Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, (2nd Edition) by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
  • Writing True by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz
  • Creative Nonfiction : A Guide to Form, Content, and Style with Readings by Eileen Pollack
  • To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
  • You Can’t Make This Stuff: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between Up by Lee Gutkind
  • Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writer’ Guide, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  • The Writer’s Personal Mentor by Priscilla Long

Writing Short Fiction: Voice and Writing Style

July 31 2013

Dave Hood

The writer’s voice is everything the writer brings to the experience of writing short fiction, including education, socialization, values, beliefs, religion, opinions, and life experiences. The writer’s writing style is part of voice. This writing style is what makes a writer authentic, original, different from other writers. It is what readers hear when they read the short story. The writer’s voice is their “public persona,” which is revealed on the page. The most important features of writing style are word choice or diction, sentence patterns, literary techniques, and tone.

One of the popular writing styles of fiction is the minimalist style. It was a style popularized by Ernest Hemingway, and also endorsed by Raymond Carver. This style focuses on the belief that “less is more.” Writers use short paragraphs, short sentences, write with the active voice, and use action verbs and concrete verbs. The writer omits or deletes every detail that is not essential to the writing. Subtext plays a strong role in this style of fiction.

You can develop your fiction writing style by reading and analyzing short fiction, and then incorporating the techniques of other writers into your own fiction.

(Note: You will also use these same guidelines and techniques to write poetry, personal essays, and other types of creative nonfiction.)

In this article, I’ll discuss writing style as it applies to fiction writing.  The following will be covered:

  • How to identify the author’s writing style.
  • Define Hemingway’s minimalist style.
  • Suggest a writing style to use for writing fiction.
  • Learning to write lyrical prose.
  • Developing your own writing style.

Analyzing Short Fiction

The writer’s style of writing is expressed through word choice or diction, tone of the writing, the use of imaginative language, such as simile, metaphor, imagery, the types of sentences or syntax , as well as the choice of fictional techniques.

The best short fiction writers use everyday language in a fresh and original way.  They also avoid using avoid clichés and jargon. Often they share an interesting word that we’ve never heard—a word that has powerful meaning.

The best short fiction writers use a variety of sentence patterns, such as the use of loose and periodic sentences, sentence fragments, simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentence.

The best short fiction writers use a variety of literary techniques, such as flashback, suspense, dialogue, showing and telling, and interior monologue.

The best short fiction writers also use the poetic devices of poetry, including simile, metaphor, personification, imagery, alliteration, and allusion. Some writers use similes and metaphors infrequently, such as Carver and Hemingway. Other writers use them a great deal.

The best short fiction writers use a tone that is conversational and respectful. Tone refers to the writer’s attitude to his/her subject and view of the audience. Never use a condescending tone. Learn to write fiction by reading short stories as a writer. Analyze how the writer used the elements of fiction, literary techniques, and poetic devices to constructed the short story. As you read, answer these questions:

  1. How does the writer begin the short story? With conflict? With setting description? With dialogue? With action? With a memorable event?
  2. How does the writer develop the setting? What is the time and place of the story? Is it real or fantasy? Does the setting create a mood? Is the setting the antagonist? Does the setting provide a backdrop for the story?
  3. A short story must include conflict, turning point, and resolution. Identify the conflict, turning point, and resolution of the story.
  4. Which point of view does the writer use?
  5. What is the theme? How does the writer reveal theme to the reader?
  6. Where does the writer use scene and summary? What are the features of each scene?
  7. where is there dialogue in the story?  How does the writer use dialogue? What conventions are used?
  8. What fictional techniques does the writer use? What poetic devices does the writer use?
  9. What is the writing style of the writer? Does the writer use simple or fancy words? Does the writer use simple sentences , compound sentences, or fragments?
  10. How does the writer end the story? Does it include an epiphany? Lesson learned? Is the ending open, closed, or a summary?

One of the popular writing styles of short fiction is minimalism, popularized by Ernest Hemingway. He wrote minimalist short fiction. Years later, short story writer Raymond Carver also embraced this style of storytelling. Minimalist short fiction has these attributes:

  • Concrete nouns and action verbs
  • Few adverbs and adjectives
  • Short sentences
  • Short paragraphs
  • Short words and everyday language, as well as familiar instead of fancy words.
  • Minimal character and setting description
  • Minimal background details
  • Very little use of figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, personification
  • Insufficient resolution or ending to the story

Popular Fiction Writing Style

To write short fiction, develop a writing style that includes:

  • Concrete nouns
  • Action verbs
  • Active voice
  • Sentence variety
  • Figurative language, such as simile, metaphor, symbolism, personification, allusion
  • Lyrical prose, using alliteration, assonance, repetition, parallel structure

Develop a writing style that is friendly and conversational. Learn to show and tell readers. Use sensory detail, language that appeals to the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. As well, read and master the advice in Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style.”

Learning to Writer Lyrical Prose

Author Constance Hale, in “Sin and Syntax,” explains how you can learn to write literary prose. There are found components: voice, lyricism, melody, and rhythm.

Voice

The writer must consider the literary meaning and implied meaning of words, as well as avoid using clichés and jargon. The writer should also use a variety of sentence patterns, such as a fragment, simple, and compound sentences.

Lyricism

The writer can create prose that sound musical by using the following:

  • Imagery-Use of sensory details.
  • Metaphor-Making a comparison between unlike things, without using “like” or “as.”
  • Simile-Making a comparison between unlike things, using “like” or “as.”
  • Personification. Describing things and objects and ideas by using human attributes. Example: The bible preaches its wisdom to anyone who takes the time.
  • Description. Using concrete, significant, and particular description. Example: He pressed the shutter on his black Nikon, full-frame camera, using a wide-angle lens, capturing a fleeting moment in time, a man being shot by police, for all the world to see.
  • Repetition. Repeating words and phrases in a sentence or sentences that are close to each other.

Example:

Streets and highway filled with an avalanche of snow. The plows bulldoze it away. Icicles hang from the eaves like a work of installation art. Cars stuck, spinning their wheels. The Maple leaf, stands, watches, as the neighborhood shovels. Kids frolic, build snow forts, toboggan down hills of snow in the park behind the school. The storm has interrupted daily routines and rituals.

Melody

The writer can create prose that have a melody by using the poetic devices of:

  • Assonance-Positioning two or more words with the same vowel sounds close together in a sentence.
  • Alliteration- Positing two or more words with the same initial consonant sounds in a sentence.
  • Internal rhyme Selecting words that rhyme and using them in the middle of a sentence.
  • Onomatopoeia -Using words that sound what they describe. Example: The fire crackled.

Rhythm

The writer should strive to create sentences that have rhythm. It refers to pattern, pace, repetition, and parallel structure of a sentence. A simple way to create rhythm is to count the stressed syllables in a sentence. The writer can slow down the pace with long sentences, and speed up the pace with short sentence. Create rhythm in your prose by developing sentences with a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. Learn to use repetition and parallel structure. Example: He smoked, drank, womanized, and died one day, lounging on the beach in the sunshine with a smile. ( Slow pace)

Developing Your Writing Style

Part of learning to write is developing your own writing voice. How do you do this? There are several ways. The most important advice I have read was written by Elizabeth Berg, the author of “Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True.” She suggests that you can develop your writing voice by putting down on to paper the words you are hearing in your mind. In other words, be yourself as you write. Use your own words, and don’t imagine you are someone else as you write. Write honestly—share your thoughts, feelings, opinions, impressions, stories that are important to you. And share them by using your own language–how you speak. She also suggests that you should not write about what you know but that you should write about what you love, what you are passionate about.

Next, you should write often and regularly. Start by keeping a journal. Write everyday in this journal, recording observations, interesting quotations, memorable lyrics, overheard conversation, lines of poetry. Write poetry, anecdotes, short, short essays. Try using the technique of stream of consciousness. Write by freewriting. Record “small, fleeting moments.”Ask a question to yourself, and then write an answer. Include interesting photograph, news stories, advice columns. Write about your emotional truth—how you felt about something. In your journal, you can write about anything. Journal writing helps you develop the habit of writing and your writing skills. It can also be a place where you record “possible ideas” for a poem, short story, and personal essay.

Also, learn all about writing style. The best and easiest book to read is “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. It provides the rules and guidelines of a good writing style. If you intend to write essays or other creative nonfiction, you should also read “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. Both of these books are classics, are used in university and college writing courses, and are recommended by most writers. Every writer should have copies of these inexpensive paperbacks on their bookshelf for reference. As well, read Constance Hale’s “Sin and Syntax.”

Next, read short stories to learn how the writer constructed the story. If you are not sure, read “How to Read Like a Writer” by Francine Prose.

Fourthly, make sure you understand the rules and guidelines of grammar, such as for use of verbs, adjectives, nouns, pronouns, and more. If you don’t know these rules or guidelines, pick up a copy of “Woe Is I:The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English” by Patricia T. O’Connor. Another great book that presents grammar in with a humorous tone is “The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed” by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. I also recommend “The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magical and Mystery of Practical English” by Roy Peter Clark.

Learn the rules of punctuation. How to use the comma, exclamation mark, question mark, quotation marks, semi colon, colon. Essentially, you must memorize the rules. To learn the rules of punctuation, I suggest you read “The Glamour of Grammar” by Roy Peter Clark.

Learn to the major types of sentence patterns and then to write poetry, short fiction, and personal essays. The syntax of a sentence is an important feature of the writer’s voice. To develop your own voice, learn to write simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentences. Learn when to use a sentence fragment and how to write using parallel construction. Learn how to use items in a series. Learn how to write both periodic or cumulative sentences. Where can you go for advice?

Language choices contribute to writer style. Therefore, you should own a dictionary and thesaurus. Use them for enjoyment and to improve your language skills. Develop your language skills by looking up the meaning of words you don’t understand in a dictionary. Find the precise word by checking your thesaurus, which includes synonyms. To expand your vocabulary, begin learning a word a day. Use the words you learn in your writing. Don’t write to impress. Instead, use language to express yourself, to communicate meaning, to entertain, to share important ideas, knowledge, and wisdom with your audience.

If you aspire to become a creative writer, learn how to write imaginatively. Imaginative writing involves learning how to show and tell the reader, writing vivid descriptions of sensory imagery–language that appeals to the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. It involves using literary devices of simile, metaphor, personification, symbolism, and other devices that you find in fiction and poetry and creative nonfiction. There are countless books on the market that you can purchase. For a good overview on how to write creatively and imaginatively, I suggest you purchase “Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft” by writer/instructor Janet Burroway. It’s a superb text that will help you.

Another way to develop your voice is to share emotional truth in your writing. It means telling others how you feel. For instance, if you lost your job–tell your readers how it felt. If you were diagnosed with a serious disease, share your thoughts and feelings with your readers. If you split up with a girlfriend or marital partner, tell the audience how you felt by expressing the emotional truth. Keep in mind that two people can have different emotional views on a situation. And so , there is no right or wrong “emotional truth.” Emotional truth has to do with how you felt about a person, about an experience , about an event.

It takes time to develop your writing voice, providing you write on a regular basis. Many writing instructors suggest you keep a journal and experiment in it. In part, developing your voice is an unconscious effort–you learn by reading and writing, without making a conscious effort. In part, you can make a conscious decision to develop your voice. For instance, you can learn to read like a writer. You can learn grammar, spelling, punctuation. You can experiment with language and sentence variety. You can make a conscious choice about what sort of tone to use. The easiest way to develop your voice is to “put down on paper” what is on your mind.

Your writing voice is what a reader hears when they read your words. Your writing voice is your “public persona,” which is expressed in your writing. It is revealed in the language that you use, the types of sentences that you use, and your tone–your attitude toward the reader and the topic or idea you are writing about.

Additional Reading

To learn more about how to develop your developing and polishing your writer’s voice, read the following superb books:

  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  • Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale
  • The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English by Roy Peter Clark
  • The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed” by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
  • Woe is I: the Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Connor
  • Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway