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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
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Creative Nonfiction: Writing about Fact and Truth

Creative nonfiction involves writing about facts using literary devices, your memories or recollections, and  your imagination. You can write about any topic, such as birth, love, sex, death, sports, travel, science, nature, and so forth. Often you will need to remember or recollect the details of what happened, especially if the event or story took place many years ago. Questions will arise about accuracy of the reporting, whether you are telling the truth, and your subjectivity and objectivity in presenting the truth. In addition, sometimes you will need to check your facts by interviewing friends or relatives who might not want you to write about them, or the event, or story. So, you will be faced with an ethical dilemma.

This article discusses how you draw the line between fact and fiction, gain trust from your readers, deal with ethical dilemmas, and determine your subjectivity and objectivity when writing creative nonfiction.

Drawing the Line between Fact and Fiction

In writing creative nonfiction, you must present facts accurately. You must be honest and truthful. Otherwise, you are writing fiction, a story that is made up.

To write factually and accurately, you will often need to conduct research. For instance, if you are writing a personal essay, you might have to visit the place where the event took place or contact friends and relatives who remember the event.

Even if you feel you know the facts, you will still need to complete some fact checking. You might have to look at old photos, conduct an interview, or read old journals, newspapers or magazines.

Sometimes the line between fact and fiction is ambiguous. Often the writer will need to make a judgement call. Some people believe that once a fact is distorted or embellished, it is fictional. Others believe that creative nonfiction that is based on memories or recollections will be distorted. Memories aren’t 100% accurate. The writer will have to engage in a certain amount of fabrication to present the facts. There is no objective record, only the memories and recollections of the writer about an event that happened in the past. For example, when using dialogue in a memoir, the writer will often have to “invent” the actual dialogue. There is no way the writer will remember every word that was spoken. The important point to remember is that the writer must do his/her best to remember accurately. To verify memories or recollections, the writer check the facts to be sure that his/her view is accurate.

In the essay Memoir? Fiction? Where is the Line?, Mimi Schwartz writes that the creative nonfiction writer can write about “emotional truth.” What she means is that if it feels true to you, you can write about it as though it were true. But you will need to warn your readers or provide them with a disclaimer. For instance, if you are going to write about a memory but cannot remember all the details, you can say any of the following:

  • Perhaps she said…
  • I imagine she said…
  • To the best of my knowledge…
  • As I recall…

Author Alice Laplante states in The Making of a Story that the number one rule of writing fiction is “accuracy, and the rigorous adherence to facts.”

Gaining Trust from Your Readers

When you write creative nonfiction, you are asking your readers to trust you, to believe you. But the readers trust must be earned. As the reader reads your personal essay, memoir, or travel piece, he/she might think : Do I trust this writer? Do I believe what he/she is saying? The best way to gain your reader’s trust is to tell the truth.

In writing about past events, you will struggle with memory and accuracy. There are no rules other than you must do your best to present the facts as you know them to be. For example, you might not know what your exact thoughts were on the day of the event, but you will remember the event, the date it took place, the consequences, and the significance for you. The key point to remember is to be honest with your memories. Don’t embellish them. As well, do some fact checking. You might have a diary or old photo or personal journal. Or you might be able to interview a friend or family member who can confirm your recollection. And write about the emotional truth that resulted from the event—-what it means to you, how you felt about the events that took place, what your views are .

To gain your reader’s trust, make your account as honest and interesting as you can—without fabricating it. This is how you will gain your reader’s trust, and make them believe in what you wrote.

Ethical Considerations

In writing about real people and real events, you will sometimes need to consider ethics, such as the right to privacy and the betrayal of trust.

There is a need for full disclosure when interviewing and writing about real people and events. For instance, when interviewing a person, you must make it clear that you are collecting information for a story that you intend to write about. If you don’t disclose your intention to the person you are interviewing, you are being unethical. When writing about events that happened in the past, you will often need to obtain oral or written permission to avoid being unethical.

Sometimes a writer will not want to write about a true story because he/she will hurt or offend people who were participants in the story. For instance, if you are writing about child abuse, you might be reluctant to tell your story. Not only is it embarrassing, but it will upset or anger others who were aware of the events. On the other hand, if the person is deceased or estranged from you, you might be more willing to disclose this information. Often, ethical decisions are based on your own point of view: To show and tell becomes a matter of considering the costs and benefits.

Subjectivity Versus Objectivity

In writing your personal essay or memoir, you can be subjective. You can include personal opinions, thoughts, emotions—anything that is subjective. So, while the event must be presented objectively, you can interpret it subjectively, from your own point of view.

In some creative nonfiction, you will need to make a decision about point of view. Some writers believe that you can write in the first person point of view, using “I.” Obviously, if you are writing a personal essay, you will write in the first person. It is more intimate, more real, and natural. Moreover, you are the central character in the story.

But there will be times when you are not the central character. You might be just an observer of the story or events. The question is then whether to narrate your story in the first person or third person. For instance, if you want to tell the story as the events unfolded, you might want to use the third person “he/she.”It is more objective. Clearly, the decision to place yourself in the story or out of the story is a personal decision.

When writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal essay, memoir, or literary essay, you must remember that your writing needs to be based on fact, which must be accurate.  You must present the facts to the best of your ability. You must also be ethical in conducting research and revealing personal information about other people. To gain your reader’s trust be honest with yourself and tell the truth. Finally, you can include your own perspective or point of view, but you must tell the truth.

Resources

For more information on how to write creative nonfiction, you can read:

  • The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing by Alice Laplante
  • Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller
  • The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty W. Moore