How to Prepare for a Profile Feature

After two years, 12 profiles, and a shit-ton of time wasted looking for the “right” way to write profile features, I’ve figured out my own system of doing things. I didn’t discover these tips in a blog post or learn them in a classroom. They’re the lessons I’ve failed, braved, and weathered in the trenches. Every interview and article is different, but my tactics remain the same.

My Hard-Won Lessons
There’s no such thing as over-communication. Check in with the person you’re interviewing a week before, a day before, and the day of. Seriously.

Have a recording device. Play with it before your interview, so you know how to use it. I put this app on my phone and love it (though it isn’t pretty, it picks up the softest of talkers even in the loudest of places).

Bring pen and paper to scribble your notes, observations, and so you have something for your hands to do. Fidgeting is distracting and makes the person across from you nervous, too. That’s the interview kiss-of-death.

Prepare more questions than you think you’ll need, but don’t stress about adhering to them like a script. Let the conversation flow naturally (that happens best when the person gets to talk without interruption). If there’s a lull, or you get too far off topic, you’ll be glad you have your questions as an anchor. (This will become less important with more experience.)

My interviews last about 45 minutes, then at the end, I ask, “Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you’d like to?” They’ll say, “No,” followed by a pause, “well…” and talk for 15 more minutes. That’s usually when I get my best material.

Immediately after the interview, I like to write a draft. Full of stream-of-consciousness writing, run-ons, errors, and odd transitions, it’s certainly not a masterpiece, but it helps me capture how I felt, what they were wearing, their expressions or mannerisms, how the place looked. Those are the tiny details you won’t get from your recording that takes a piece from Q&A snooze-fest to literary gold.

Put it away for a couple of days. Let it simmer.

You’ll need to transcribe your interview. oTranscribe is my favorite transcription website. Note: people either love transcribing or hate it. I’m the latter, but I’ve learned I don’t have to transcribe every single word from beginning to end. Transcribe the parts you’ll want to reference or quote directly.

Unclench. Writing doesn’t have to be serious, stiff, or pedantic to be good. Let your own style shine through. Authenticity leads to better, more engaging writing, and that’s what makes for entertaining reading. If people don’t want to read your work, what’re you even doing? Let your freak flag fly, baby!

If you need inspiration, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker have the best-written profile features, in my opinion.  I also love to watch or listen to master interviewers—think Barbara Walters, Howard Stern, Oprah, and Charlie Rose—to emulate their tactics. I’ve learned the hard way: the better the interview, the better the writing.