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Essay Assignment: Profile

Guidelines for Composing a Descriptive and Informative Essay

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Essay Assignment: Profile

The New Yorker magazine

This assignment will give you practice in composing a descriptive and informative essay about a particular person.

In an essay of approximately 600 to 800 words, compose a profile (or character sketch) of an individual whom you have interviewed and closely observed. The person may be either well-known in the community (a politician, a local media figure, the owner of a popular night spot) or relatively anonymous (a Red Cross volunteer, a server in a restaurant, a school teacher or college professor). The person should be someone of interest (or potential interest) not only to you but also to your readers.

The purpose of this essay is to convey--through close observation and factual investigation--the distinct qualities of an individual.

Suggested Readings

In the following paragraphs and essays, the authors attempt to convey the distinctive habits, attitudes, qualities, and traits of individuals they have carefully studied.

Composing Strategies

Getting Started. One way to prepare for this assignment is to read some engaging character sketches. In addition to the suggested readings listed above, you might want to look at recent issues of any magazine that regularly publishes interviews and profiles.

One magazine that is particularly well known for its profiles is The New Yorker. For instance, in the online archive of The New Yorker, you'll find this profile of popular comedian Sarah Silverman: "Quiet Depravity," by Dana Goodyear.

Choosing a Subject. Give some serious thought to your choice of a subject--and feel free to solicit advice from family, friends, and co-workers. Remember that you're not at all obliged to choose a person who's socially prominent or who has had an obviously exciting life. Your task is to bring out what's interesting about your subject--no matter how ordinary this individual may at first appear.

Students in the past have written excellent profiles on a wide array of subjects, ranging from librarians and store detectives to card sharks and shrimpers. Keep in mind, however, that the present occupation of your subject may be inconsequential; the focus of the profile may instead be on your subject's involvement in some notable experience in the past: for example, a man who (as a youngster) sold vegetables door to door during the Depression, a woman who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, a woman whose family operated a successful moonshine operation, a school teacher who performed with a popular rock band in the 1970s. The truth is, wonderful subjects are all around us: the challenge is to get people talking about memorable experiences in their lives.

Interviewing a Subject. Stephanie J. Coopman of San Jose State University has prepared an excellent online tutorial on "Conducting the Information Interview." For this assignment, two of the seven modules should be especially helpful: Module 4: Structuring the Interview and Module 5: Conducting the Interview.

In addition, here are some tips that have been adapted from Chapter 12 ("Writing about People: The Interview") of William Zinsser's book On Writing Well (HarperCollins, 2006):

  • Choose as your subject someone whose job [or experience] is so important or so interesting or so unusual that the average reader would want to read about that person. In other words, choose someone who touches some corner of the reader's life.
  • Before the interview, make a list of questions to ask your subject.
  • Get people talking. Learn to ask questions that will elicit answers about what is most interesting or vivid in their lives.
  • Take notes during the interview. If you have trouble keeping up with your subject, just say, "Hold it a minute, please," and write until you catch up.
  • Use a combination of direct quotations and summaries. "If the speaker's conversation is ragged, . . . the writer has no choice but to clean up the English and provide the missing links. . . . What's wrong . . . is to fabricate quotes or to surmise what someone might have said."
  • To get the facts right, remember that you can call [or revisit] the person you interviewed.

Drafting. Your first rough draft may simply be a word-processed transcript of your interview session(s). Your next step will be to supplement these remarks with descriptive and informative details based on your observations and research.

Revising. In moving from transcripts to profile, you face the task of how to focus your approach to the subject. Don't try to provide a life story in 600-800 words: attend to key details, incidents, experiences. But be prepared to let your readers know what your subject looks like and sounds like. The essay should be built on direct quotations from your subject as well as factual observations and other informative details.

Editing. In addition to the usual strategies that you follow when editing, examine all the direct quotations in your profile to see if any could be shortened without sacrificing significant information. By eliminating one sentence from a three-sentence quotation, for instance, your readers may find it easier to recognize the key point that you want to get across.

Self-Evaluation

Following your essay, provide a brief self-evaluation by responding as specifically as you can to these four questions:

  1. What part of writing this profile took the most time?
  2. What is the most significant difference between your first draft and this final version?
  3. What do you think is the best part of your profile, and why?
  4. What part of this essay could still be improved?
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