A Profile in Composition

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A profile is a biographical essay, usually developed through a combination of anecdote, interview, incident, and description.

James McGuinness, a staff member at The New Yorker magazine in the 1920s, suggested the term profile (from the Latin, "to draw a line") to the magazine's editor, Harold Ross. "By the time the magazine got around to copyrighting the term," says David Remnick, "it had entered the language of American journalism" (Life Stories, 2000).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Observations on Profiles

  • "A Profile is a short exercise in biography--a tight form in which interview, anecdote, observation, description, and analysis are brought to bear on the public and private self. The literary pedigree of the profile can be traced from Plutarch to Dr. Johnson to Strachey; its popular modern reinvention is owed to The New Yorker, which set up shop in 1925 and which encouraged its reporters to get beyond ballyhoo to something more probing and ironic. Since then, with the wacky proliferation of media, the genre has been debased; even the word itself has been hijacked for all kinds of shallow and intrusive journalistic endeavors."
    (John Lahr, Show and Tell: New Yorker Profiles. University of California Press, 2002)
  • "In 1925, when [Harold] Ross launched the magazine he liked to call his 'comic weekly' [The New Yorker], he wanted something different--something sidelong and ironical, a form that prized intimacy and wit over biographical completeness or, God forbid, unabashed hero worship. Ross told his writers and editors that, above all, he wanted to get away from what he was reading in other magazines--all the 'Horatio Alger' stuff. . . .

    "The New Yorker Profile has expanded in many ways since Ross's time. What had been conceived of as a form to describe Manhattan personalities now travels widely in the world and all along the emotional and occupational registers. . . . One quality that runs through nearly all the best Profiles . . . is a sense of obsession. So many of these pieces are about people who reveal an obsession with one corner of human experience or another. Richard Preston's Chudnovsky brothers are obsessed with the number pi and finding the pattern in randomness; Calvin Trillin's Edna Buchanan is an obsessive crime reporter in Miami who visits the scenes of disaster four, five times a day; . . . Mark Singer's Ricky Jay is obsessed with magic and the history of magic. In every great Profile, too, the writer is equally obsessed. It's often the case that a writer will take months, even years, to get to know a subject and bring him or her to life in prose."
    (David Remnick, Life Stories: Profiles From The New Yorker. Random House, 2000)

    The Parts of a Profile

    • "One major reason writers create profiles is to let others know more about the people who are important to them or who shape the world in which we live. . . . [T]he introduction to a profile needs to show readers that the subject is someone they need to know more about--right now. . . . Writers also use the introduction of a profile to highlight some key feature of the subject's personality, character, or values . . ..

      "The body of a profile . . . includes descriptive details that help readers visualize the subject's actions and hear the subject's words. . . .

      "Writers also use the body of a profile to provide logical appeals in the form of numerous examples that show that the subject is indeed making a difference in the community. . . .

      "Finally, the conclusion of a profile often contains one final quote or anecdote that nicely captures the essence of the individual."
      (Cheryl Glenn, The Harbrace Guide to Writing, concise 2nd ed. Wadsworth, Cengage, 201)

    Expanding the Metaphor

    • "In the classic Profile under [St. Clair] McKelway, the edges were smoothed out, and all effects--the comic, the startling, the interesting, and occasionally, the poignant--were achieved by the choreography, in characteristically longer and longer (but never rambling) paragraphs filled with declarative sentences, of the extraordinary number of facts the writer had collected. The Profile metaphor, with its implicit acknowledgment of limited perspective, was no longer appropriate. Instead, it was as if the writer were continually circling around the subject, taking snapshots all the way, until finally emerging with a three-dimensional hologram."
      (Ben Yagoda, The New Yorker and the World It Made. Scribner, 2000)

      Pronunciation: PRO-file