Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Learn to Earn a Living as a Freelance Writer, Part 7—Writing Profile Pieces Like a Professional

Once you learn to write profile pieces like a professional, it will help you earn a living as a freelance writer. They are a great way get clips, earn income and practice your craft. They’re also the backbone of the magazine article.

Research your subject thoroughly BEFORE the interview
Before the Interview
  • Research your subject thoroughly. This is vitally important—for several reasons.
    • It helps you learn what the public already knows about your subject so you won’t be going over well-known facts.
    • It will turn up interesting facts that can lead to the focus of your interview.
    • It will keep you from asking the same questions other interviewers have.
  • Test your equipment. I recommend you invest in a good quality mp3 digital recorder. Find one that allows you to transfer files to your computer for ease of transcription. Make certain it’s compatible with your computer. Some don’t interface well.
  • Have your main questions already written down. This doesn’t mean these will be the only questions you have, but it helps to have a roadmap of where the interview is headed. It will also help you guide the interview where YOU want it to go. As the interviewer you should be the one in charge. Let the subject talk, but you are the captain of this ship.
  • Email questions ahead of time. Personally, I like to email some of the questions I’ll be asking, to my subject ahead of time. This gives them a chance to consider the answers and often results in a better interview. It also gives them a level of confidence that this interview isn’t a waste of their time. 
Ways to Conduct the Interview
  • Telephone: Many of the interviews I conduct are done over the phone. I always make an appointment with the person I’m interviewing. I allow between 30 minutes and an hour for the actual interview.
  • Email: This type of interview is less personal because you can’t really ask in-depth, follow-up questions. But if you phrase your questions well, you can still build a good article, it’s just a little more difficult.
  • In Person: This is my personal preference because I can get a sense of how the person I’m interviewing feels about what they’re saying. I can describe that in the article and convey that sense of immediacy to the reader. 
A digital recorder makes writing the profile much easier
During the Interview
  • I rely heavily on my recorder, and try to take as few notes as possible. It’s important to make eye contact with the persona you’re interviewing. This will establish a good rapport and result in a much more personal interview.
  • Watch the other person’s face for signs that a subject I’ve touched on is important to them or one he feels passionate about. Then I ask additional questions, mining that particular subject for interview gold.
  • Watch the clock. People are busy and it’s important I’m respectful of their time. If I say an interview will last thirty minutes, that’s how long it lasts. It doesn’t matter if they tell you it’s okay to go longer, often they’re just being polite.
  • Be Ready to Veer off Your Original Plan – Often times in interviews you’ll catch a glimpse of something your readers might like to know more about. Go ahead and follow that trail. Some of the best interviews came from a wise writer who was willing to ask more about a seemingly inconsequential comment.
  • Don’t Shy Away from the Hard Stuff. Now don’t misunderstand me—I’m NOT advocating an automatic cutthroat approach. You’ll always get further if you’re nice and not combative, but many time people appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight.
  • Never ask Yes or No Questions. Questions with one-word answers lead to dead-ends. The point of an interview is to learn more about the subject, and this requires a conversation. Ask open-ended questions and then encourage the person to elaborate.
  • Stay in control of the interview. Even when the interview isn’t a hard-hitting expose’ type of interview, the subject can tend to dominate the direction of the interview. You are the one in charge. Don’t hesitate to redirect the conversation with a respectful, “Getting back to the subject at hand.”
Clarify, by email, anything you're
not certain about
After the Interview
  • Don’t Hesitate to Clarify or Verify Information through Email: It’s important to find a way to follow-up if you have additional questions. Get permission to contact your source through a quick email.
  • Transcribe the Interview as Soon After as Possible: Trust me on this one. You’ll write a much better piece if you do it while it’s fresh on your mind, rather than waiting several days.
  • Send a Thank You Note: I know this sounds old-fashioned, but it will make a lasting impression on your subject. If you can’t send one through the mail, at least send a thank you email.
  • DO NOT ALLOW THE SUBJECT TO PROOF THE ARTICLE: I cannot empathize this enough. This is the biggest beginner mistake I see with writers and it ALWAYS turns out badly. You are the author of the article and will have a much better perspective on what your readership wants. It’s fine to verify a quote or two through email, but DO NOT show them the article until it’s published.
For those of you who've written interview pieces, please add your tips to those above. Also, be sure to post questions in the comments section and I'll try to answer them.

Don't forget to join the conversation!


  1. Great post, Edie. Interestingly, I love email interviews. It allows me to have their words in writing without me having to transcribe. Also, It makes it easy to cut and paste good quotes.

    And if I'm writing on a topic rather than a person, I will ask my medical expert to confirm their direct and indirect quotes, even though I don't let them read the article. Since my area was mostly health articles, it was great to have a pool of happy medical experts who were glad to be my article resource, over and over again!

  2. Interviewing sounds fun! Maybe some day I'll have a reason to do so!. Great info Edie!

  3. Great article, Edie! Like Vonda, I do like email interviews because I know the quote is accurate & can cut & paste. On the other hand, you can't "read" the interviewee's face/body language & veer off into unexpected territory. So, I usually prefer in-person or, if distance is a problem, a phone interview.

    I also thought your comments about not having a subject proof an article was interesting. When I worked in newspaper for several years, I never had the subject read the copy. Mostly because it wasn't necessary &, of course, there wasn't time on the short deadline.

    On the other hand, when I wrote PR/marketing copy for a university, I almost always had the subject read the article before it went to print. Since I was interviewing alumni, board members, faculty, etc, it was vital that my subject was happy with what we printed. I would make it clear they were only checking for accuracy; they couldn't make editorial changes. More often than not, I got a responding email saying something along the lines of, "Looks good!"

    Maybe I'm gun-shy because of an experience I had as a reporter. I suffered a blonde moment during an interview & wrote the subject's name down wrong in my notes, which means I got it wrong in the article. Since he was a beloved school bus driver known by everyone in the community -- but not me since I was new to the area -- let's just say we got a lot of messages setting me straight.