This competition is now closed but you are still welcome to read through the published writing and blog posts.
It is just before dawn at a hunting camp in Botswana’s game-rich northern savanna
, begins Wells Towers’ essay “Who Wants to Shoot an Elephant,” and Robyn Waldrip is donning an ammunition belt that could double as a hernia girdle.
In one sentence, Tower introduces us to the subject of his profile—Robyn Waldrip—and the question that will drive the narrative: Who wants to shoot an elephant? While most profiles don’t feature a question so overtly, a good question is the frame that defines the writer’s portrait. Tower isn’t writing a biography, but instead focusing his attention on Robyn Waldrip, the elephant huntress. By filtering all the information about Waldrip’s life through his question, Tower decides what’s important to include and what he can leave out. The question is also what fuels the reader’s investment. Alongside Wells, we want to know what motivates Waldrip to strap on that ammunition belt and venture into the acacia trees in search of her prey: a 12,000 pound mammal that shares a lot of qualities with us humans; elephants, we learn from Tower, mourn their dead, bear grudges, live in family groups, and ponder themselves in the mirror.
This month, dear writers, we’re asking you to play detective, searching out details about a particular person in order to bring your subject to life in a profile—aka a written portrait. Like Tower, you might start out with a question. Perhaps you’ve always wondered what compels people to risk their lives fighting forest fires, and with this question in mind, you’ll search for an interesting firefighter to profile. Or you might have a compelling person in mind—the local boxing coach, let’s say, with his country music blasting and entourage of kids—and your question will emerge as you get to know him better: “Why is Ross so conflicted about the very sport he loves?”
Whether your starting point is a question or a person, let yourself be surprised. Tower was appalled at the idea of killing an elephant, and yet through Waldrip’s inviting personality and compelling reasons to hunt big game (turns out it can actually help protect herds by deterring illegal poaching), the author’s views evolve over time.
While an interview (or three or four!) with your subject will be helpful, if you decide to write about someone who won’t grant you an interview, then there are ways around it—called a “write around”!—namely talking to as many people as possible who are close to your subject and who could offer insights and anecdotes. See the exceptional profile on Frank Sinatra in resources, all written without an interview!
Get excited. Although profiles can be found in every major news outlet, they fall into the category of no-rules journalism. As David Remnick, the managing editor of The New Yorker
, said, “The thing about the profile—with the exception of the parameter that it has to be true… everything else can be radical. Structure, sentence structure, word choice, descriptive powers… all those tools that are open to you as a literary writer should be open to you as a profile writer.”
So let the creative juices flow, dear writers, but also take a look at the guidelines below for some tried and true tips on the writing process.
- Collect outside perspectives. Once you’ve decided on a subject (someone to write about), make a list of 3-5 people who are close to your subject and could offer different perspectives, memories, anecdotes, or any other interesting information.
- Strategize. In addition to interviewing, might you be able to shadow or observe your subject in their element? Tower tagged along on a hunting safari in Botswana, which most of us can’t pull off. But if your subject is a pastry chef, could you watch him pinching pie crust or braiding bread? Witnessing and then writing about concrete details helps to immerse your reader in the experience.
- Honesty up front. Whenever you interview someone (whether it’s your subject, or someone in regards to your subject), let them know right away that you’re a writer and that you’re asking them questions for a piece of journalism.
- Ask to record or take notes. Record your interview on a smart phone or other device. If this isn’t possible or isn’t okay with your subject, take careful notes, jotting down as much as possible.
- Prime and prepare. Write out your interview questions in advance (see resource). The more open-ended, the better. Rather than asking your subject to answer yes/no questions, get them to fill in the holes by telling stories. “What makes you like being a rock star?” or “What’s your first memory of being on stage?” will elicit much more interesting answers than “Do you like being a rock star?”
- Let yourself be surprised. Don’t feel you have to stick to your script! If you’re curious about an answer, ask your subject to tell you more.
- Follow-up. Ask your subject if it’s okay to follow-up with a phone call or email if any other questions arise. This happens a good 90% of the time: you start writing and think, “Arggh, if only I’d asked…” Even if you don’t have additional questions, it’s always nice to follow-up with a thank you.
- Transcribe. If you recorded your interviews, write them out on the computer so you can go back and refer to details and pluck out quotes.
- Review and sharpen. Read through all of your interviews, notes, and brainstorms. What emerges as the most interesting question to focus your profile on? You won’t be able to cover the life story of Martha, the mechanic, so how about zooming in on the question of how she established a place for herself in a traditionally male world? Or how she decided to become a mechanic, given that her parents were offering to send her to secretarial school?
- Find the tension. Glaring through both of these questions about Martha is a tension ready to be explored. How can you bring this tension (being a woman in a male-dominated industry, or following a path against her parents’ wishes) to the surface through your writing? These tensions give the profile stakes and make your reader care about the subject.
- Dramatize. Is there a particular scene that looms large in the experience of your subject? Can you recreate that experience with description, dialogue, and sensory detail? A scene—even a short one—can help your reader feel like they are truly in the shoes of your subject.
- Provide context. Readers are often able to understand a subject best when they see him/her in relation to an important piece of their life—work, family, school, home, friends, etc. Make sure to include a backdrop that illuminates this character in action.
- Select quotes carefully. Including the voices of people you interview is a great way to paint a character on the page, but it can also be easy to overuse quotes. Remember to only use the most interesting part of a quote—something that brings the subject to life. Everything else can be paraphrased (summarized) by you.
- Attribution. Make sure that the reader always knows who’s speaking, or who you’re paraphrasing.
- Start early! Collecting information, setting up interviews, and writing a profile takes time. Start early and pick a subject with whom you’re truly intrigued.
- Finish early! Finish a draft of your profile with plenty of time to get feedback, follow-up with additional questions, and proofread.
Robert Cocuzzo is the author of Tracking the Wild Coomba
, a forthcoming biography about the late extreme skier Doug Coombs due out this August. Cocuzzo is also the editor of N Magazine and a contributor of Boston Common Magazine, Departures, Town & Country, and Esquire. Prior to his career in writing, Cocuzzo studied at the College of the Holy Cross and The University of St. Andrews. After college, he worked as a charter fishing captain and traveled extensively through Europe and South America. Today, Cocuzzo splits his time between Nantucket Island, Boston, and New Hampshire. He has no pets.
Best Entry: $100 (winning piece + author interview will be featured on Write the World’s website and blog)
Runner up: $50
Best Peer Review: $50 (reviewer interview will be featured on Write the World’s website and blog)
What’s Different about Write the World Competitions?
Prizes: The winning entrant will receive $100, and the runner-up and best peer-reviewer will receive $50.
Professional Recognition: The winning entry, plus the runner-up and best peer review, will be featured on our blog, with commentary from our guest judge.
Expert Review: Submit your draft by Monday April 11th and get feedback from our team of experts—authors, writing teachers, and educational professionals.
May 2: Competition Opens
May 9: Submit draft for Expert Review (optional)
May 12: Reviews returned to Writers
May 17: Final Submissions
May 27: Winners Announced
Playwriting Opens Monday, June 6.
Stay tuned for more details!