Love it or hate it, continuing education is one thing that most professions share. When I practiced law, I did my share (I had to), and much of it, I’m pleased to recall, was pretty good.

As a writer, I’m always on the lookout for the chance to improve my skills, preferably in an entertaining way. That opportunity made its way to my inbox a few weeks ago, when I spotted an online class aimed at writing successful profiles. People profiles are in the wheelhouse of Arizona Attorney Magazine, the price was right, the location (my own desk) sounded good, so I signed on.

I was glad I did. Hosted by Poynter’s News University, it offered great faculty: Jan Winburn, Senior Editor for Enterprise at

Jan Winburn,

You can read more about the Poynter Institute here.

One of the first things that charmed me in the webinar was Winburn’s willingness to use humor and to salt her webinar with attention-catching content. Here, for instance, is something that scrolled by my screen during the session.

Tolstoy? In a writing webinar? Excellent. Anyone who would refer to that master storyteller had my attention.

Poynter promised a few things for those who enrolled (always a dangerous practice for CE providers), and Winburn came through on all counts:

  • How to avoid profile clichés: the Heroic Do-gooder, the Freak of the Week
  • How to distill the larger meaning
  • How to report for character and complexity, choices and consequences, action and detail
  • Every profile is really a quest
  • Vulnerabilities make characters more appealing

I completed the webinar and went back to work. But not six hours after the education, I found myself reading a New Yorker Magazine profile of renowned photographer Thomas Struth, written by Janet Malcolm. It’s called “Depth of Field: Thomas Struth’s Way of Seeing.” (Here’s the opening spread.)












Later that week, I flipped forward 18 pages in the magazine and came across a second profile, this one by Peter Hessler. It’s titled “Dr. Don: The Life of a Small-Town Druggist.”

Illustration by Ben Katchor

I must add that I actually read these profiles in the print magazine—old-school, I know, but I enjoy reading a paper version when a long profile awaits my gaze. As I have said before, print magazines are a pleasure to hold, scan and share—which is why I love this cartoon.

(In any case, I have provided links to the articles, but it appears you may only be able to read an extensive abstract of Malcolm’s article. But all of Hessler’s profile is there for the reading.)

Malcolm and Hessler immersed themselves in their subjects, and their approaches could not have diverged any farther if they had tried.

I enjoyed both, but I found myself distracted by the number of times Malcolm inserted herself into her piece. I can appreciate the occasional use of “I” when the writer adds true value by calling attention to herself; in that regard, I am not so old-fashioned that I think the word must be banished from writing. But too much use crosses a line.

In contrast, Hessler painted a full and rich portrait of a man and his community. The writer was clearly present in his commitment to the story, but he was not present in the final story—save one important moment, very late in the profile.

Writing a person’s profile is a privilege and a nail-biter—after all, you might fail to capture the person entirely. You must decide whether the facts and instances you’ve compiled are signifiers of something greater and all-encompassing about the person—or if they are mere and occasional facts. Given that, I tip my hat to both Malcolm and Hessler, who crafted compelling stories out of the bits and pieces of individuals’ lives, some parts shared generously by the subjects, and others pried from them unwillingly. Ultimately, though, we readers all have our preferences.

What do you like in a profile? Have you read an article about a person, prestigious or otherwise, that set you back on your heels, or that yielded a view that surprised? Have you read a profile that you could recommend to someone who’s always looking to improve his own writing?