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Exercise 6.4
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Writing a Profile of a Classmate

There's no need to go hunting afar for exotic profile subjects. Operating under the assumption that everybody has a great story – it's just a matter of digging it out – consider that the people sitting beside you are likely to make great subjects. Here's how to tease the story out of them. Complete the following exercise offline. The following link provides a downloadable version of the instructions and tips for completing the exercise.
Exercise 6-4 (43.0K)

  1. Getting started. After pairing up with a classmate, immediately exchange contact information. You're going to have lots of follow-up questions after your interviews and will want to be able to reach each other by phone or e-mail.

  2. Interview 1. Take turns finding out basic information about each other. Start with nonthreatening questions. How old are you? What year in school? What is your class schedule? Family and home situation? Family history? After-school or other extracurricular activities? Major interests, hobbies or sports? Weekend plans for the next month? What are the best times to reach you? These questions aren't really what your story will be about, but they'll help you in your journey to discovering that ultimate focus.

  3. Select a focus. A well-written profile is not an encyclopedia article. In all likelihood, nobody cares about your subject's dog or cat, sisters or brothers, classes or hobbies. What people do care about is the one aspect of your profilee's life that is fascinating. (Yes, that could be a dog or a cat, but probably only if it's an amazing dog or cat, like one that works in a circus or has rescued someone from a fire.) Look over your notes from Interview 1 and decide what your focus will be. Develop a list of questions you have (and that readers will have) about that focus.

  4. Interview 2. Conduct a follow-up interview to flesh out your focus. Ask the questions you developed in Step 3. Get your subject to talk at length about your selected focus. Take notes. Get quotes!

  5. In a perfect world ... you would observe your subject in a setting that is relevant to your focus and you would conduct interviews about your subject with at least three other people, including at least two adults (e.g., coach, priest, parent, teacher).Some instructors may ask you to pursue this part of the assignment. But, if yours doesn't, you still should keep the idea in mind for future assignments. One-source stories usually are stinkers to write and even worse to read.

  6. Write the story! Be sure not to stray far from your focus.

  7. Evaluate your work ... by answering the questions in the box at the end of this exercise.

Profile tips: Subject-contact guidelines

As the above assignment often is a novice reporter's first contact with live sources, a few words of caution may be in order. Keep the following in mind as you pursue your profile. (Note: For your ready reference, we've included here the same guidelines that appear with the exercises for Chapter 4.)

  • Observing is not stalking, so be careful about observing sources before they know they are the focus of your story – and avoid invading their privacy.

  • Maintain a professional distance. This is not a journalism dating service. You may find yourself in a position of power. Don't abuse it.

  • Your first in-person meeting with your subject should be in a public place. Just common sense.

  • Be polite on the phone and in person. Always explain who you are and what your purpose is. Say "please" and "thank you" and leave coherent, tactful messages. You are representing your school's publication, indeed all journalists, from this point forward.

  • Be mindful of cultural differences and the concept of cultural relativism. Different isn't necessarily wrong. It's just different. Be prepared to enter a different world with an open mind.

  • Do not agree to let your subject read the story before you turn it in. That is a violation of editorial policy for many publications.

  • You are not dealing with fiction. You are dealing with fact. Don't make up details.

  • In some situations, your instructor may be legally required to report all stories of abuse. It might be a good thing to remind your subjects of this before they get started.

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