Tip Sheets

Tips for writing and selling profiles

By Barbara Mantel and Michele Cohen Marill | June 9, 2023

As freelancers, most of us are always looking for stories to pitch, and yet we frequently overlook profiles. Writing a profile — about a researcher who made an important discovery, a doctor treating an underserved community, a patient who received a game-changing treatment, or some other fascinating individual — can be a way to broaden our output and even have some fun.

Profiles can be very satisfying to write, but also challenging to execute. Here are some tips for writing and selling profiles curated from AHCJ members, journalism organizations and other sources.

Finding profile subjects

  • Be on the outlook for interesting subjects among the people you interview for stories.

  • As you interview people, ask them if there is anyone in their field whom they would like to read a profile about, preferably someone who is not overexposed.

  • Consider profiling a scientist, physician or health worker connected to a university for its alumni, STEM or health system magazine.

  • Make sure a potential subject understands the considerable amount of time you may need to shadow them at work and ask them questions about what they do.

  • Shorter profiles may not require as much intense probing, but you will still need them to be available for in-depth interviews and willing to talk about personal experiences that influenced their career choices.

Crafting a pitch

  • An in-depth profile can run 3,000-plus words, depending on the publication. Your pitch may need to be longer than usual, as you explain why this person’s story is interesting and important.

  • Emphasize that a profile may be the most interesting and accessible way of explaining a complex topic.

  • Secure the subject’s agreement before you pitch the story.

  • Include the names of some of the colleagues, friends and family you hope to interview or at least the types of people you will talk with to round out the profile.

Where to pitch

Gathering material

  • Think of profile writing as a way to tell a health story from the inside — for example, the effort to find a cure or to stop an infectious disease.

  • Block out time for immersing yourself in your subject’s world and for interviewing their friends, family and colleagues. (In one of the most famous profiles ever written, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” writer Gay Talese never had an interview with Sinatra.)

  • Go beyond the contacts recommended by your profile subject to find independent sources. You want to present the subject as a real person, including flaws.

  • Beware of potential bias. For example, if work-life balance or parenting wouldn’t be relevant for a male subject, don’t inject it into a profile of a woman.

  • Tape all interviews for possible future use as an audio profile for a radio program or podcast (see AHCJ tip sheet on audio reporting).


Some examples of profiles