Newsfeeds brim with a torrent of health advice and medical reports, so it might be surprising that some compelling stories often remain untapped. Profile writing brings readers behind the scenes of important discoveries or challenging medical issues — and it offers a fresh avenue for freelance pitches.
“My favorite profiles have been of regular folks dedicated to their jobs who have fascinating back stories and a good personality,” said AHCJ Health IT Health Beat Leader Karen Blum, who has written profiles for university and association magazines.
“It’s not as easy to find them because they’re not seeking attention,” she continued. “So, if you’re working on another assignment and notice someone on the phone who’s particularly chatty, you can ask them a little [about] what got them interested in health and medicine.”
In one case, Blum was working on a short article about Kunchok Dorjee, M.D., Ph.D., a Johns Hopkins researcher trying to eradicate tuberculosis in a community of Tibetan descendants living in India. She asked Dorjee how he became interested in the project and learned his dramatic story of escaping Tibet with his family as a teenager.
“I called my editor and said, ‘You’ve got to give me more space to tell this story,’” said Blum. “I went to [Dorjee’s] office, and we talked for a while. It turned into a nice feature.”
Profiles are a great chance to try writing in a different way, said freelancer and AHCJ Board member Laura Beil. “We all get in ruts where we feel like we’re kind of writing the same story over and over again,” Beil said.
In a 2017 Texas Monthly profile that Beil wrote about infectious disease physician Peter Hotez, M.D., Ph.D., Hotez reflected on the state’s measles outbreak and the anti-vaccine movement in the most personal way: Hotez is the father of an adult daughter with autism, and he pushes back on claims that vaccines cause autism.
Profile writing has its challenges. In-depth profiles, like the ones Beil wrote for Texas Monthly, are thousands of words and require spending long blocks of time with the subject in addition to contacting friends, colleagues and others for outside perspective. “The per-hour rate might not work out, to do it well,” Beil said. “These are labors of love.”
Another challenge is when profile subjects want to review the final copy. “You sometimes have to have a delicate conversation with the source because, at the end of the day, you want control,” said Beil, adding that there is room for flexibility on deeply personal matters like medical conditions that aren’t essential to the story.
Some publications feature profiles of patients or advocates, such as cancer survivors or people with long COVID. But in the internet age, writing about a non-public person can trigger concerns. In one case, Beil was poised to do a story about a professor of biology at an evangelical Christian college who believed in evolution but could not teach it. The subject backed out, fearing backlash.
Writing for niche publications
The market for profiles includes niche publications. As a feature writer for the Chicago Sun-Times for more than 25 years, Delia O’Hara wrote many lengthy profiles. Now a freelancer, O’Hara often writes for publications produced by medical or scientific associations and foundations. Editors often want to highlight the work of their institution and may be less interested in personal details.
“Of course, editors are all different,” O’Hara said, noting that some may appreciate a profile subject’s interesting backstory. “Read a few profiles that have run in the publication or website you want to work for and tailor your query to reflect what you see there,” O’Hara advised.
AHCJ’s new tip sheet on writing profiles
If you are interested in trying your hand at profile writing, take a look at AHCJ’s newly created tip sheet. It includes advice on finding profile subjects, crafting a pitch, where to pitch and how to start gathering material. It also contains a list of publications that run profiles, resources for further reading and examples of profiles in science and health.
Here are a few key points:
- Approach city and regional magazines, which often run profiles of local people who have done something noteworthy.
- Pitch your profile as a way to tell a complex health story from the inside.
- Secure the subject’s agreement before you pitch.
- Be prepared to spend time shadowing your subject.
- When interviewing, go beyond the contacts recommended by the profile subject.