J242 Renegades, Underdogs, Madmen: The magazine profile

Profiles are a remarkably versatile form: an open door for exploring a vast range of subjects, from the secret guilt of Donald Trump’s ghostwriter, to the bizarre afterlife of Carrot Top, to the unique super-taster abilities of a chef with Asperger’s. They can act as a gateway into an epic drama (a poison expert who works on Russian political cases), or become a kind of psychological detective story: the investigation of another person’s internal world. They’re also marketable – magazine editors love them – and unusually fun.


What few people realize, though, is that profiles also have a secret taxonomy that can be decoded – along with the structures and drivers that power each type of story.  So how do you, the ordinary writer without Hollywood connections, figure out which of the 7 billion other people on the planet are worth profiling? We’ll discuss a range of classic profile types, including the Underdog, the Train Wreck, the Renegade, and the Savant.


Because profiles don’t always have an obvious plot, they also require a different strategy in order to build interest and sustain momentum. We’ll take a close look at how to do this, starting with the critical choice of who to write about. (As Ira Glass once observed, “It’s true that everybody has a story to tell. But most of those stories aren’t very interesting.”) Connecting to, but remaining independent from, the person you’re writing about can also be tricky, both personally and ethically – an issue we’ll discuss as it relates to your own work. We’ll also host various guests – including writers from California Sunday, Discover, Sports Illustrated, New York, and the New York Times Magazine – to get the dish on game-changing profiles from the people who wrote them. This year, we’ll also discuss the all-important question of how to report a profile during a pandemic. What kinds of profiles can be done remotely, and which suffer? How do you get scenes without being there to observe them? Alternatively, how does one give a piece a cinematic feeling without scenes?



Time:  TH 2–5pm

Location:  127 North Gate (Rodriguez Room)

Class Number:  29920

Section:  001

Units:  3

Length:  15 weeks

Course Material Fee:  None

Enroll Limit:  14

Restrictions & Prerequisites

Open to second years only.